The good news is that we know what we can do to address this gender imbalance. Notably, we just need workplaces to step up and break down the structural barriers in our sporting system.
I was the first female CEO in men’s professional A-league football in Australia when I was appointed to the position of CEO of Perth Glory FC in 2005.
The circumstances that led to this were unusual. When I was 31 years old and holidaying in Tanzania, my tour truck was held up by armed men. Until that point, I had dreamed of a career in sport, but it had been exactly that — a dream. While my career could have been described as successful, at that time I wanted more.
The extraordinarily violent incident in Tanzania in 2003 was a catalyst that forced me to reassess my next steps.
By the end of 2004, I was back in Australia as CEO of Football West, the governing body for football in Western Australia.
It was a dream come true – and it happened so fast. But it wasn’t luck; I’d worked hard to get to that position. I’d previously had a career working in TV media organisations in the UK, and I’d always loved football. I was the right person for the job.
My career continued to grow and I had many roles in football. After Perth Glory, I became the head of major projects for the Football Federation of Australia and I set up the national Westfield W-League — one of my career highlights.
I’ve always been passionate about women in sport. I grew up believing that girls were just as capable as boys in both their ability to play and lead. But as with any male-dominated industry or profession, it’s about having opportunities to demonstrate your skills and a culture that recognises the value of diversity.
Today, I’m the CEO of YWCA Australia, a proud national feminist organisation.
YWCA Australia is an intersectional feminist organisation focused on improving gender equality for women, young women and girls. For 140 years, we have challenged the systems, structures and policies that act as barriers to women, especially young women, achieving their full potential.
The work that YWCA does through the programs such as Every Girl in South Australia and Girls Almighty in New South Wales aim to build that same sense of self-esteem, self-confidence and body positivity through directed activities that explore individual strengths and values, helping bolster self-esteem, a sense of belonging, resilience, and understanding of their rights and ability to create change.
The feminist leadership work we do may seem a world away from the sporting world I used to be in, but there are key commonalities. Both have the same results when done well with diverse representation on all levels – they secure self-confidence, encourage community cohesion and have a positive impact on overall health.
A variety of strategies exist to help equalise leadership opportunities for women across different sporting codes, and addressing the gender bias is an enabler to reaching our full potential.
When young women dream about being the CEO of a football club, they shouldn’t instantly think that it’s a pipedream or that statistics are stacked against them. They should think “I can do this”, and for this to happen we need to break down the structural barriers in our sporting system – or as we like to put it at YWCA, to smash the patriarchy!
As a starting point, workplaces need to recognise the key role they play in creating gender equitable communities and put strategies in place to support this. It won’t come about overnight, but with dedication, it can happen.
First, leadership must lead the change. For change to happen, current leaders need to be ready to talk about gender inequality, be open to doing things differently and be committed to taking action to build equitable and fairer workplace.
Secondly, staff need to be supported on this journey with tactics to build their skills and confidence in creating gender equity through training, information sessions and events, resources and communication.
Thirdly, organisations can begin the work to embed gender equity into their systems and day-to-day operations. This could include gender audits to identify areas of improvement, applying a gender lens to strategic planning and organisational policies, reviewing flexible work practices, creating mentoring programs and starting a staff-led gender equity committee.
Integrating gender equity principles into workplaces makes economic and business sense and can be easily achieved with the right tools, support and commitment.
The pandemic has already created significant change to the way many of us work. Now is the perfect time to continue the change and commit to embedding gender equity in our workplaces.
Michelle Phillips is CEO of the YWCA and was the first female CEO of an Australian A-league football team.