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New Zealand: Preparing women to compete in sports management

While female athletes make up nearly half of New Zealand’s team for the London Olympics, the same is not true when it comes to coaches and senior roles in sports management, says a Massey University expert on leadership.

Professor Sarah Leberman says her research into preparing female students for leadership roles in sport management shows that many women feel the sector is still an “old boys’ club”. She also found that women need to improve their relationship building and negotiation skills if they are to compete on an equal footing with men.

“While not all sporting organisations have paid positions, we found that there were only 10 female chief executives out of 90 national sports organisations, so there are still very few women in leadership roles,” she says.

“There are not many women on the boards of sports organisations, and if you take netball out of the equation, there are relatively few high performance coaches. The end result is that the role models aren’t there for young women coming through the system.”

Professor Leberman, who is a member of the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s Women in Sport Group, says the sports sector has some specific characteristics that make it difficult for women to reach senior management roles.

“Historically sports management has been dominated by men and the hours, which involve a lot of weekend and evening work, can be be very tricky if you have a family,” she says. “The sports industry is also lower-paid than other industries so women can get hit by a double whammy of lower pay in an already low-paid sector.”

Professor Leberman says her research was borne out of a desire to understand why her female students were not faring as well as her male students in the job market.

“I was seeing good female students being overlooked, while being called on to to give references for male students who I didn’t think were as strong as their female classmates. I wanted to understand why these women were not ending up in leadership roles and how we could prepare them better for the challenges they face once they leave the University.”

In research funded by Ako Aotearoa, which she conducted with Dr Sally Shaw from the University of Otago, Professor Leberman found that female chief executives of sports organisations rated self-awareness and relationship building as the most important skills for achieving success. But content, rather than soft skill development, is still the focus of tertiary sports management courses.

“Women need to compensate for the fact that sports management is still a male-dominated sector by being even better at making connections and presenting themselves in an effective way,” Professor Leberman says.

She says that while the sports sector can be particularly challenging for women, her research findings apply to any business degree. For women to close the gap in all areas of business, their education needs to focus more on developing relationship-building skills and self-awareness, encourage work experience, and include career guidance and work-life issues as part of skills development.

Professor Leberman established the Achieving Career Excellence (ACE) programme at Massey University three years ago to address some of these issues.

“The rationale for this programme was that female graduates still earn less than their male counterparts one year out from graduation, and three years post-graduation this difference can be as high as $10,000. That shows that we are not preparing our female students as well as we could,” she says. “ACE tries to address this gap by preparing our female students with the skill sets required to put their best foot forward once leaving the University.”

High achieving female students from within the College of Business are invited to join the programme, which uses women in leadership roles to provide inspiration and mentoring through a series of workshops. Past presenters have included Dr Judy McGregor, Human Rights Commissioner, and Wendy Pye, chief executive of Sunshine Publishing.

The 2012 programme, which runs across all three of Massey’s campuses, has sessions on creating the right impression, negotiation, and career planning. As well as workshops run by Massey lecturers, this year’s guest speakers include Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, TelstraClear head of customer services and HR Maggie Robertson, and Pamela Cohen from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

Professor Leberman says she would like to see the soft skills developed through the ACE programme offered to all students and, ultimately, integrated into the curriculum of business degrees everywhere. While she is positive that things are beginning to change, she acknowledges that it will take time for women to achieve pay parity and equal representation on the boards of businesses and sporting organisations.

“I’d be surprised if we see women filling half the coaching roles at the 2020 Olympics, or leading half of New Zealand’s sporting organisations,” she says. “But it is definitely getting better – the current secretary-general of the New Zealand Olympic Committee Kereyn Smith is a woman – and, who knows, we might even have a female chef-de-mission by then.”

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