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The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) is today launching a talent program to find Australia's next cohort of female sport executives and high-performance coaches, with the hope of changing what it describes as a "gross underrepresentation".
Currently women make up only 22 per cent of board chairs, 13 per cent of chief executives and 15 per cent of high-performance coaches despite more than 24,000 women having been supported through a Leaders in Sport program established back in 2002.
"These statistics are not acceptable and we need to initiate systemic change now," Sport Australia chief executive Kate Palmer said.
"The AIS Talent Program is designed to deliver transformational skills for women in sport who are ready to progress to these leadership positions.
"It's a year-long immersion program that will bring females into an environment where they prepare for leadership at the highest level.
"It's pretty exciting in terms of its role in not only preparing them for the environments they're going into, but actually making them more aware of the fact that these environments are not actually encouraging for women."
In late 2016, Ms Palmer was appointed chief executive of Sport Australia, having run Netball Australia for a decade. She said much of the problem prohibiting women filling top executive and coaching roles has to do with individual biases and filters we all apply in judging others.
"The barriers really are about how we all evaluate others through certain filters — we look at their gender, their ethnicity, their age, their ability or disability — and it often advantages dominant groups. In this case, it's male executives and male coaches."
Ms Palmer said it was "crazy" that even though the professional leagues in Australia opened the door for more high-performance coaches, it was almost shutting the door on opportunities for female high-performance coaches — an environment she described as a "dual coaching pathway for men".
In this year's debut season of the NRLW competition, only one of the four teams was coached by a woman — Luisa Avaiki at the New Zealand Warriors.
In the current AFLW competition all 10 teams are currently coached by men.
Preparing for its AFLW debut in 2020, St Kilda's head of elite female pathways and head coach Peta Searle was originally recruited by the club in 2014 as a development coach for the men's team.
"For me, honestly, I get sick of the fact that men can coach women's teams but women can't coach men's teams," Searle said.
"I'm disappointed there's currently no women's coaches in AFLW, that's an indictment. It says the AFL is not willing to support and develop female coaches but apparently it doesn't go the other way.
"Structural barriers have existed which means women can't get the same qualifications. If you ask for two CVs, they'll be completely different because women don't get the same stepping stones."
She said the situation is different at St Kilda, where she feels supported by a club that understands diversity adds value.
"St Kilda have supported women at executive levels and coaching before the establishment of the AFLW, we've been committed to that over a long period of time and that's been a big initiative of [chief executive] Matt Finnis," she said.
"He understands the value diversity brings."
'It's not been easy, but I've proven myself'
Both AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan and NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg are Male Champions of Change — a strategy focused on gender equality.
"It is wonderful to see Sport Australia launching a talent ID program for female execs and coaches," Mr Greenberg said.
"It is long overdue. Diversity of views and genders, and also cultural backgrounds around board tables and high-performance departments and executive teams is critical for future success."
Almost a year ago, Raelene Castle became the first woman to run a national football code when she was selected as chief of Rugby Australia.
She said genuine change in getting women into senior positions relied on three key areas — including women stepping up.
"Firstly, boards need to understand, value and prioritise diversity and it needs to be a key focus for them," she said.
"Secondly, good female board candidates need strong male and female sponsors to promote their names in the informal conversations that happen in the build up to appointments.
"Thirdly, more female candidates need to hold their hand up and be more positive and confident in their approach for board and leadership roles — you can't get a job you don't apply for."
Sydney Sixers general manager Jodie Hawkins said she has always felt very supported in the sport after joining Cricket NSW following many years in rugby league — working for the Sydney Roosters and Parramatta Eels.
"For me it's been interesting coming from within sport and climbing the ranks," Ms Hawkins said.
"It's not been easy and there are still challenges, but I've proven myself and I feel very, very supported in cricket ... not all sports are as supportive."
Ms Hawkins said the lack of women in senior executive and coaching positions was a "cultural thing".
"Until the visibility changes, the culture won't change — it needs to become the norm," she said.
"Although, look how far things have come in three years. Imagine what it'll be like in another three ... that's the day I really look forward to, when women in these roles are not seen as unusual."
Basketball NSW chief executive Maria Nordstrom agreed.
"I believe the change in sport is reflective of the Australian culture ... that, and how we recruit for both boards and executives needs to change and be aligned to the corporate market with proper recruitment and interview processes, and well-balanced interview panels," Ms Nordstrom said.
"I grew up in Sweden where gender equality has been a focus for 40-plus years, but sport is still heavily governed by men.
"To bring about cultural change in sport there are more layers to deal with ... it is a constant work in progress."
Ms Nordstrom was appointed by the board of Basketball NSW in February 2017 after a search by the board, chaired by long-time sports administrator Bob Elphinston.
"With 40-50 per cent of sports participants being female, it makes a lot of sense for all sports to actively seek and recruit well credentialed female CEOs and board members," Mr Elphinston said.
"The recruitment of Maria has been a major step forward for basketball in NSW.
"With her strong business background and passion for the sport she is breaking new ground in growing the sport achieving commercial support and dramatically improving relations with our key stakeholders."
Mr Elphinston said the appointment of women to high-profile leadership positions in sport — such as Ms Palmer at Sport Australia and Raelene Castle at Rugby Australia — pointed to a growing confidence in the sector.
National sports bodies that receive government funding through Sport Australia may in future have their grants decided on the gender breakdown of their senior appointments — both in the office and on the field.
Ms Palmer said it was a strategy that has been effective in increasing the number of women now serving on boards.
"Certainly the 40 per cent requirement for female directors on boards has created enormous diversity, so we've reached just below that target [39.5 per cent] in sports across Australia. So my view is, targets count," she said.
"We will be advocating and supporting sports but yes, there'll be a point where we need to make sure that all biases are removed and opportunities are provided for females to participate meaningfully in positions of influence and power in sport."
There are 16 executive and 16 high-performance coach positions available for the first year of the AIS Talent Program.