Following the completion of what is widely regarded as one of the best women’s national basketball league seasons in its history, WNBL boss Sally Phillips is entitled to feel that the WNBL has made a significant contribution to the continued rise in prominence of women’s sport in Australia.
Whilst the champions Canberra Capitals and runners up Adelaide Lightning performed on the court, Phillips and her team performed just as well off it.
A sold-out final game, live television and front and back page news was the result of great play by strong teams on and off the court. Of course, the Opals have been one of Australia’s best performed Australian sporting teams for decades, male or female, winning a world title in 2006 and five Olympic medals across numerous Olympic campaigns since its first bronze in Atlanta in 1996.
And the WNBL is now viewed as one of the best leagues in the world. For all that Phillips, much like the league itself, is no overnight success.
Having been involved in basketball for close to 30 years, first as a national level player and then in administration. She is well qualified to speak on the challenges, frustrations, roadblocks and learnings from her career as a leading administrator in sport.
"I am definitely the owner and operator of my biggest road blocks,” Phillips says.
“The first is one common to women in any leadership role 'Mothers’ Guilt'.”
“I often suffer from Mothers’ Guilt, especially when my job takes me away from the family, whether that be travel or the long hours I can often work. I love being a Mum, it’s the best job in town and I can suffer terribly from guilt when I'm not around as much as I'd like to be.”
“I am very lucky though, my daughters have grown to love the WNBL and are very proud of watching me achieve what I have over the past two years in my role, I know they are very proud of me and that is so exciting. I am a real role model for my daughters as they are witnessing first hand that women can work in sport and achieve, this definitely motivates me to keep going," Phillips says.
Image supplied L-R - Kasey (Sally's daughter), Sally, Beryl (Sally's mum), Abbie (Sally's daughter), Amanda (Sally's sister)
Phillips also says it’s important to have her own strong role models and cites her mother, who raised her sister and herself on her own at the top of the list. “She was so strong and independent, she was just amazing, and I have really learned so many important life skills from my Mum. She would have a go at anything and always gave 110%, she was an inspiring role model.”
A career role model is Sarah Styles from Cricket Australia.
“Sarah is the Head of Female Engagement and she is really changing the game for girls and women in cricket. She has implemented some incredible strategies and is successfully driving impressive results around the diversification of the fans and greater engagement of women and girls. Sarah is a real champion for not only women's sport but for women in sport, I find the work she is doing truly inspirational, all sports could learn a lot from the work Sarah is doing,” Phillips says.
Phillips believes the long and slow progress for women in sport across all levels has been frustrating however the recent acceleration due to programs like Change our Game has been very encouraging.
"The number one thing I love about the Change our Game campaign is we are having conversations that we've never had before around women and sport,” Phillips says. “Women continue to be under-represented in leadership roles in sport which continues to be predominantly male-centric and dominated in so many different areas.”
“The rise in awareness and support of women succeeding in sport has never been greater and campaigns like Change our Game are only going to help continue to drive the growing movement of women and girls who are putting up their hand to say, ‘I can do that!’”
And as Phillips says, the 'I can do that’ can mean something different to everyone.
“It could be a young basketballer saying I can be like Lauren Jackson one day, or it could be a Mum changing her life and committing to 30 minutes of exercise a day, or it could be a sporting administrator saying I could be like Kate Palmer one day.” Despite her profile and prominence of the WNBL, Phillips still feels she is sometimes ranked behind her male colleagues, admitting that its often the unconscious bias rather than deliberate actions.
“My male colleagues are often invited to attend events that it would be more appropriate for me to attend as the Head of WNBL. I do really try not to let it bother me, but I am very conscious of the fact that I think gender bias still exists.”
Image supplied - Sally and Australian Opal Suzie Batkovic
Despite the bumps along the road, Phillips says there is nothing that beats a career in sport and is full of encouragement for women to pursue their own dreams whether it to be the CEO of Sport Australia, the president of their local club or a position on the board of the local association.
"Sport is tribal, sport is emotional, I don't know of any other industry that you could work in where the passion and emotions reach such a high,” Phillips says.
“As a result, working in administration can be very challenging because of that emotion. Everyone always wants the very best for their club, or their team or the league they love. Emotions can run high and I go through moments when I feel I'm not succeeding because I can't make everyone happy!” “I do however gain enormous satisfaction working in women's sport.”
“I want to be a part of changing the game for all women, whether that be our athletes and creating better, more equitable working conditions for them, or being a role model for up and coming female administrators. There are still so many challenges ahead so it’s going to be a highly rewarding time to work hard and make a difference.”