Sarah Styles speaks at International Women's Day

The following is an address from Sarah Styles, the Director of the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation, at the Change Our Game International Women's Day Lunch which took place on March 8, 2023, at CENTREPIECE, Melbourne & Olympic Park, on Wurundjeri Land.

Good afternoon everyone.

Thank you for being here today for our first in-person Change Our Game International Women’s Day event since 2020, and our first ever hybrid event.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people, as traditional owners of the lands on which we gather, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to all First Nations people here in the room today as well as online with our Livestream.

I’d also like to thank the Minister for Community Sport, Ros Spence, for her words of support earlier, and the announcement of the exciting opportunity to become the new Change Our Game Ambassadors, and I trust many of you are already thinking of who would be perfect to put in their expressions of interest.

I’m thrilled to see such a phenomenal turn out, including more than 800 people here in the room and another 300 online from across sport, education, the different levels of government and beyond for what is actually the biggest Change Our Game event ever.

That last in-person event in 2020, of course, coincided with the final of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup, where just over the tracks behind me here more than 86,000 people came together for a milestone moment in time, for what became the biggest match in the history of women’s international cricket.

And here we are, three years later, on the cusp of the world’s single biggest women’s sporting event in the FIFA Women’s World Cup coming to our shores, for what will be another line in the sand moment when I have no doubt the minds of both Australians and our friends across the Tasman will be blown away by the sheer scale of the support, the energy and the crowds they will see – let alone the action on the pitch…

And I acknowledge we are joined in the room today by David Beeche, the tournament’s CEO, and Jane Fernandez, its COO for Australia.

I’d also like to take a moment to welcome the almost 300 people now joining us online.

While it’s brilliant to be able to connect in person again, in shaping today’s event we recognise that that’s not preferred or possible for some, and the today’s Livestream allows more people to be involved, including from regional Victoria, from interstate and even overseas.

I’m going to start today with some good news, and some not-so-good news.

The not-so-good news first: Gender inequality in sport? We are, I’m sorry to say, not solving that today.

As fantastic as International Women’s Day is in drawing a spotlight onto the achievements of women and girls and the barriers still to be dismantled, I would put to you it’s the other 364 days of the year, when that spotlight isn’t there to the same degree, that are even more important as we work towards to a future where there is no longer a need for roles like mine.

Victoria’s Office for Women in Sport and Recreation, the only one of its kind in Australia (which I admit is a line I can’t wait until I can’t say it anymore by the way), exists to drive advances in gender equality in sport and active recreation. To level the playing field, alongside each of you.

We’re doing this through an agenda of structural and cultural reform, advocacy, promotion, education, and by investing in women.

The end goal – gender equality in this sector that has an influence on our communities and our nation like no other – sees our Office no longer being needed.

As Minister Spence touched on for those who saw her video earlier, there are some incredible advances that continue to be made for women and girls in sport, and it is so important that we do stop recognise and celebrate that.

More opportunities than ever before for women to earn a meaningful living as athletes, both here at home and internationally.

More women’s elite sport on our screens.

More demand for women in sports media, including the Office’s exclusive research shared for the first time today revealing 91% of spectators would like more women commentators.

More women than ever before sitting on boards of Victorian sport and recreation organisations.

Women stepping into their first CEO roles in our sector, and I recognise some of those leaders in the room with us today like Alexandra Ash, CEO of Gymnastics Australia, Andrea Pearman, CEO of Netball Victoria, Alison McCormack, CEO of Bicycle Network, Tal Karp, CEO of The Y Australia, and Gen Dorhmann, CEO of Table Tennis Victoria.

We also celebrate more investment into community sport infrastructure to ensure women and girls feel comfortable and safe, and elite sporting facilities like the Victorian Government’s $100 million investment into the Home of the Matildas.

More sports and clubs taking simple steps to make women and girls feel included by changes to uniforms, like netball adopting a sport-wide inclusive uniform policy, Cricket Victoria funding new pants for its representative girls teams, and AFLW shifting away from white shorts.

We are also hearing from more men as allies in this change, and I see and acknowledge the men in the room today. As we said when announcing today’s event, all are welcome, and thank you for accepting that invitation.

Last but certainly not least, we also celebrate the world-first Fair Access Policy Roadmap launched last year here in Victoria, with the Office currently working state-wide to build a foundation of gender equitable access and use policies that will ultimately re-wire a long-standing source of inequality in community sport.

Many of the people who were involved in the process of developing the Roadmap throughout 2021 and 2022 are in the room here with us today.


And unfortunately, there is still a ‘but’.

While opportunities and attitudes are changing, it’s clear that in practice, barriers do still remain.

The rate of change in our sector’s executive leadership representing the industry it leads, let alone the richly diverse community we live in, is simply not happening fast enough.

The experience of too many women working in our sector is still not what it should be.

Same goes for the experiences of too many women athletes, coaches, officials and volunteers.

As well as women working in sports media.

Women are still shut out from coaching men’s teams, and we’re seeing fewer opportunities for women coaches in the women’s sides of some sports as those roles start to receive better pay and recognition.

We’re still seeing women and girls shut out from changerooms in community sport, and from accessing grounds, courts and pitches for training and competition in a fair and equitable manner.

And even with the gains in remuneration for women athletes, a massive pay gap remains, with that gap anchored to a massive visibility gap for women athletes and teams.

That pay gap won’t be closed until that visibility gap is closed, once and for all.

I would put to you that across Australia this work is still being ‘othered’ too much, put in the ‘nice to have’ bucket, rather than seen for what it still is: the single biggest growth opportunity in Australian sport.

This is why you will see the Office and the Victorian Government continuing to invest in driving change in community sport; in the administration of sport; in women aspiring to executive and non-executive leadership roles; in those seeking to advance the conversation around women and girls in sport, especially when it captures an intersectional lens of the additional barriers and stereotypes encountered by women of colour, First Nations women, women with a disability, and the LGBTIQ community; and in sports media.

And speaking of sports media, I can’t wait to see who has a go at the fantastic sports commentary innovation available today in our Connection Hub thanks to Deakin University, especially with applications currently open for the Change Our Game Women in Sports Broadcasting Program.

Which gets me to the good news.

Today is about connection, and reconnection. And as I started to touch on earlier, it’s about moments in time, just as the ICC T20 World Cup and the FIFA Women’s World Cup represent moments in time.

The UN Women theme for International Women’s Day this year is #CrackingTheCode: Innovation for a gender equal future.

When we as an Office sat down to consider the theme and our approach to today, our way forward became clear quite quickly.

For us, this opportunity to connect, and reconnect, as an industry represented a chance to finally crack the code on something we hear so much that sometimes it breaks my heart: Confidence.

In the Inquiry into Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation that was released in 2015 and led to the creation of the Office, the Inquiry reported that, and I quote:

“…many women reported a lack of confidence to take on leadership roles. Sometimes this related to a perceived lack of skills.” (Perceived being the key word there.) 

“Research indicates that women are more likely than men to question their competence or suitability for leadership roles, even when through objective measures, they may be appropriately qualified.”

Yet, in 2023, confidence is still something we hear about constantly.

We hear things like:

“I just don’t quite yet have the confidence to go for that promotion.”

“I’ll be confident once I complete this course.”

“I’ll have the confidence to do it once I’ve been here a bit longer.”

Now, a key point to make before I move any further.

It might be easy to interpret that what I’m saying is to fix gender inequality in sport leadership is for women to simply be more confident.

That is not what I’m saying.

Behind me now is a comprehensive illustration setting out different barriers to progression that women still, in 2023, face at different career stages.

This example, developed for women in STEM by the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, could have just as easily been written for women in sport – noting, of course, the many fantastic women in the sport sector in STEM roles.

Dismantling these barriers, all of these barriers, is how we permanently fix the imbalance in our sector’s leadership.

But as I said, we are not solving that today. Today is about moments in time.

Moments like, that moment when you’re approached with a new project that feels like a big stretch opportunity.

Or that moment when you see a role being advertised.

Or there is that vacancy open up.

Or you are wanting to championing yourself for an opportunity.

Or for a pay rise.

Or you’re waiting or that tap on the shoulder that you don’t actually need to wait for.

Or when you’re holding back because you feel flexibility won’t be on offer

Or when you’re asked to step into the spotlight

What we as an Office is hearing is “one day, but not just yet.”

What we want you to take away from today is “I’m not the only person who has doubts in those moments” and, most of all, “you can do this.”

We’ve heard from four women already today who are at the top of their game professionally who – despite their competence and extensive experience – have shared moments of doubt, and most importantly, what they do to still move forward in those moments.

We need to put to rest once and for all the idea that women need to learn to be leaders.

It is a lack of opportunity that is holding women back from leadership roles in our sector, not a lack of leadership ability or capability.

We also need to shift away from the idea that a woman isn’t ready for an opportunity because she has the emotional health to share that she is doubting herself.

And finally, we need to shift away from the idea that confidence is something that is given to us by some external force, as opposed to the reality: that it is a skill, that just like any other, we can all learn, and continue to practice, and strengthen.

And right now, we’re going to hear from someone who is going to help us all do just that.

I’m thrilled to have you all here today, both in-person and online, and I’m thrilled to now welcome Emma Murray, the Founder of High Performance Mindfulness, for the inaugural Change Our Game Mindset Intensive.

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