Women in Sport summit - Sarah Styles Address

The following is an address from Sarah Styles, the Director of the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation, at the Ministry of Sport’s fourth annual Women in Sport summit which took place on September 8, 2022, at Crowne Plaza in the Gold Coast.

Having just landed from the lands of the Wurundjeri people, I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we gather today and pay my respects to their Elders – past and present. I extend that respect to all First Nations people in attendance here today.

Thank you for the invitation to speak at today’s summit. It’s so good to be here with you all today, and for events like this that provide fantastic opportunities to connect and expand your network, and fill your cup, so to speak, so let’s start today by giving yourself a pat on the back for giving yourself that time and space to invest in yourself.

For those I haven’t yet had the privilege of meeting before, my name is Sarah Styles and I'm fortunate to be the Director of the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation. This Office is the first – and, to date, only – of its kind in Australia, and exists because the Victorian Government is committed to increasing the number of women and girls participating in sport and active recreation, from grassroots right through to the most senior leadership roles, in what is such a critical industry.

Preaching to the choir here, but as we know, women and girls make up just over half of the Australian population. There is no inherent differences in the distribution of intelligence, potential and capability across the population – and yet, women are still significantly under-represented in leadership roles in this country, including in the sport and active recreation sector, despite the gender balance observed in the total workforce of our sector. And at the participation level, we have young girls dropping out at twice the rate as boys once they reach the age of 15 years.

The health, economic, social and equity benefits associated with more women and girls involved in sport are substantial, not only as an individual, but for each sport and the organisations that govern them, and more broadly, Australian society. Sport and active recreation offer unparalleled opportunities for enriching our communities and our lives, and these opportunities should be available to all - equally. But, as many of you would have heard me say before, this isn’t only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.

Breaking down barriers to enable more women and girls to thrive in sport is the single biggest growth opportunity for our sector. And there has never been a better time to leverage this, than right now. And yet, while we have seen so many gains in recent years, particularly around the opportunities for women elite athletes, my fear is that we will still be sitting here in 10 years asking ourselves these same questions if we are not deliberate, purposeful and bold in our actions. That’s what I’m here to challenge you on this afternoon.

As has been touched on often today, Australia is eyeing off a 10 year ‘green and gold runway’ of major events leading up to the Brisbane Olympic and Paralympic Games, including the upcoming FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup just weeks away (and I know I won’t be the only one in the room here today who has my tickets ready to go there), the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and the 2027 Netball World Cup, just to name a few.

My question to each of you is, what do we want the sports landscape to look like when we reach 2032? Pause for a second to picture that. What is the first thing that comes to mind? Write it down. Or better yet, get your phones out and tweet or post them. Your dream for 2032. The second part of that challenge then is, how are we going to make those dreams a reality? Shift them from being just talk, and just get this done once and for all.

Let’s cast our minds forward to what a gender-equal Australian sport sector might look like come 2032... The Aussie team is lined up at the revamped Gabba, about to walk out as the host nation. For me, I imagine women and girls actively participating in numbers never seen before. Girls and young women of all backgrounds comfortable and confident knowing that sport is, fundamentally, a place where they belong. Where they feel joy, alongside a sense of effortless inclusion, and of safety.

I imagine a nation proud of thriving professional women’s athletes, teams and leagues. Women across the country earning not just a living wage, but a wage that supports their financial security and future prosperity. The backing of corporate Australia for women’s sport.

These things could so easily be world leading. Gender-balanced media and broadcast coverage. Not just an equitable share of coverage for women’s sport across media and broadcast, but an equal share of voice with women represented behind the microphone or camera or leading the production or editorial team.

In a week where we learn the upcoming A-League Women season might have zero free-to-air coverage, this is a critical pillar of driving sustainable change – and I acknowledge those here today pushing for change in this space. I imagine a paid and volunteer workforce where anyone holding any role is simply normal – from administration, to governance, to coaching, to officiating to commentating. No more limiting stereotypes of ‘what a leader looks like’ in this country. Leadership that is truly representative of the sector and community it leads – at management level, at committee level, at board level.

I recently had the opportunity to hear ASC CEO Kieren Perkins deliver the Australian Sports Convention Oration, and say that he is “not here to make friends; [he] is here to be effective”. Until that same line can be delivered by a 5ft tall woman in a hijab and receive the same reaction as a white, male leader who happens to be one of Australia’s best known gold medallists, we are not there yet.

That gives us 10 years to eliminate the remaining inequalities, both on and off the field. Inequalities that aren’t just holding women and girls back, but all of us – men and boys too. Now that might seem like a long time away. That we’ve got time to talk and consider and talk some more and spend a few years talking about legacy plans. Reality is, there is no time for us to waste. And by us, I mean all of us in attendance here today. Everyone we work with. Our families. Our friends. We all have a role to play.

What decisions are you making today… what actions are you taking today, that can lead us closer to gender equality in sport and recreation? What does our collective vision look like for 2032, and how do we bring that to life like we would any other strategy: with planned and measurable actions to progressively deliver that change, with transparency, regular reporting, and consequences for inaction. We need to work backwards from that vision, rather than continue working forward and leaving it to chance as to where we end up.

At the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation, we’re taking a multi-tiered approach across community sport, elite sport and sports leadership to make this dream a reality. And we have three key areas of focus.

Firstly - a bottom-up approach. Connecting and engaging with a growing community of change makers. We do this via our Change Our Game rally cry and initiatives – educating, informing, showcasing stories of success… if you are not already signed up, I encourage you to sign up to our e-newsletter, follow @ChangeOurGame on social media and share our content. Join in the conversation. Start new conversations. Challenge us to be bigger, bolder and braver alongside you.

Let us know how we can support you to become a game changer. Think about how you can you inspire others to be a game changer? This applies equally to the men in the room - changing the game towards gender equality in sport cannot be seen as a women’s issue, it is not for us to carry this load. We want men and women alike to see the value of gender equality in sport and help move the needle.

Our work here includes the Change Our Game Community Activation Grants, which invests hundreds of thousands of dollars into community level events that celebrate the role of women and girls in sport and active recreation or encourages participation, including in community leadership roles.

Our second key focus area is straight to the heart, to support the skill development, network and resolve for women striving for, and thriving in, leadership roles. We do this through a series of programs, which most recently evolved into the Change Our Game Professional Development Scholarships Program, as well as our work to support women seeking to make their mark in sports broadcasting through our ground-breaking work with Emma and Lucy Race at Making The Call.

Finally our third key focus area is the top down approach – pulling some of those key levers that government has to drive systems, structural and cultural change through policy and other initiatives. Because it is the system, not women, that needs fixing. This includes the Victorian Government’s ‘Balance the Board’ quota, an affirmative action program introduced in 2019 that now sees close to 100% of funded sport and recreation organisations in Victoria with a minimum of 40% representation of women on their boards – more than double what was seen only a few years ago, and an intervention I would welcome to see reintroduced in all jurisdictions, including federally.

And just a few weeks ago we launched our Fair Access Policy Roadmap, a massive, staged change management program which is set to deliver gender equitable access to and use of publicly owned community sports infrastructure across Victoria, helping to level the playing field for women and girls in community sport.

This short clip provides a snapshot of what the Fair Access Policy is all about:

That is a snapshot of the future that OWSR is seeking, and some of the key strategies we have in place to get us there. I said just before that even though 10 years may seem like a long way away, but that the reality is, we have no time to waste. I’ll say that another way: If in 10 years’ time, when the eyes of the world are on us, if we aren’t entering that stadium with a gender equal sports sector – the world’s leading country in terms of gender equality in sport – it’s not because we couldn’t do it. It would only be because we, collectively as a sector and especially those in positions of leadership, didn’t genuinely commit to realising that future, and everything that commitment would entail. Because what can’t we achieve in this space in 10 years, if we genuinely did.

I want you to join us in seeing Brisbane 2032 as Australia’s lighthouse on the hill to finally, once and for all, deliver equality for Aussie women and girls in sport, and show the world that no one does this better than we do, right here in Australia.

Thursday 8 September, 2022

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