ADVICE: Create a safe space for fear when looking to improve diversity

Despite significant improvement on gender diversity in certain areas of the sports sector, research shows women comprise just 22 per cent of board chairs and 13 per cent of CEOs across more than 60 sports organisations in Australia.

Michelle Redfern, Owner of Advancing Women in Business & Sport, believes a lack of diversity at the leadership level as well as throughout the industry is driving a resistance to change.

Michelle explains that the biggest roadblocks to change and progress on diversity in sport are “doing what we’ve always done and the mindset of not fixing something that’s not broken.”

She continues, “These games have been built by men, run by men, played by men and constructed for the means of men for a century and a half in some cases.” In Michelle’s years of experience in business and management roles in the sports sector, she says it’s common for male leaders to think, “You must look like us, sound like us and have had our lived experience to be considered worthy to enter into any role.”

But Michelle believes organisations in the sports sector are becoming increasingly complex, and that a range of perspectives, experiences and skillsets are critical to the industry’s success and growth.

Women’s sport needs to be professional across the sector

This International Women’s Day saw a phenomenal 86,174 fans turning up to watch Australia beat India at the Women’s Twenty20 World Cup final, highlighting the rapidly growing support for women’s sport. Michelle believes the remarkable progress made in running, supporting and growing the women’s sport sector is down to the role models, who are being increasingly visible and accepted.

However, there is still a long way to go. Michelle calls women’s sport “semi-professional”, explaining that while there are some sports where women are successfully building impressive careers, these numbers are still few in comparison to men’s sport.

She says, “There is a small contingency of women who can play sport as a profession and have a living wage.”

She points out that even sports like basketball are particularly challenging for women to making a living wage from because that would involve making it to an elite level, playing all year round, and doing extensive travel.

Creating a safe space for fear

Driving change on diversity in sport, in Michelle’s view, will require addressing the fear that the existing male-dominated leadership teams have – fear from losing power, needing to initiate and be responsible for change, and from not necessarily having all the answers.

Michelle believes fear is one of the main reasons change is not happening, despite most people understanding and believe the statistics that show diversity leads to better business outcomes.

She says, “There hasn’t been given enough space for the people who are fearful and perceive that they will lose, and get help to move through it… It’s loss of power and control. We’re asking the very people who have power and control to give up what they’ve got.”

While sporting leaders “get that diverse teams make more money,” there is an added challenge of feeling the need to save face if they are unsure of how to generate diversity. She says, “The outcome is inaction.”

Addressing bias with the numbers

Although Michelle believes ‘unconscious bias’ is an overused and often misunderstood term, she strongly believes that every individual needs to reflect on and acknowledge their own biases, and the reality that humans will naturally view others based on their own lived experiences.

To drive change, Michelle advises business leaders to talk to women and know their numbers.

“Women are often not consulted,” she explains. “Ask the customers, members and suppliers – What is it like? What has your lived experience been as a woman working with us?”

Understanding women’s perspectives in working with, for or in a company will help understand what is and isn’t working well on the diversity and inclusion front within organisations.

The numbers will then add further context to these insights, enabling a rounded analysis of how diversity can be improved.

Solving humanity’s problem

With significant challenges and roadblocks ahead, Michelle is determined to “get shit done”, and also believes the diversity challenges in the sports and broader corporate sectors cannot solely sit on the shoulders of women or men. A saying she follows is “The burden of inclusion should not be placed on the excluded.”

She says, “We have to have all of humanity solving an all of humanity problem.”

Her guidance to business leaders is to treat diversity and inclusion like any other business goal. Just like a revenue target, for example, business leaders should set clear goals and objectives, manage the accountability of the teams responsible, and then reward employees who reach these goals.

She says, “The board and executives need to have the guts to do it. It takes a hell of a lot of courage. But I think it takes less courage in 2020 than it in did in 2015.”

“At the individual level, in any environment I’m in, I want that environment to be a place where my mum could walk in and be sat down in the middle of that organisation and I could leave knowing she would be valued and respected and treated well. That means you call BS when there’s BS behaviour.”

She concludes, “We’ve got to stop tolerating those microaggressions that occur for women and marginalise people.”


About the expert

Michelle is an award winning advisor, speaker, MC & facilitator. She has a portfolio of business interests that include being founder of Advancing Women in Business & Sport, Women Who Get It & co-founder of co-founder of Culturally Diverse Workforce & A Career that Soars!

Michelle is determined to contribute to achieving global gender equality in her lifetime, especially through her research and advocacy for advancing women in the sporting industry.