• West Tigers Chairwoman Marina Go says her gender has never been an issue.
AFL and NRL clubs are lagging behind when it comes to appointing women to their boards.
James McGrath

20 Jul 2016 - 3:00 PM  UPDATED 21 Jul 2016 - 7:52 AM

The year is 2016 and there are still AFL and NRL club boards that feature absolutely no women, while there are 7 AFL clubs and 4 NRL clubs with one solitary woman.

Even taking into account the shooting stars of diversity, fewer than 20% of board members of AFL and NRL clubs are women.

Other sports are worse offenders, but the AFL and NRL are amongst highest profile organisations in the country. They’re running behind the progress the corporate world has been making –  despite both sports making visible efforts to be more inclusive.

The Australian Institute of Company Directors has been monitoring the ASX200 on an ongoing basis – benchmarking them in measures of gender diversity on boards.

Its most recent quarterly survey found that 29.1% of the board members of ASX20 companies were women – about 23.6% for the broader ASX200.

One of the reasons why larger companies on the list have shifted their thinking is that because they are very visible.

They are under the spotlight – and the corporate world looks to these companies for leadership on a whole range of issues.

Back in 2010 the Australian Securities Exchange made it a requirement not for boards to have a certain number of women on their boards, but to simply publish their gender diversity policies.

It was an update to 'corporate governance principles' rather than anything binding, but for a lot of companies, this meant simply having a gender diversity policy.

“It was all part of the not a quite name and shame policy, but providing incentives for companies to say 'we don't want to be seen as lagging in this area',” head of LaTrobe University Business School Paul Mather told Zela.

According to research done by Mather and the school looking at the issue – there was a massive spike in the numbers of women at board level in ASX200 companies from the time of the ASX directive and 2011.

“This is just conjecture but it's possibly that there now a lot more scrutiny on them, and they want to be seen on the forefront of being progressive.”

The research also found that boards with a larger proportion of women tended to perform better than boards stacked with homogeneous white men.

Mather says there's been a growing acceptance that women can make a positive contribution to the performance of boards beyond a PR free kick.

“There's a lot of research in psychology for example that indicate that when it comes to decision making women and men have different traits and characteristics. For example, women tend to be more risk averse than men – so that can be an enormous help to boards.”

Plus there's that old chestnut about a range of perspectives being better than groupthink in decision-making.

The corporate world is making strides on diversity not just because they fear being shamed, but also because there's a growing body of evidence that diversity on boards leads to better performance.

Why then is there a disparity between the level of representation on footy boards and ASX boards?

Does it come down to the attitude towards women on those boards? 

Numbers are only one part of the story

Marina Go says since she was installed as chairwoman of Wests Tigers in 2014, she has not found being a woman an issue in the slightest.

“I've never felt within my organisation that there's an issue with me being a woman. I didn't feel that coming in and I certainly don't feel like that now,” she told SBS Zela. 

Not that there haven't been issues.

“It's definitely a very specific sport and there are definitely people who have been around for a very long time, and some people like change and others don't – but that's the same in every industry.

“It's probably more applicable to sport because of the tribal nature of sport and there are people who are just there because of their sheer passion for the sport – that's not the case in other businesses.”

Any resistance she gets, Go said, was more about a fear of change rather than a fear of a woman in a leadership position. It also comes from outside the club rather than inside the halls of Wests.

“The thing is that within the club, everybody is incredibly passionate about you succeeding, because people literally live week to week in terms of their definition of success,” she said.

“They're desperate for you to succeed – and they tend to give you the support to do that.”

Her message to aspiring board leaders who may fear stepping into the ultra-blokey world of the NRL or AFL is pretty simple: it's not as bad as it seems from the outside.

So if it's got nothing to do with internal attitudes on gender, why are clubs not making enough progress?

According to Go and others – it's more to do with power protecting power rather than gender politics.

Getting constitutional

The constitution of clubs describe the way boards are appointed, how board members are put up for election, and who is actually eligible to vote for new board members.

Unlike the typical ASX board, AFL and NRL clubs actually have limited scope to appoint a director themselves.

Some clubs have been set up as joint ventures between two other clubs, some as members' clubs, and others as a mix of member and private ownership.

The nomination and election of directors comes from them – organisations simply not in the public spotlight in the same way the boards of AFL or NRL clubs are.

If the membership of those groups who can nominate directors happens to be all-male or overwhelmingly male, then you're probably not going to have a female director elected let alone nominated.

While a club board may want a woman, they actually have little ability to appoint one.

Some of course, use this as a smokescreen to entrench their own power.

Why make the case for diversity to voting members when you know those members are more than likely going to appoint the same board over and over again?

It's why Go thinks while there have been great strides made on diversity – the next push will only come as a result of constitutional change.

“I don't think we're going to get to that mark [50-50] unless some of the issues around constitutions are resolved,” Go said. “I think we need some kind of governance restructure before we see that next level.

“I think the desire is there but the sticking point is where there's a constitutional issue in terms of there being flexibility around being able to appoint a woman to the board.”

It's a classic case of entrenched power protecting entrenched power –  it's about jobs for mates.

Interestingly, when the AFL or NRL have had the opportunity to have a say in board management, the result has been greater diversity.

For example, the Newcastle Knights, the Wests Tigers and Gold Coast Titans are all clubs which have needed NRL assistance in recent times to either remain solvent or exist.

The NRL could attach conditions to the bailouts, and board governance and diversity shake-ups were on the agenda – these clubs are subsequently champions of gender diversity.

Why has this desire from head office not translated into greater numbers?

Power protecting power

In 2014, then NRL chief executive Dave Smith made a speech which was music to the ears of diversity advocates.

He said he would move to link NRL funding of the clubs to certain board governance measures – diversity included.

The move was read as far-reaching, and a sign that the NRL was trying to interfere in the running of clubs.

Roughly a year later, he would step down – a move read by many as a result of him butting heads with obstinate clubs.

The AFL for its part told Zela that it had no formal policy on board diversity or governance targets in general – but saw itself as a thought leader in the space through and ongoing commitment to diversity.

Go says the desire for better female representation is there on behalf of clubs – but is it just rhetoric?

Are clubs willing to accept reform to governance if it comes from head office? Are head offices willing to potentially clash with clubs in the name of ensuring greater gender diversity?

“I think that sort of reform would involve the boards of clubs voting themselves out, which probably isn't going to happen,” Go said.

So, it comes back to the slow process of education – about putting forward examples of where women have been elected and not only has the sky not fallen, those boards have thrived.

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