Supporting women in sports governance

Addressing a Forsyth Barr International Women’s Day panel discussion are (from left) Trish Oakley...
Addressing a Forsyth Barr International Women’s Day panel discussion are (from left) Trish Oakley, Liz Dawson, Joe Consedine, Kate de Goldie and Katie Beith. PHOTO: CREDIT HERE
In a celebration ahead of International Women’s Day today, Forsyth Barr organised a panel discussion to talk about what inclusion looks like across environmental, social and corporate governance, arts and sports in New Zealand and what could be done collectively to continue to forge a more inclusive world for women.
Business editor Sally Rae talks to panellist and respected sports governance leader Liz Dawson about a career in sport and business.

When Liz Dawson arrived home from the Youth Winter Olympics in South Korea earlier this year, she did so with a smile on her face.

The New Zealand team, aged from 14 to 18, were "the most amazing young ambassadors" for their country. From completely different backgrounds, they formed a team which won seven medals, New Zealand’s most successful Winter Youth Olympics to date.

They supported each other and when they hugged medal-winning team-mates on the podium, they knew how difficult it was to get there.

"They know what goes into getting themselves on the podium so they know what others put in."

And despite temperatures of -19°C, they were playing touch rugby together in the athletes village. It augured well for the future, she said.

Attention now turns to the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, Ms Dawson’s first as president of the New Zealand Olympic Committee. Elected in 2022, she is the first woman to hold the office in the more than century-long history of the organisation.

It was an "absolute privilege" not only to do her role and serve the athletes - "they are the most important people" - and sporting community but also the Olympic and Commonwealth Games movement.

"Very few people get to do this, that isn’t lost on me," she said.

Breaking glass ceilings is not something new to Ms Dawson, whose career in business, sports management and governance which has spanned about 30 years, has included roles as the first female chief executive of an Australian rugby league club and the first female director of a Super Rugby franchise.

Her love of sport was instilled in her by her father, who was an accomplished sportsman who played rugby for South Canterbury and cricket - his main love - for Canterbury.

Whether gymnastics, softball or netball, badminton, swimming or cricket - her captain at school was cricket and hockey international Lesley Murdoch (nee Shankland) - sport was something to be involved in growing up. Attending the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch inspired her to get into long-distance running, both for fitness and as a social thing.

Skiing was probably the sport she was best at and, in her 20s, she worked as a ski instructor in Australia and also at Porter Heights (now Porters Alpine Resort) in Canterbury.

Ms Dawson’s governance career began in the early 2000s when she was working in South Australia, having been involved in sports administration as well as having a business career.

The South Australian government decided to sell the TAB off; at that time, it was joined with the racing industry in the state. Legislation was changed to separate it from the three racing codes and a separate board established for each of those codes.

She was asked to serve on the greyhound racing board and she saw that as a way to give back to the community she was living in. It also opened the door to governance opportunities, an area where she thought her career could eventually end up.

While she had no previous involvement with greyhounds, she now had respect for what "beautiful creatures" they were.

The experience opened her eyes "to some practices that weren’t so good" in the industry and personally, she believed it was a sunset industry.

It was a long time ago that she was involved in rugby league and she recalled it being brutal both on and off the field.

"It was pretty tough for females to be involved," she said.

But there were women who were, and continued to be involved in the administration of rugby league clubs and the sport attracted high-quality female participants in its administration. Now with the National Women’s Rugby League, there were also lots of amazing young female athletes involved, including the likes of professional rugby league and rugby player Tyla King (nee Nathan-Wong).

Ms Dawson said she went into the sport with her eyes open and largely knew what she was getting herself in for. She acknowledged the experience probably helped her "in a whole lot of ways", including to deal with difficult situations and "how to deal with sexism and misogyny in a way that wasn’t going to damage me, that wouldn’t put me off being involved at a high level in sport and business".

She also did not want young women today to have to fight some of those battles so it was about what she could do to make sure the environment that young women - or men - came into, whether sport or business, was safe, supportive and welcoming and they were valued.

She did not tend to spend much time reflecting - she was a person who preferred to look forward, she said. But the things she had done were experiences that had led her to where she was now, and could be termed as highlights.

Some of these highlights were being on the board of New Zealand Cricket, taking on chairperson of the local organising committee for the Women’s Cricket World Cup in 2021, which then became 2022 due to Covid-19, and as a board and management team, getting through the pandemic.

"All those sorts of things, they teach you a lot about holding firm, doing everything you can, leaving no stone unturned, working closely with those who can help," she said.

And she would never forget the closing game in front of a sold-out crowd on a beautiful early autumn evening at Hagley Oval in Christchurch between two teams - Australia and England - that did not involve New Zealand.

Women’s sport was now being viewed "by all sorts of people" and sports administrators noticed the crowds were different; there were more women in the crowds, lots of children and lots of families, and there did not tend to be that "competitive aggro" in the crowds. Women’s sport was highly competitive at elite level but the athletes respected and supported each other, she said.

Then there was getting the Warriors on the field in 1995, winning the hosting rights for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and, most recently, the successes of athletes like Hamish Kerr, Tom Walsh and Eliza McCartney, who were "on the road to Paris".

But overall, key for her was seeing athletes do their best and getting the opportunity to do their best. Latterly, there was a quiet sense of "we are doing the right thing, moving in the right direction, slowly creating a safe, welcoming environment for women in sport".

Ms Dawson said integrity was at the core of good governance, and acting in a safe and responsible manner. With safety, she was also thinking about risk and ensuring there was a good understanding of risk.

There was also a need to celebrate achievements, particularly in sport, whether that was on the podium or at grassroots level and to ensure that people were having fun.

Ms Dawson acknowledged her time in rugby league was "pretty difficult".

"There were forces beyond the control of the club both at the Warriors and the Adelaide Rams and the short time I was at the North Queensland Cowboys we as club administrators had absolutely no control over. They were determining the future of existence of clubs, so what happens to the players and their families?"

"I think about those things ... that was hard yakka. Also probably in my business career there were some pretty tough times as a director, making sure we were doing the right thing by our organisations."

Ms Dawson was chairwoman of Kiwi Insurance, a life insurance company then owned by Kiwibank and offering insurance products for Kiwibank customers.

"When software systems don’t talk to each other ... we have to deal with those impacting our customers’ lives."

Asked what changes there had been during her time in governance, Ms Dawson said risk was now a greater focus and that there was risk in every area of the organisation, from financial to customer.

There was also a much greater focus on wellbeing; people within the organisations, not just employees but also contractors and consultants surrounding the organisation.

She had also noticed younger people, both in terms of age and experience, being encouraged into governance.

That brought with it great opportunities but also greater risk. If they did not have the experience to contribute to other parts of board activities, then she questioned what sort of risk that was, how it was managed, and what it meant for directors’ responsibility.

She was pleased to see a lot more bravery and courage starting to come through boards, particularly in sport, around dealing with unsafe practices.

When it came to the likes of sexual abuse and other abuse, management teams and boards could not "stick their head in the sand now". They had to deal with it and there was far more willingness to have open discussions about it whereas it was once a taboo subject.

Ms Dawson is a member of the IOC Gender Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Commission, co-chairwoman of the Oceania National Olympic Committees Equity Commission and a member of the Gender Equity Commission of the Association of National Olympic Committees. She has most recently served as an invited member to the IOC’s Safeguarding Working Group.

One of the challenges of attracting women to governance was a lack of confidence, she said. The New Zealand Olympic Committee launched their Wahine Toa Leadership Programme in 2017 to support female athletes make a positive transition from sport performance to sport leadership and connect to an international network of women leaders in sport.

"It’s about setting them up for ‘what else can I do, what does my life look like?’," she said.

"Women coming out of that ... are being able to see opportunities and now know how to go for it."

For her personally, saying "no" to things had been something learned recently. Other than her Olympic and Commonwealth Games involvement, she did not have any other board positions.

She was grateful to have a very supportive husband, who was very proud of her, and during downtime, a favourite activity was watching sport including "lots" of cricket.