Women Onside: the group pushing for gender equity in Australian football leadership

FFA must elect a new congress, but no women have been invited onto that working group

Heather Reid was the CEO of the ACT football federation (known as Capital Football) for 12 years. She was the first woman to lead an Australian state football association, and, at the time, she represented 11% of women’s involvement in senior football leadership positions. When she left the job and was replaced by a man, that figure dropped to zero.

“That’s why I don’t like people talking about percentages of gendered representation,” she tells Guardian Australia. “I like to know the real numbers because they tell the true story. So I was one of nine state representatives when I was CEO, and now there’s zero out of nine women [in leadership positions] at the federation level [in Australian football].”

Reid has since stepped back from football, but remains invested in the question of gender equity in her chosen sport. She is concerned that no women have been appointed to a federation or national league club-level CEO position since her departure. She is also worried that, with the directive from Fifa for FFA to appoint a new Australian congress to resolve longstanding management issues in the game, no women have been appointed onto the review working group that will decide the final make-up of the congress.

The current composition of the working group includes four federation representatives, a member of the FFA board, a single players’ representative, and two representatives of the Australian Professional Football Clubs Association, which represents the interests of A-League clubs. Within the structure of the working group, A-League representatives have been presumed to stand in for W-League clubs, while an independent chair remains to be elected. All nominated representatives are men.

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Given the conspicuous absence of women, or a representative for women’s football players or clubs at W-League or community level, Reid and several of (the few) other women who have held senior positions in Australian football have formed a network called Women Onside – a “taskforce” designed to provide input and expertise to ensure FFA’s congress adheres to a model that values and ensures appropriate representation of women in leadership.

“It’s a broader issue that applies across most sports and industries, where the lack of women in leadership and government is appalling,” says Reid. “A lot of this has to do with cultural and systemic issues, and a system that doesn’t do much to encourage women to move into positions of authority, or when they are there, they don’t stay there because the culture of the environment is so toxic.”

Nicki Bowman, a current Football South Coast board member who is also an accomplished lawyer and business executive and has extensive board experience, has joined forced with Reid at Women Onside. Prior to the composition of the working group, Women Onside were invited to meet with Fifa as part of the governing body’s consultation process to instruct FFA on how to re-form its congress. There, says Bowman, Fifa reinforced their commitment to gender equity in leadership, in keeping with one of the organisation’s statutes, which states: “legislative bodies must be constituted in accordance with the principles of representative democracy and taking into account the importance of gender equality in football”.

Given the explicit nature of the Fifa statutes, Bowman had hoped that Fifa would mandate the inclusion of women on the working group – or that congress members would oblige given the precarious nature of FFA’s governance crisis. The subsequent lack of representation, she says, clearly shows that women aren’t automatically considered for leadership positions, and reflects a broader problem with football nationally: there are no formal structures which represent women’s interests in the game.

“The point we made to Fifa was the reason there are no women on congress is that there are no women anywhere,” she says. “There are virtually no women at any level of governance. You really have to interrogate the entire ecosystem before you can solve the problem.”

W-League grand final fans
The crowd at this year’s W-League grand final between Sydney FC and Melbourne City. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

As an example, Bowman explained that not all of the state federations have standing committees of women, meaning there were no obvious places from which FFA could draw women as candidates for nomination.

“They can’t just say OK, the congress needs to have a woman from each of these, or let’s generate an electoral structure from these existing mechanisms – they just don’t exist. I really thought that by this generation we would have much more equitable outcomes in leadership, but that still hasn’t happened. It’s an indictment on our society and it shows that there is still so many social cultural and social barriers [to gender equity]. Sport is a very good example – it’s not going to happen naturally.”

Bowman wants to make clear, however, that Women Onside are not a vested interest stakeholder: unless that means invested in the question of women in leadership.

“Women Onside wasn’t created to be a new structure, we were created to advise on how [FFA] might be able to create those structures in future, or how they might utilise existing structures to deliver equitable outcomes.

“Our interest is all about giving women a voice; finding the collective expertise of a bunch of women who are incredibly passionate about the game and lending it to people who, bluntly, do not understand or have the tools at the moment to solve the issue of gender equity in leadership in our sport.

“They’re not listening to the constituency, they’re not listening to the voices saying you’re not representing our interests adequately. There’s no polite way of putting that.”

Women Onside wrote to Fifa and FFA after the working group was announced to express their disappointment with its composition, but Bowman and Reid say they are yet to hear back despite having offered many alternatives. One of Women Onside’s suggestions was that each federation with an elected representative would also have to nominate a woman from their jurisdiction to participate in the working group – to ensure, in this case, the presence of at least four women.

Another was that W-League clubs were given representatives in the same way A-League clubs were, and that the Players’ Association was given two representatives – one for both women and men. In total, Women Onside requested a critical mass that at the very least represented women’s participation in the game – currently sitting around 21%.

What had been of equal importance to Women Onside was that women’s representation would not be not tokenistic, resulting in one woman being forced into the position of representing all women’s interests.

“It’s not just as simple as adding a couple of women onto the working group,” says Bowman. “When you’re a female and you’re the only female in a room full of 50-plus-year-old guys, it’s a challenging environment. That’s why you so often need two or three women at least to normalise it.

“When you have women in the room and you have a critical mass, they don’t have to spend all their time thinking about women. You actually hear their opinions on a number of things. They want to talk about all the substantive issues, and usually don’t get time to because no one else is talking about women. If I am in a room and there are 12 people and each us have five minutes to speak, I know I have to spend those five minutes talking about women, because no-one else is going to.”