‘Women in sport – fitting in’

  Sporting Compass: With Dr Pippa Grange and Paul Oliver

Dr Pippa GrangePaul Oliver

As a sports psychologist and founder of Bluestone Edge, I am fortunate to have many conversations with people about the substance and meaning of sport.
My colleague Paul Oliver also engages with people at all levels across the sporting sector to keep his finger on the pulse of the latest news, views and issues.

In this space each fortnight, we will share some of these stories, insights and possibilities in relation to people, culture, ethics and leadership in sport. I hope you enjoy the conversation and we look forward to hearing your thoughts.

All the best, Pippa and Paul


‘Women in sport – fitting in’

4 November 2013
Category:   WINNING MIND – the art of achieving

I am currently on tour in the UK and France with the New Zealand rugby league team in pursuit of their World Cup title defense at the end of November. Last night they offered me the honour of being guest speaker at the Test dinner before the game. I spoke about strength in teams, and what I had seen develop and deepen in this squad over the last 18 months. I was also asked to present the jumpers to the players selected for the France game (1 November) – something that humbled me greatly. This is not the sombre or formal experience you might imagine, but sincere gratitude from each player and a spirited acknowledgment of their quirks by teammates as they walk up to the front of the room. It is warm, heartfelt and boisterous.

I find the Kiwis to be remarkable in their inclusive attitude; they have openly welcomed and respected me from day one. They have made few exceptions on including me in the standard rites-de-passage of the team – like singing in the front of the bus for your first test or being stitched up somehow wherever they can (usually by Frank Pritchard). But as I looked around the room last night, I once again recognized that this is not as easy as it looks for them, or in fact for me, because I am different – I am a woman.

Being a woman in a professional male team sports environment is a constant navigation, for everyone. I have no interest in being one of the lads and I don’t quite fit in the ‘nurturing mother figure’ category in terms of the leadership work I do. I would be professionally ineffective if I remained in the background, psychologically safe with minimal voice, and I am not here to be the centre of attention as some form of entertainment. I don’t want to be completely separate because that would make me inaccessible and probably be a lonely place to operate from. I don’t want to fit in completely because frankly hanging out with a squad of 35 blokes has its limits. However, there are very few women role models who I can look to as examples when it comes to getting this ‘fitting in’ balance right’.

I notice that the players are initially a little less certain, less relaxed and more aware of themselves and their behaviours. They approach with caution until a relationship has well and truly been built and they still apologize after swearing almost two years on. It is simply less comfortable, because no-one is quite sure ‘how to be’.

We have to find a different archetype for women working in sport, and this also needs the strength and support of the team.

What has worked so well in this rugby league environment, and across the various AFL club environments I have worked in, is teamwork. The Test dinner last night worked because the coach Stephen Kearney and the manager Tony Iro make it normal to have me around – something they demonstrate in words and actions. The great respect they offer me is in valuing the contribution I make and modeling themselves to show the close and trusting professional relationship with me. They demonstrate that it can work with no dramas. They give me free reign to discern myself when to get out of the changing rooms (pretty quickly post-game) and give me a heads-up about traditions, details and dynamics; they avail me of all the context I need to navigate what I need to do.

They extend the invitation when they go for dinner or to watch another match and they are realistic about the fact that the suit and tie in the team kit isn’t going to work for me. They include me as a woman, not ‘as if’ I was a man.

The kind of team work that it takes for women to thrive in male-team environments also comes very much from other women, however few in number. The heart of this World Cup team is a woman called Carmen Taplin who manages the day-to-day operations of the team. Carmen has ‘shepherded’ me throughout my engagement with Kiwis, and I noticed her immediately doing so with our female interpreter this week. Carmen ensured she had a spot at the lunch table, introducing her to players and staff, offering background and making sure she knew what was going on and could relax into her role. I personally feel it is particularly incumbent on women already within male-team sport to make the transition in for other women as easy as possible at every turn. This is primarily about weight of numbers.

Finally, my own role in the team is to see things as they really are, stay open, not pretend to be someone I’m not and continually show the confidence to stand out, not shrink when I have different views.

The things that work for women in male team sports environments are the same things that work whenever anyone is building credibility and rapport, albeit amplified. They are the same things I spoke about to the Kiwi players at the jumper presentation on strength in teams – clear purpose, trust, accountability and belief.

It adds more than it costs to have women involved in male sport on many levels, but we have to be prepared to make it happen together.

Dr Pippa Grange




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