• Cultural Change and Gender Equity through Sport

    18m 36s

    A former elite Australian rules footballer, television and radio sports commentator, Chyloe Kurdas has spent a decade building the catalyst for Australia’s first ever national women’s professional competition, AFLW, as AFL Victoria’s Female Football Development Manager. In doing so, Chyloe combined her studies and work in health promotion, psychology and education to build award winning high performance sporting programs for adolescent girls that focus on the whole athlete.

Graphical summary and transcript


I’ve got a bit of a funny relationship with sports. I spent 14 years doing karate as a kid and probably every single day I use some of those lessons I got from karate. And then I spent about 15 years playing football for Melbourne University and when I left the game as a player, unfortunately, after three reconstructions, there wasn’t anything that I really wanted to do in the game that I didn’t really get to do. Except from a very young age, I realized that my time and place in history meant that certain doors were closed to me in sport in particular because I was female.

So I left the game, not knowing what my full potential could have been had my gender been different or my time and place in history been different. So having a bit of an existential crisis with sports at the moment, because you see, the essence of sport centers around this notion of competition. And in that for me to win, you have to lose. And for me to feel good, it’s likely you’re going to feel bad. And I’m actually not sure if I’m okay with that anymore. And why is that?

Well sport pervades our culture and our community in such a way that most other sectors don’t. It has such a privileged place in society in Australia that sport and what sport is about needs to really own it’s sense of social responsibility and obligation.

And centering the essence of sport around a school board, around whether I win or you lose, I don’t know if that’s socially responsible anymore. And natural psyche is built on two things. War and sport. Both of which have historically excluded women. Now invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli centers the birth of our nation. Also massive investment and commitment to excel in sport on the world stage is extraordinary. And the question I ask in that, is if the efforts that we value as a society historically exclude women, where does that position them and what’s the impact in their place in our society? And if sport has historically excluded women, how has it been built?

Sport in Australia has been built by men, for men, according to the needs of men.

And when we’ve engaged women, we’ve tacked them on the end. We’ve asked them to assimilate and we actually haven’t reframed what sports about. We haven’t reframed our masculine framework, because masculine framework is all about outcomes. It’s about scoreboard, being the biggest, fastest, best, strongest, it’s about winning. But female frameworks, feminine frameworks are not necessarily about that. Often it’s about the journey. It’s about the process.

And sport hasn’t reframed how we’re structured, how we’re built. We’re just asking women to just go along and use sport in the way in which men use it.

So it’s been 10 years since I have been at AFL Vicroria. When I first got there my role was to run a few clinics and competitions for teenage girls, but I always had my eye on that big prize of setting up that national women’s competition so little girls would have the opportunities that I never got to have. And there are a lot of challenges of course. But probably the two biggest challenges were those masculine frameworks, with a language that was all about outcome and all about winning and was all programmatic based as we’ve heard today. It wasn’t about cultural change internally.

And the single key decision makers, in fact the lack of belief of senior key decision makers within the AIFL that a national women’s competition could or should be done.

So in that, our senior key decision makers within our audience, within our sports, they are our gatekeepers to cultural change and cultural expansion. How many of our CEOs are here today? They are the ones that set the parameters, the boundaries, the barriers around what our culture can be within our sports. And how many of them are here today?

Cause they are the ones that lead the cultural integrity of your organizations.

So the solution in that for me, during my time at AFL Victoria was to speak that masculine language. Talk outcomes, we just heard a great presentation on business case. Numbers, statistics, numbers, scoreboard, biggest, fastest, best. We started creating and building evidence based cases to manage up internally, because managing up internally was hopefully going to get decision makers to change their minds on what women and girls could bring to the game.

And so as a result, we started talking about things like, female football is the fastest growing segment of the game. Record growth year in and year out. If you invest in that compound interest on that, in 10 years time it’s going to look like this. As compared to other sports we’re winning, winning, winning. But when you want to change culture through that by having to manage up internally, change is really slow. And it took us a long time to get that switch flicked.

So the learning for me in all of that was around this notion of leadership buy in versus leadership buy out. When our leaders buy out, they are the gatekeepers. They are the ones that keep doors closed. We get no change, and when we’re lucky we get slow change. And we get a lack of investment of resources. And as well know in emerging parts of our organizations or businesses, our sports entities, the more you invest, the more you grow. And we need that ongoing investment. In fact when you are seeding something that’s when you need the most investment, before it’s got it’s own momentum.

So if our gatekeepers, our senior key decision makers don’t invest, how are we going to grow? How are we going to see the beginnings of something, something in the future that could be actually quite amazing?

But when you have leadership buy in, when your leaders choose to buy into cultural change and cultural expansion, what do you get? What did we get in the AFL context? Prioritization. Quick action. None more quicker than when Gil McGlocklin turned up, at that—very still remember that breakfast and we all were sitting around that morning and Gil Gil McGlocklin at the Women’s Industry Lunch, sat there. He hadn’t been there very long and he turned around and said, “Everyone is saying 2020, but I reckon we can do it in 2017.” And we all collectively said, oh geez Gil, that’s three years too early.

But I didn’t see cultural change, I didn’t see organizations systemic shift in my previous 8 years at the organization that I had saw immediately after he made that statement. Things changed, things that there’s not—I could have talked til the cows come home. Things wouldn’t have shifted, unlike having the most senior key decision maker shifting the barriers and the boundaries all of a sudden around what our culture needed to be. So we got quick action, we got prioritization. We got an investment of resources which I wish had had 10 years before that. We got integration to core business. Opportunity. We got pride and respect for women. Celebration of what women could bring to our game. We got people looking to leave a legacy in the game through their investment in female football. And women and girls, we got a commitment to change. We got the opening of doors. We got the consideration of women’s needs. I think we’re on a journey there. But we’re going to see is the realization of potential.

The realization of potential.

And we’re on a path now in that sport towards true accessibility. And true accessibility are when there are no barriers at all for anyone to participate in the game in the way in which they want. And the way in which they choose. Not in the way in which we as leaders want them to participate. Where they tell us what they want, and we deliver for them. That is true accessibility.

So the learning for me in all of that, is how do we reorient our leadership to be thinking about, to be leaning toward buy in rather than buy out. I moved over to Golf Australia 6 months ago and 2 days. They interviewed me for an hour, and I interviewed them for 2 weeks. Cause I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to move back into the space. And I wanted to speak to Joe Spargo who is on the Golf Australia Board who is leading the vision 2025 strategy at a board level. The CEO and the person that would be my boss.

Because I didn’t want to spend another 10 years managing up, managing sideways, and managing back down to try and get outcomes through staff that I had no authority for. But I was on the hook for their outcomes. I don’t want to do that again. So I had a terrific conversation with all three of them.

I challenged them all on the challenges that I had experienced on my journey so far and said I don’t want to do that again. Where are you positioned? And from the opening conversation with every single one of them, it was I’m here and I’m with you and I’m going to help. There is leadership buy in. The most critical person in our organization at Golf Australia around women and girls strategy is not me, it’s the CEO because he sets, he gives us the space and the permission to do the things that we want to do. He gives us space and permission to stretch the boundaries of our culture.

So the challenge in golf is our female participation has dwindled massively. In 1970 our female club representation of participation was 34%. Now membership is at 20%, a bit under, and I think we’re being a bit generous if we say that. So we’ve got some big challenges. The solution is a 7-year strategy, Vision 2025. It was developed before I was there, I got to put my finishing touches on the draft of it after it was done. But it’s a 7-year strategy. It’s not a punchy 1 or 2 year strategy to fix 60,000 years of gender inequality, we’re a bit more honest, we’ve given ourselves 7 years.

So I can breathe a little bit, I might get some sleep.

There are 4 pillars with that strategy. Grass roots, high performance in coaching, and marketing and positioning. But overarching, the overarching pillar is around coaching and leadership. And within that, we’ve put an accountability mechanism, a self-accountability mechanism in there that will set a role model the standards and expectations.

It’s not up to us to sit there and point the finger at all of our golf clubs and all of our golf communities and say, you need to include women more! If we’re not pointing the thumb back at ourselves. So we have an accountability mechanism in there to ask us to be the thing that we want to see in the broader community.

So the practical implementation of our strategy has been lead by leadership buy in. And it’s facilitated by that. So our vision for golf for women and girls is we want women to be inspired to participate. That they feel welcomed, they feel nurtured, and they feel empowered to achieve their goals. This vision is process oriented. It is not about numbers, it’s not about outcomes. It’s all about how women will experience our game. It’s about how we do golf, not how many we do golf to.

And our belief is, if we get the process right, the how piece right, we should get the outcomes we’re chasing. But we want to make sure the experience, the touchpoint, when anyone comes into the game, any women comes into the game, it feels right to her. That the frameworks suit her needs. Wherever she sits on the feminine/masculine spectrum.

So in doing so, we’ve got to have great processes, we’ve got to have integrity in our processes. And first thing I’ve been able to do is implement a global action plan where every single staff member in the whole organization will have a vision 2025 workplan that they are on the hook for. And as they drop their performance plans out of that, every single one of them will have a female based KPI that they will be held accountable to. All 90 of our staff come December 31.

So every single person on the hook for this strategy, not me.

The places that we operate in, our structures, the people that we work with. And the relationships have integrity in our processes. And if we get these things right, we should be leaning more towards gender equality hopefully in 7 years.

So what’s my role in all of this? I’m not a golf expert, there’s no football on a golf course. I’ve run (12:53) Park, 9 holes. Hit about a 50 yard thereabouts on a good day, the 8th kills me. But I play for mental health, I really enjoy it and it’s 55 individual minutes of mind focus if I hit my shots, but that’s why I play golf. I have no interest in the scoreboard, I have no interest in the competition. I love the game. Because it is a place where I can invest in myself. So I’m not an expert. The people who are an expert in our sport are our staff. All of your staff, no one else does what each individual staff member does in our organization. Every single one of you and every single one of our staff at Golf Australia are unique. They have a specific role to play. My role is to conduct the orchestra.

And I need to empower them to play their instruments according to the needs of women and girls. And when we have all of them playing together, we hopefully are going to make a beautiful piece of music. So we need to empower our leaders and empower our staff to do exactly that.

Want to share with you this theory about empowerment for social change. Sport diplomacy leaders, the center of sport piece in society have come up with this, some things to think about when you want to empower your staff. Expose them to new ideas. Equip them to tackle, equip them with the skills to be able to tackle the challenges in our communities, engage them with new experiences and exchanges and then entrust them to lead your strategy for you.

The cultural change process that I use in my work, whether it’s with the stuff that I do with the Department of Defense and Melbourne Business School or whether it’s golf or anywhere else that I might work with, it’s always around this. Attitude reflects leadership. Attitude reflect leadership. Our boards, our CEOs, they are our starting point. The human condition, we are one of seven billion people on this planet, nearly 8 billion I’ve read recently. Its very easy to feel unseen and invisible and inconsequential. Cultural change work, this piece of work is actually an opportunity to give your people purposes. It’s can be their legacy piece. They can sit back and say let’s wipe our fingerprints all over this game and be able to look back and that’s your purpose. It’s a great carrot to dangle in front of them.

Leadership frameworks, enriched environments, psychological safety. Lead with love but to create leadership enriched environments. We want people to do things that are pretty scary. We’ve seen some really wonderful presentations today with people pushing boundaries around diversity inclusion. The work that Cricket is doing in the LGBTQIA space, I can’t believe I’m at a sports conference and we’re talking about this stuff. As the only gay in the village of AFL Victoria for over 10 years, it’s really beautiful to sort of come along today and experience that.

But to do that, to take risks, to take the ball under your arm and do things we’ve never done before, you need to cultivate an enriched environment where people feel safe. And in order to do that, you need to love your people. You need to lead with love and not fear. Lead with love and they will follow you to the end of the earth. Lead with fear and they’ll follow you in spite of you and they won’t follow you for very long.

And in that servant leadership, we have to throw out that notion in sport that the top down leadership, I say you do! That old Boron Barasy kind of half gone spray, go ahead and throw it out the window. Actually put your people on your shoulders and help them up and be the reason why your people leave a legacy in the game, because you choose to invest in them, you lead with love and you care about them and you invest in them and you help them grow. And what happens is that you multiple your investment because you are putting it in all the other people. And the ripple effect will be infinite. So servant leadership.

And the last one, mindset. Invest in good processes. Coach and train your work right, don’t worry about your talent. If you’ve got your HR processes right you are going to have great talent in your organization, so trust that. And challenges, go seeking challenges. Stretch yourselves. Be excited by challenges cause challenges are the things that make us even better. Challenges are the things that tell us what we’re not yet.

And they tell us the direction we need to be heading so that we can become what we could be.

The last thing I want to leave you with today is this notion of knowing your time and place in history as your platform to cultivate change in the future. I’m really aware and conscious of what those women who have gone before me have done to give me the opportunities I’ve had to play and also to lead the game.

I’m very cognizant of the platform that I have in my work life, but also in our time and place here. And I’m also very aware that we’re not quite there yet. That there so many challenges still ahead of us, but I get to choose what I do with my platform. I get to choose, isn’t that awesome? And you all get to choose what you do with your platform, you all have a role that you hold within your organizations, but you have a time and place in history which we’ve never had before. And you get to choose what you’re going to do with that.

So the question I want to leave you with today is how will you use your platform? How will you use your time and place in history as your platform so that our sports become truly accessible and no athlete every leaves our game not knowing what their full potential could have been.

Thank you!