• Cultural Diversity in Womens Sport

    18m 18s

    Julia Symons has worked in sports administration, community engagement, communications and philanthropy across the corporate, not-for-profit and sports sectors in Australia, Hong Kong and Fiji. She currently works in the Strategic Partnerships and Projects team at Australia Post. Julia was a recipient of a 2017 Churchill Fellowship, investigating cultural diversity in elite women’s sport.

Graphical summary and transcript


I was a netball player. Shocking, but true. It’s a question I often get asked before what my name is. By random people. Even in the elevator at work a couple of days ago. And guilty as charged, as a 7 year old my dad, Richard, drove me to the Baycroft netball courts for my trials for netball. Which in hindsight, I’m not sure why we were trialing because none of us knew how to play. Anyway, I was put on court, the ball finally sort of made it’s way down to me and I grabbed that I was so excited.

I ran to the other end of the court, and shot a goal. And so would begin my illustrious netball career. It was almost like then my future coaches would look back in time at that footage, not that any mom was capturing anything on footage at that time, and said right, she’s born to stay in 1/3 of the court and 1/3 only, never let her again run again.

The life of a holding goal shooter, this is what it looks like. So from there, from Baycroft Netball club through reps up to regional, state and onto national teams, I was playing in the national team and international squads, I was given this extraordinary opportunity to represent my family and my community. And at different levels to mainly engage with people I would have never have met, never have come across, the opportunity to travel. And to learn a lot about myself. I also had the chance to build those extraordinary networks that sport has the opportunity to build for you and to have a chance, even now to continue to build those and nurture those networks.

I worked for Netball Australia for 5 years before I moved onto my current role. But before I worked at Netball Australia, Netball had followed me in my roles in Fiji and Hong Kong and other places. And I reflected on my career as an athlete and I use that word career super loosely, cause career implies something great. And I’ve got knee cartilage to prove it and I’m still getting the splinters out from the benches I warmed, so just to manage your expectations of my career.

I reflected on what I had learned and the people I had met during that time and coming from a prism of a sports administrator I began to look at it a little more critically, and I came to realize that a lot of the people that I had met, a lot of the women that I had played alongside and then branching out beyond netball to meet lots of other athletes, lots of other sportswomen, they did not necessarily have the same opportunities that I did.

And the more I began to delve into the stories of those other athletes, I realized that there were some stories that needed to be told and we needed to ask more questions, sports as well, to understand the way in which they create safe environments for culturally diverse women in a league sport in Australia.

So I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship last year. And from mid-March to mid-May of this year I traveled to New Zealand, the US and England for 8 weeks to immerse myself in research and conversation around this topic.

So 16 cities, 8 weeks, 37 meetings, 3 conferences, and by a meeting you know what might have been scheduled for 1 hour, as many of you would probably know from living and working and breathing diversity and inclusion in sport what would be 1 hour would go sometimes for 5.

And would then kick onto, oh and then come to my mom’s place we’re having to dinner tonight, or we’re playing basketball tomorrow night, you want to come and watch that too? So it was this extraordinary life experience and in fact probably 8 best weeks of my entire life. This is just a snapshot of some of the organizations I had the privilege of meeting representatives from.

So I met, as you can see, had a terrible time, awful time.

So I met current and former athletes, CEOs, players, and coaches and team managers board members, volunteers, advocates, and academics. All who had their own glean, their own view on how these environments can be created where culturally diverse women could thrive in them.

So some really clear things and insights emerged from those conversations. I was blown away that not so much in the consistency, in the things across the people that I met, but that they were using the same words. I could be sitting in a café in Auckland or I could be going for a walk with someone in Parmstone North or I could be sitting in Minneapolis, snowing, minus 20 outside would be having the same conversations, the same words would be used.

So, this was by far and away, and ties into a lot of what’s been said today already, same is the sum of my parts, same as an individual, so the women that I spoke to and this these things and insights that I’ll share with you, mostly from the conversations I had with women who represented a cultural minority in their chosen sport. They would say, I don’t want to be known as the African American player. I don’t want to be known as the Tomin coach. I don’t want to be known as the Muslim football player. I want to be known for me. I’m university educated, I’m a mom, I’m from this area, I support this football team. I have this communication style, I like this kind of food, I want to be known as all of these things, don’t put me in a box.

They spoke a lot about fitting in versus belonging, and the story I can tell you from one that was shared with me, that I have the permission to share was a women who would talk about her homelife of living with multiple generations of her family, who would leave the house, go to training for her high performance sporting career, and as she would drive, she would finally get to the car park of this high performance training facility and it was conscious at first, but then subconsciously, she realized she was leaving, literally leaving stuff in the car before she walked in. And by stuff what I mean is ways that she would normally talk. Things she would normally talk about. Jokes that she might make that she wouldn’t make when we walked into that space because she was so desperate to fit in with the culture of that high performance environment. She just wanted to be part of the team.

And she knew that by bringing all of her culture with her, would mean that she wouldn’t fit in. And what would she strive for was that sense of belonging. That day when she would get out of the car, slam the door, walk on in and be exactly who she was. The same person at home, would be the same person she would in the space.

Many of the women I spoke to spoke about the only one. And they used different words to describe this, but they all had the same experience of walking into trials that first day, looking around, desperately looking for likeness, looking for someone who looked like them, who spoke like them, who might have had a similar life experience, and they would look around, and that feeling of going, okay, I’m the only one. Again.

Of walking in two worlds, and Tovali spoke about this I’ve said before, pretty sure I copied some of notes, walking in to worlds that from that home life, from that community life, a lot of the women I spoke to would say or identify as coming from collectivist communities. So it’s not about the me, it’s about we. It’s about all of us moving forward together, it’s about all of us eating together, it’s about all of us achieving together. And so when they would move into this high performance space, even if it wasn’t a team sport, it was about what I’m eating. About how much sleep I’m getting. About what I’m achieving. And they spoke of a conflict of walking in those two worlds sometimes, finding it kind of tricky to navigate those.

In New Zealand I was really lucky to spend some time with some incredible women involved in rugby and you’ve seen the All Blacks and you’ve seen the Hacka but have you seen the Black Ferns? This team and I was privileged to learn more about this from a former Black Ferns coach, captain. And she spoke of and shared the Maldi concepts and values and ceremony that was embedded not just in the way the team, what you’d see perhaps at a match, but the way they operate. The way they represent themselves, their families and their communities, but there are actually critical principles to the way this high performance environment operates.

And it wasn’t just for the Maldi girls on the team either. It didn’t matter if you were Fijian, Tongan, if you were Pakia or if you were a white Kiwi, they all subscribed and bought into these concepts and they wore them proudly and it was unifying.

Trailblazer willingly and unwillingly, a number of the women I spoke to said, oh yeah, I know why I’m on the front cover of the annual report. They new it wasn’t necessarily because of their sporting prowess, that they were either speaking to a community, their image would speak to a community, and they knew that that’s what came with the territory. But they also wore that with pride. Because their sense was that if one young girl in their community could look to them on that annual report and say, oh I didn’t know I could be that, but I can see myself there. You can’t be what you can’t see, right?

So a number of women spoke to me about being a trailblazer, knowing that they were standing on the shoulders of others, and of taking on that mantle but sometimes reluctantly. And then finally in the US I heard a lot, particularly in the college concept about being called blind or color brave. One woman in particular I spoke to, spoke of an experience of being in a high performance environment where the coach and the manager would say, we’re all equal here. I don’t care where you are from, what your background is, I don’t care whether you’re black or white or Hispanic, it doesn’t matter, we’re all exactly the same.

And for that woman, she found that a really difficult spot to be, because the color of her skin, dictated the life that she lived, both positive and negative and a lot of the experiences she would have every single day.

And so to be told that actually that doesn’t matter kind of goes back to the first point I made that it was the sum of her parts, this was one part of her. So it didn’t need to be louder, it didn’t need to be bigger than the other parts but it was an important part of her and she didn’t want to seem to just have to leave that.

And so instead she would speak about environments that were color brave. And there was a question that sort of led to this before, of being willing to talk about difference and to be freely open about talking about differences. But to see that, as quite a magical mix that we’re all different and that’s a really great thing, that’s actually where the magic happens.

So, this is where I landed after 8 weeks, after a year pretty much of preparation before from submitting my application, the beginning of 2017, to being awarded the fellowship, to taking the trip, I think had 10 weeks to write a report.

So to pull together everything I had heard, to try and pull together key things and of try and do justice to the incredible people that I had met, was terrifying. Because I didn’t want to misrepresent anyone. I wanted to make sure that I did justice to the stories that were shared with me and I wanted to do it in a respectful way.

But at the same time I was so excited. Because what I had seen, in New Zealand, in the US and in England were these incredible environments where inclusion and diversity were brought to life, spoken about, where people were comfortable being uncomfortable, where there healthy tension, we talked about tension or holding the tension before. People would lean into that friction because they knew that it was a place of growth and leaders that espoused all those qualities in spades and said if everyone around the table agrees with me all the time, if they all have the same point of view and same life experience, then I’ve got the wrong people at the table.

And I thought that was pretty epic at the time when I heard it. Was trying to be (13:11) like yeah, yeah. Oh my god.

So to actually hear world leaders in their sporting code speak like that, and see diversity as just a non-negotiable was really inspiring, so this what I want to share with you, inclusive excellence. It’s not mine. I wish it was. It’s a term that I heard across the US. Across an academic sphere, where university, a lot of universities would use this term to refer to the kinds of environments that they would create to enable all of their students from lots of different cultural backgrounds to learn in a safe and inclusive space. So they wanted it to be inclusive, and they wanted them to exceed expectations and strive for excellence and that is what I want for our high performance environments.

Actually regardless of male and female, this is the place I want to work in, that’s both inclusive and demanding of me and challenging for me to aspire to greater things.

So I think inclusive excellence, environments of inclusive excellence have three things from the ones that I saw. The first thing is psychological safety. Again. I haven’t invented this, Google in 2012, ran a project called project Aristotle, some of you or many of you would have heard of it already, and they sought to understand from a 180 teams across Google what are the traits of high performing teams? What are those attributes? What do they look like and how can we replicate it so that all of our teams could be high performing. So they had 250 traits that they tried to map out against all of these teams, and the first one by far was psychological safety.

Psychological safety is when you can put your hand up in your team environment and say I don’t know if this is right but I’ve got an idea.

Where you can have a voice, and where you know that the people around are not going to shoot you down for the thoughts and suggestions and statements that you have to make. So I believe that psychological safety is really critical for inclusive excellence.

Cultural safety. Again, I haven’t invented this, cultural safety is a concept that comes from health, in Australia and New Zealand it’s been explored over the last 2 ½ decades, around indigenous health, so in average (15:28) and here in Australia, for Maldi people in New Zealand, how can health services be designed in such a way to enable those indigenous people to walk in and feel comfortable to disclose their cultural heritage? And to not feel that they are begin judged because of it. So of course cultural safety makes sense in the context of my fellowship, that this would be a really important component of an inclusive—of an environment of inclusive excellence, and finally, inclusive leadership.

You know when that coach said to me, if everyone around the tables agrees with me all the time then I’ve got the wrong people, that’s spoke to me about a myriad of different things that have been repeated throughout my 8 weeks. It spoke of comfort in discomfort, it spoke of being willing to say, okay, you don’t agree with me, tell me about that, why is that, let’s go there.

And being brave enough to step into that and not completely avoid conflict. We spoke about that sort of pilot thing we do to sort of agree to disagree and turn our backs and walk away from each other. Now more than ever, we need to understand the purpose of that disagreement and continue to step in until we find common ground.

So inclusive leaders doing that and they provide the forum for that to happen. They are also courageous and they are always looking for new ways to innovate. They are always convinced that there’s something else that they can be learning about. So this is from 8 weeks this is where I landed. I guess my challenge to you today is to turn invested inclusion on it’s head. To come at diversity and inclusion from a position of strength. I welcome you to read my report. If you are an insomniac I think it’s going to be great for you. It’s about 20,000 words long.

Like I said I was excited when I got back from trip, but it was has, apart from a whole lot of the key things I spoke about is case studies. So you want to see where this has worked and I’ve tried to capture some of those case studies for you and I’ve also got some recommendations at the end about what this actually looks like in terms of the nuts and bolts, so if you Google Churchill Fellowship and I encourage you to apply for one as well, the non-academic which is perfect for people like me, so the professions, it’s a professional fellowship, goes to the Churchill Trust website and you can find my report and my email address is on there to. If you’ve got any thoughts, if you’ve got any ideas about how we can try and change the language and move towards inclusive excellence I’d absolutely welcome that.

Thank you!