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Changing the Face of Women’s Sports in New Zealand: Q&A with Julie Paterson

As the CEO of Netball Northern Zone in New Zealand, Julie Paterson’s responsibilities are numerous, from securing sponsorships, gaming trust revenue and funding, to communicating with 17 independent netball centers in her zone, to contracting professional athletes for a major professional netball team managed by her organization, the SKYCITY Mystics. Julie grew up playing netball but eventually found her calling on the other side working to make sure sports run efficiently so that others may play. We sat down with Julie to discuss the issues facing women in sports in New Zealand and how she came to join us in New York City, as she concludes her first week at the Women’s Sports Foundation through the Global Sports Mentoring Program.

• How are women’s sports generally viewed in New Zealand? What is the biggest issue for women in sports in your country?

We’ve come so far in women’s sport in New Zealand. Our society feels that it is quite an equal society but then when you actually start to drill down into it you realize that there are still a lot of inequalities in the sporting environment. When I look about the inequalities in funding that goes into women’s sport, the inequality of how’s women’s sport is treated within a male sporting environment, it is still a large gap. I’ll use cricket for example, New Zealand Cricket, they have a national women’s cricket team but they get so little funding compared to the amount that the men’s team gets.

Also, when I look at the boards and the governance roles of a number of our major sporting organizations in New Zealand there are very few women comparatively speaking, on boards and in executive leadership roles. I think we assume that we’re all quite equal because, probably a little less like America, we do have equal opportunities for participation within our school system and within our university system. So we’re not discriminated around participation but interestingly, participation rates are still lower for girls and women. When you start looking at sport administration and governance and funding then actually females in sports are not given equal opportunities. Lower funding reduces our ability to grow our participation because we haven’t enough money to really make that happen. The biggest issues are around equity in funding and then our systemic discrimination of women coming through the systems and getting the roles, the jobs.

As more money comes into sport and as the sport becomes more professionalized, more men are applying for what may have traditionally been female jobs. Whereas before, women were volunteering to do the roles and they just did it because they’re happy to roll their sleeves up and do it. Now that there’s money in the game, men are applying for the jobs and it can be seen as a good stepping stone for men. They come in, they get experience, not at the high money level but are given the coaching experience, and then are able to jump up.

• How did you start working in netball and where does your passion stem from?

I played netball at school but after leaving school I went on and had jobs in different areas. I traveled overseas for 10 years when I first left school and then came back to my hometown, which is the town that I went to high school in, and had a couple of different jobs. I ended up getting involved in netball because actually there were limited career opportunities in my city, and it was a bit of a side-step for me to get involved in something else.

My passion for sport came about through having somebody coming into our organization to facilitate our strategic plan, when I worked in netball, and she started talking to our group about not just thinking about what happened on the court but beyond the game and the value that sport adds to our community, beyond what actually happens and the competitive aspect of it. That was my lightbulb moment. That was the bit where I went “oh, wow, so now I really get it.” For me, understanding the value that sport brings to our community and wanting to be able to spread that message to our funders, our sponsors, the people and our stakeholders that’s a really important part of what we do and that’s kind of my passion about it. Understanding how we can grow young people through sport and use sport as a vehicle to do a whole lot of things that add value to our community is really important to me.

At the other end of it, I started to really grow to love watching our high performance athletes, our teams that compete at the high performance end of it, especially when I got to know the players and then really understood the commitment, the work and the sacrifices and all of the things that they have had to do and how much they have given of themselves to play a game for us to watch and be a part of. So, both ends of it I absolutely love, the value that our sport brings to the community and then the high performance competitive end of it is just awesome.

• How did netball grow to become the most popular women’s sport in New Zealand and what is the impact on both girls and women?

It’s a traditional sport. It’s a sport that when I was growing up you played netball. That was pretty much it. You might have played [field] hockey but I didn’t like the sticks and the ball was too hard so it was kind of one or the other really. Of course, now there’s a massive range of sports that we can all participate in and that our kids can participate in but because netball has a really good system and really good networks in our country of how netball is delivered it still remains as the highest participation sport for young women. It’s delivered through schools and it’s delivered through clubs. We also have netball centers where people come and play. So, there’s a really good system around how the sport is connected out through the community, which keeps it as a really high participation sport.

The other thing that I really like about netball is that it is a sport that has been established for women and girls and women and girls are still the primary participants in the sport. It’s not a secondary arm of basketball or cricket or another sport. Netball’s primary focus is for women and girls. The league that we compete in, that our high performance team competes in, is the only professional women’s league running across New Zealand and Australia. So, it is important to both of our countries.

• What motivated you to want to work for the rights of girls and women in netball?

I don’t like things that are not fair. That is my biggest driver. Life is hard enough without 50% of our population having to fight to be given a fair go and I don’t think that the way the community views women’s sport is very fair. There is a perception that women’s sport is not as valuable or as ‘good’ as men’s sport and that impacts hugely from a commercial perspective and I want to change that.

• What made you decide to apply for the Global Sports Mentoring Program and why do you think the Women’s Sports Foundation will be a good pairing?

I knew as soon as I read about the Women’s Sports Foundation, I was like “that’s where I want to go.” So, I was really excited when they told me that I’d been connected here. Definitely the Women’s Sports Foundation because I want to learn more about how to advocate for women’s sport and equality in women’s sport and what are the right levers that we should be pulling, who should we be talking to, and what’s our messaging because key messaging is so important in that we are saying the right things and repeating them over and over.

I applied because it looked like it was a great opportunity. I knew nothing about it as it’s the first time that New Zealand has been included in the program. We had an email that came out from our government sporting organization for New Zealand and we had a week to apply. So it was – wow this looks awesome I’ll apply for it and see what happens, not expecting ever to be selected to come on it. Even after having read about the program I still had no real concept of what it was all about, or how well regarded the program is here and how well regarded it is from a government level and how important it is from a government level for it to connect into a whole range of things.

It’s not just about women in sport it’s about growing women leaders because women that participate or have achieved in sport often go on to be business leaders or leaders in our community. It’s about global networks and relationships between foreign countries. That has been a little bit of an eye opener for me. Our country is a madly passionate sporting country and I think Rugby is used well as a brand for our country but it could be wider than that and I really want to learn a lot more and talk a lot more about why sport is really important for women especially, not just to the whole nation but specifically for women and girls.

• At the Foundation we have found that conducting the research, spear heading advocacy and building programs have had success in generating equal opportunities for women and girls in sports. In New Zealand, what is the approach for ensuring equal opportunity for girls and women?

I think the piece of the puzzle that we’re missing is specifically about women and girls in sport. I don’t think I know enough about the available research to back a really convincing argument at the moment. I’ve now been thinking about partnering with a University and then trying to get some really specific information that drills down into what our sporting picture really looks like, not what we think it looks like. That’s really important.


Learn More about Julie and the Global Mentor Program >>