You can’t be what you can’t see – and that includes women in leadership positions in the AFL | AFL

ALastair Clarkson’s appointment to North Melbourne last week crystallized new meaning to the old adage ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Although I have coached the AFL at junior elite level, I do not believe my long-term career will be coaching the AFL and, as a woman, my acceptance into AFL circles does not was not effortless. So excuse Clarko, but it’s not you I see and admire or aspire to be in the role, it’s Sonja Hood.

Hood and trailblazers like Peggy O’Neal, Kate Roffey and Kylie Watson-Wheeler are all AFL club presidents who I follow with far more interest than I have followed any male president in the AFL. ‘AFL.

I started playing in the AFL at the age of 15, when a junior women’s competition was in its second year in Victoria and the AFLW was a spark in the eyes of Gillon McLachlan . Fast forward and with the AFLW now in full swing, myself and others who are actively involved in promoting women’s football are quoting our mantra ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’.

O’Neal was the first and for many years the only female president, but in the 2022 season four of the 18 top club positions are held by women. The AFL’s corridors of power are in the executive branch of its Docklands headquarters, but they can also be found in each club’s boardrooms. More women in these positions gives new imagination, possibilities and a path beyond the pitch and the coaching box.

My heightened interest in women in AFL presidential roles is somewhat personal. I am a passionate and tragic Melbourne supporter who has followed Roffey’s journey closely. I also started my career in North Melbourne, with Hood, who was then Managing Director of The Huddle and NMFC Community Engagement. Years later, Sonja remained my mentor.

Despite numerous compelling academic works detailing the benefits of diversity in leadership, equity in leadership in the AFL industry – while improving – is still not a given. It should be. Women have represented an almost equal share of AFL membership and support for decades, but it remains a male-dominated industry. The rise of the AFLW did not end discrimination and sexism on and off the field.

The day after Hood was named chairman of North Melbourne, I asked him what, if anything, immediately felt different. His answer was twofold. She said the visibility was immense – as soon as she was announced as the new chairperson, everyone in the AFL world wanted something from her. Her second thought sounded familiar: she was already getting huge amounts of unsolicited advice. She didn’t say it directly, but having worked in the industry, I suspect the majority of it came from men.

When coaching both the junior core girls and the junior talent lanes, a least favorite pastime was placating some dads armed with plenty of coaching advice. Regardless of my Level 2 coaching accreditation and direct AFL coaching mentorship, their gender meant they could bite my ear about everything from stoppage setups to team culture.

Unsolicited advice, though often well-meaning, nevertheless added to a simmering insinuation that as an AFL woman I have never been up to the job. After the media attention around North Melbourne this year, I can’t help but think that if North hadn’t been successful in signing Clarkson, Hood’s gender would have been quietly considered a potential reason for failure.

Despite their underrepresentation in the presidential ranks, women are succeeding – signing sought-after coaches and sharing four premierships between them. I hope that with more success in the AFL, leadership diversity could be seen as the reason for success, not the silent explanation for failure.

I never imagined what I would do as president of the AFL. On the pitch, the imagination gap is apparent – ​​if there are no women playing on TV, how do girls imagine themselves playing in the AFL? There was no “new league” for presidencies, so the effect crept in on me. Hearing Roffey talk about the Dees winning the premiership in 2021, I found myself analyzing his words, body language and tone; I was just more interested in the nuance.

After news broke about two Melbourne players having a physical altercation, I thought more deeply as a leader about how I could handle this. But I don’t see myself in other recent big moments for AFL presidents – David Koch’s misguided remarks about Port Adelaide head coach Ken Hinkley’s position, or the scuffles at board level. board of Essendon and related roller coaster on the ground. I attend AFL male leadership scenarios, but when women lead, I instinctively and subconsciously imagine myself in the thick of it.

Where my aspirations or those of other women will take us, who knows. Either way, I feel comforted by the recent revelations that I can see it, and so I can imagine that I can be.

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