Degree Name

Master of Philosophy


School of Management


Sport plays a significant role in Australian culture, but gender inequity continues both in player participation and in the management and governance of sporting organisations. This is reflective of the continued male domination evidenced elsewhere in Australian organisations. Women remain under-represented on sports boards in Australia. The under-representation of women in governance positions, in Australia and overseas, persists despite almost thirty years of legislation directed towards anti-discrimination and equal opportunity. While there is a significant body of research around women on boards of corporate and for-profit entities, less research exists around examinations of women in sporting governance in Australia.

This research applies institutional theory (an explanatory approach) and the capabilities approach (a social justice approach) to an examination of how women continue to be under-represented in board positions. Institutional theory can be used to explain and understand organisational change and how structures and actions become normalised institutional rules (Kikulis 2000; Slack & Hinings 1994). The capabilities approach can be used to explain and understand individual perceptions of success (Cornelius & Skinner 2008). Recent examinations of women’s achievements in the board room have largely focussed on women gaining their ‘place at the table’ and have viewed the lack of women in the boardroom as a repression of women. The capabilities approach provides a perspective whereby women’s application of choice is considered (Cornelius & Skinner 2008).

A mixed methods case study approach was used to inform this research study. Three sports were selected for study based on their apparent commitment to gender equity, displayed through organisational policy and constitutional directive. An examination of organisational documents was conducted. A survey was distributed to board members of three national sporting organisations and the associated state level sporting organisations. Follow-up interviews were conducted with board members who offered to participate. A further examination of organisational documents was conducted pursuing themes identified in the survey results and interviews. The data collection methods used were designed to gather information related to perceptions of how women obtain a position on a sporting board at national sporting organisation (NSO) and state sporting organisation (SSO) level; whether they receive adequate support and training in such a position; whether they feel there are any obstacles to obtaining a board position; and, whether the board is perceived to function differently with a greater female presence.

Study results indicate that there is increasing awareness of the need to move to more business-like governance practices. It was strongly contended by respondents that the “best person for the job” is now the criterion on which board appointments are made. Two of the case organisations have constitutional requirements for women to represent a given percentage of their boards, but there are some moves in certain state organisations within one of the case sports to abolish this clause. There was also an indication that major coercive pressure for change is still underway; participants detailed proposed changes towards developing a ‘peak body’ model for NSOs and SSOs in the future, a plan driven by the Australian Sports Commission (ASC).

The findings indicate that these organisations are continuing to move through various stages of de-institutionalisation and re-institutionalisation. All three institutional isomorphic processes were observed at various stages, particularly coercive isomorphic pressure resulting from ASC merger requirements and funding imperatives. Nevertheless there is little evidence to suggest that having a significant representation of women on sports boards has become fully institutionalised.

The study concludes that, while new institutional ideas have been introduced to change board structure and practice, such as non-member elected board appointees who are recruited for their corporate governance expertise, the gender bias that has shaped historical practice remains. The study also illustrates how gender-oriented institutional theory does a better job of accounting for the problems that still exist for women aspiring to senior management and board positions than the usual business case and social justice approaches to these issues.