IWG Secretary General Lisa O’Keefe was invited to speak at the SportAccord International Federation (IF) Forum in Lausanne, Switzerland earlier this week. Here, she reflects on the opportunity to address the IFs and other key decision makers from the Olympic community.
With less than one year to go until the Paris 2024 Olympic Games – the first Games in history to achieve full gender parity amongst athletes – I was invited by colleagues from SportAccord to deliver a keynote speech on the opening day of their IF Forum. This was a huge honour and a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness of the work of the IWG with a broad range of International Federations.
The theme for the Forum was ‘Sport (R)Evolution’, exploring the need for sports to stay ahead and adapt in order to keep relevant in an increasingly complex environment, with much of the event dedicated to the challenges, opportunities and learning when it comes to sport for women and girls.
My keynote was on the topic of “Gender equity and equality in sport – what are we learning?” With an emphasis as always that we should be looking to fix the system and not the women, I encouraged the audience to consider how their sporting system helps or hinders the full involvement of women and girls. The places and spaces, the culture, the social norms – they all play a role in shaping attitudes and behaviours towards sport and ultimately dictate whether or not the sport is one in which all women and girls can thrive.
The example I shared with the room was rugby union, where World Rugby have made clear their intent through the publication of Accelerating the Global Development of Women in Rugby 2021-25. This includes clear commitments to resource Unions to accelerate the growth of the game, collaborating closely with the hosts of future Rugby World Cups (announced through to 2033), and the launch of WXV. Whilst the England Rugby Union (hosts of Rugby World Cup 2025) has published and resourced a strategy to accelerate the growth of the game ‘Every Rose 2021 – 2027’, including the creation of the new Premiership Women’s Rugby with a mission to become the world’s most competitive, progressive and sustainable domestic competition.
I also shared the headline findings from the IWG Progress Report published back in November 2022 which highlighted the positive increase in the number of organisations producing gender equality plans and strategies. However, the report also highlighted the significant number of plans without targets, specific allocation of resource or evaluation processes so it was opportune to point this out in front of the IF Forum audience, I’m sure it will have given a few people in the room something to think about…
The importance of sustained investment
Another point I was keen to stress was the importance of sustained investment and recognising spend on women’s sport as an investment as opposed to Corporate Social Responsibility spend. Deloitte UK recently published an article entitled “Super-charging the virtuous circle of women’s sport” which sets out the case for continued investment and visibility driving a virtuous circle, both on and off the pitch. More women and girls playing sport, leading to more being talent spotted and supported to excel, which then builds the fan base and ultimately results in increased investment and opportunities for women to have a career in sport, which then leads to more women and girls playing sport, and so on.
I was keen also to share some of the headlines from the most recent research from the Women’s Sport Trust and Sport Innovation Lab, setting out not only the growth and revenue potential of women’s sport but also highlighting learnings on how to develop and grow the sport and in particular the fanbase. Key of course is to collect data and insights to better understand the new audiences coming to women’s sport, and not assuming that delivering the same experience as for fans of men’s sport will suffice.
A panel on the second day featuring Marzena Bogdanowicz (English Football Association), Heike Grosswang (International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation, Barbara Slater (BBC) and Andreas Zagklis (International Basketball Federatio) shared many of these same messages along with numerous examples from their own sports and organisations, and the big message that if you are not already doing so, now is the time to invest in women’s sport before you miss the boat.
Barbara concluded by encouraging the room to be bold noting ‘If you are not having uncomfortable conversations, you are not driving change.’
I finished off with a call to action for the IFs in the room. For the current Brighton plus Helsinki Declaration signatories, the call was to work with us in telling the story of the impact of their work in tackling gender equality and sharing their learning with other. For those not yet signed up, the call was to join our digital networks and benefit from the knowledge and insight we can share.
From athlete to leadership
My keynote was followed by a wonderful panel of former Olympians who are all at various stages of transitioning from being athletes to leaders within their sports. Ana Jelusc (former ski racer), Elisabeth Maier (former skeleton athlete) and Anne-Sophie Thilo (former sailor) formed a panel to discuss ‘The sportswoman’s journey: From full time athlete to what comes next’, and their thought-provoking stories brought to life both the positive and negative impacts of the system on their careers, along with the importance of allies when it comes to navigating the many challenges and opportunities within sport.
Their takeaway messages were to listen to the lived experiences of athletes, and consider what adaptations would tackle current barriers resulting in inequalities noting that more inclusive sport is beneficial for everyone.
The final day featured Marie Sallois Dembreville, Director of Corporate Development and Sustainability at the IOC, who always speaks excellently on the topic of gender equality. Marie recognised the collective success in achieving gender parity amongst atheltes for Paris 2024, and acknowledged the impact of programmes such as WISH in tackling the under representation of women in elite coaching roles, noting there is still some way to go if women are to have meaningful representation in roles such as coaching, officiating as well as governance positions.
It was refreshing to be in the room with so many leaders within the International Federation family focussing on gender equality and equity in sport. Away from the formal presentations, the networking opportunities were invaluable in sharing the important work of the IWG, and I came away from Lausanne with many new contacts from organisations keen to drive gender equality forward.
A huge thank you to SportAccord for their invite to speak at their IF Forum and giving me the platform to talk about IWG in front of such a key audience. The SportAccord World Sport and Business Summit is coming to the ICC in Birmingham from 7-11 April next year and is set to welcome over 1,500 global sports leaders and key decision makers. This is the same location as the 9th IWG World Conference we are hosting in 2026, another opportunity to welcome the world to Birmingham.
I’d also like to thank the West Midlands Growth Company, especially IWG UK Steering Committee member Joel Lavery for inviting me to join their delegation for this years event.