Conference goes in to bat for women in sport

Asia New Zealand Foundation 25 to Watch recipient Sheryne Lok reflects on attending the 8th International Working Group (IWG) Women in Sport Conference and discusses the challenges and opportunities facing women's sport in New Zealand and Asia. Sheryne was supported to attend the conference by the Foundation's sports programme, which also provided funding to support two guest speakers from Asia to attend the conference.
Sheryne Lok crouching between a man and a woman for a selfie

Sheryne Lok (middle) at the International Working Group (IWG) on Women and Sport conference

Recently, I was provided with an opportunity to attend the eighth IWG World Conference – Women and Sport, which was held in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland.

Established in 1994, the International Working Group (IWG) on Women and Sport is the world’s largest network dedicated to advancing gender equity and equality in sport, physical education and physical activity.

I am particularly passionate about improving cultural diversity in sport and recreation, increasing Asian participation in sport and recreation through cultural intelligence, and increasing the number of Asian females in the sport management space.

With over 220 sessions and almost 500 global speakers over four days, the conference was a fantastic opportunity to collaborate and build global networks, learn about bicultural and multicultural approaches, and share knowledge and insights.

Foundation sports adviser Kirsty Sharp (middle) with speakers Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and  Afzan Mahadi

Foundation sports adviser Kirsty Sharp (middle) with speakers Afzan Mahadi (left) and  Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala

Based on my interest in Asia, one of the sessions I attended was called Shifting Systems: Building and ecosystem of girls centred, women driven sport in India.

The session focused on the Naandi Foundation and how the grassroots programme encourages healthy and active lives for underprivileged communities. The Naandi Foundation’s Sport for Life Programme seeks to empower girls in India through sports.

This session was of particular interest to me because it provided an insight into how other Asian counties such as India build systems and programmes, the challenges they occur and how these programmes are developed to be sustainable.

Having completed my thesis on a sport facilitator’s cultural intelligence and how it influences Chinese sport and recreation participation, this session helped further developed my understanding on how to increase Asian women and girls to participate in sport, recreation and physical activity.

Two key insights that I took from the session includes the importance of having sport allies. Sport allies have a key role in helping to contribute, empower and support women and girls in sport and physical activity.

Secondly, when developing or creating a new programme in the community, it is essential that there is early community involvement and consultation. Engagement with the community helps sport facilitators to build relationships within the community as well as gather local ideas and knowledge.

In the long-term, having buy-in from the community also helps the programme become more sustainable.

However, there are still many challenges that women and girls face when participating in sports and physical activity. These challenges can include not having a safe place/location for participation, not having the support from teachers, guardians, or parents to participate, and sport and physical activity not being seen as important or a priority.

Three girls playing rugby, with on tackling another

The conference was also an awesome opportunity to connect with other professionals within the industry. Due to the lack of travel from Covid-19, this conference provided a great opportunity to personally meet other like-minded people from within the country as well attendees from countries such as India, Canada, Australia, and Japan, where we were able to share and discuss our experiences in the sector.

The energy and passion that all attendees - which included Olympians, officials, coaches, academics, sport administrators, sport managers, and students – brought to the conference, was incredibly inspiring. I look forward to the challenge of trying to inspire and create positive change for the future generations for women and girls.

The Foundation provided funding for two experts from Asia to speak at the conference through the Sports Strategic Partnership Fund. They were:

Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala – Sri Lanka 

Kuru-Utumpala led a discussion panel on gender identity. Kuru-Utumpala is a rock climber/mountaineer and consultant on gender, women’s rights activist. While in New Zealand, she also met with two clubs, Northern Rocks, Auckland, and Dynomites, Wellington.

Afzan Mahadi - Malaysia 

Mahadi led a dscussion panel on women in coaching. A former international netball player and as current director of National Coaching Academy in Malaysia. While in New Zealand, she also spoke to a group of netball community coaches sharing insights on women and sports in Malaysia.