Including women with disabilities in leadership of sport organisations
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Women with disabilities face the double marginalisation of being women and being disabled. It is important to have women with disabilities in leadership positions in sport organisations, in order to make organisations more inclusive spaces, Lombe Mwambwa writes.

It is largely acknowledged that women are underrepresented in the leadership of sport organisations; therefore several interventions at policy and programme levels are in place across the sports sector.

However, the underrepresentation of women with disabilities in sport leadership is largely unattended to. For example, in 2018, Boards of Olympic Committees and Sports Commissions across four countries in Southern Africa (Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe) did not have women with disabilities on them, apart from one athlete representative. Women with disabilities were only in senior leadership positions in Paralympic Committees and school sport organisations for persons with disabilities. 

Women with disabilities are often limited to organisations for persons with disabilities. The assumption that persons with disabilities can only lead organisations for persons with disabilities means opportunities for leadership in other sport organisations are not available. Since there are very few sport organisations for persons with disabilities and leadership in most organisations is dominated by men, women with disabilities are marginalised across all types of sport organisations.

Sport organisations are increasingly taking action to address women’s leadership participation, such as adopting organisation gender policies, supporting leadership development training and raising awareness to disrupt gender-based stereotypes and prejudice. These interventions have, so far, been inadequate, as they are limited to supporting women who are already in leadership positions, the majority of whom are without disabilities.

Leadership bodies such as committees and boards often draw membership based on experience, networks, and access to resources. However, for women with disabilities, their participation in leadership is hindered by stigma, evident in stereotypes in which disability is conflated with low competence or ability. Women with disabilities, therefore, have to work disproportionately harder to demonstrate or communicate that they are capable and qualified.

Inclusion efforts by sports organisations are mainly focused on persons with disabilities as service users or beneficiaries, and not as part of other organisation functions, such as leadership and governance. A practical step that sport organizations can take is an audit of the composition of their staff, volunteers and leadership team. This step can provide clear evidence of the gap in inclusion and a basis to begin to work on including persons with disability.

Expanding the participation of women with disabilities into leadership will contribute to meeting the rights to participate of persons with disabilities and it will also bring insights of persons with the lived experience of disability that can inform organizational changes for broader inclusion.

Inclusion in leadership can be hindered by organisational leadership cultures in which disability is perceived as costly to accommodate. For example, sign language or braille translation and infrastructure access among other accommodations are viewed as add-ons and not as a core part of organisation resources and planning. With some policy commitment, planning and resource considerations, these forms of accommodation can become part of the budgetary practices and culture of sport organisations.

Actions towards balanced representation of men and women in leadership has become normalized, as seen in governance audits and reports and communications in the sport sector. However, there is still very little accountability for inclusion of women with disabilities in leadership.

Inclusion is not yet seen as an organization wide endeavour, but as a target for the services organizations deliver like including more athletes or reaching more persons with disabilities with sports events. Therefore, strategic planning that sets clear specific goals for inclusion of persons with disabilities across the leadership, management, and administration of the sport organisation can be an important intervention.

Facilitating visibility of women leaders with disabilities can contribute to eroding stereotypes while offering role models to women with disabilities and to sport organisations. Media coverage can contribute to expanding this visibility. However, opportunities for presenting information about sport organizations, giving expert opinions and analyses remain disproportionately filled by men.

As a result, the few women leaders with disabilities are kept out of public view and their voices remain unheard. Sport organisations can work together with media organisation to deliberately ensure opportunities for representation of a diversity of women leaders as news and expert sources.

The ability to participate in all areas of society is not hindered by disability but by the limited opportunities and access due to the political, cultural, and environmental conditions. Therefore, these barriers can be eased through a combination of context relevant actions such as policy development, planning, training, research, and appropriate resource commitments. Inclusion of women with disabilities can become part of the culture of sport organisations as they pursue broader inclusion of women in leadership.

Lombe Mwambwa is Special Adviser at the National Organisation for Women in Sport Physical Activity and Recreation (NOWSPAR) in Zambia. This article is partly based on her doctoral research on experiences of women leaders within the African Union Sports Council Region 5 conducted at the University of Chichester, UK.


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