A historic appointment of a woman as CEO may be just what the AFL needs | Megan Maurice

Perusing the list of former chief executive officers of the AFL does not make for a particularly diverse reading experience. Only 13 people have held the role since its inception – when it was called VFL president – in 1897. All 13 have been white men – with an average age of 49 years on beginning the role. Many have been privately educated and played football at a high level. The list is a living embodiment of the oft-uttered phrase in long-established organisations: “That’s the way we’ve always done things.”

Few would be surprised that it is such a homogenous list. The role of the AFL CEO is one of the most important in Australian sport, and it appears heavily guarded from those who do not fit the traditional view of what a sporting CEO might look like. The role’s salary is no longer publicly disclosed, but was last declared at $1.74m in 2017. It is one of the most highly sought after jobs in the country.

With the time drawing closer to the day Gillon McLachlan finally steps down after announcing his retirement a year ago, conjecture about who will become the 14th member of this exclusive club is rife. Among the names of the contenders, one stands out.

Kylie Watson-Wheeler originally indicated she would not be applying for McLachlan’s role, but there is increasing speculation she is in the running to become the first woman to take AFL’s top job. While Watson-Wheeler is the president of the Western Bulldogs and passionate about football, if she is to obtain the keys to the AFL kingdom, she will not have done so by walking the traditional path. She is currently the managing director of the Walt Disney Company Australia and New Zealand and has also worked for Hallmark, Coca Cola and Penguin Books.

Naturally there will be questions about her ability to translate her skills to the AFL. The insular Australian sporting culture often assumes no other role could be as important, as highly pressurised. That this sport is so unique that no one from the outside could comprehend how to run it. Not only does Watson-Wheeler’s experience at multinational companies bigger than the AFL’s wildest dreams provide her with the qualifications needed to run the organisation, it also gives her much more perspective from outside the sport than many of those who have held the role in the past.

As the world becomes more complex and challenges associated with climate change and concussion continue to shape the sporting landscape, sport needs to evolve to stay alive and relevant. Continuing to employ the same type of person, who has come through the same pathways, is unlikely to lead to the change required to shift sport in the direction needed to tackle these intricate challenges. Someone who has come from outside the hallways of AFL House, who has seen – and implemented – different ways to solve problems may be just what the organisation requires to continue to thrive.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan ahead of the league’s Gather Round in Adelaide.
AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan ahead of the league’s Gather Round in Adelaide. Photograph: Matt Turner/AAP

While the role of the CEO in sport has always been multi-faceted, it is now evolving at an ever-increasing pace, with leaders needing to anticipate the next controversy to arise in a changing world. Sport is no longer the domain of traditional masculinity and leaders who fail to recognise this are likely to find their sport floundering. Australian men’s cricket captain Pat Cummins, Wallabies player turned senator David Pocock and Australian netball player Donnell Wallam have demonstrated in recent times that athletes are seeking change and are looking to their sports to stand with them on issues of importance.

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By looking outside the walls that have enclosed and protected it from this complicated, uncertain world, the AFL has the opportunity to make a small, yet important step towards a new sporting landscape. They can disrupt the status quo and remind those in power that ‘the way we’ve always done things’ is not a well-reasoned explanation, but a tired excuse.

However, lasting systemic change cannot just occur through a simple leadership transition. A female leader can certainly offer diversity of perspective and thought that the organisation has not encountered before. The appointment of a female CEO – whether it is Watson-Wheeler or another contender in Kylie Rogers – would be historic and symbolic. But she alone cannot tackle the gender inequality issues that exist between the men’s and women’s competition and she does not bring lived experience of the racial discrimination still experienced by many players. Simply having a white woman step in and replicate existing systems of power is not a silver bullet. There is work to be done across all levels of the organisation and the sport itself to ensure that a woman in the top job is not simply a symbolic act, but a revolutionary one. Should Watson-Wheeler defy the odds and ascend to the role, it is not the final siren that will be sounding as she steps out onto the field, but the first one.

source: theguardian.com