Society & Culture

Women’s sport – inspiring positive change in business and life

Jane Waldburger & Sarah Kelly | 13 July 2022 | 29:25

Podcast Transcript: Women’s sport – inspiring positive change in business and life

Maria Rampa: Hi, I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to this episode of Engineering Reimagined.

For many of us, sport is an integral part of our lives. It keeps us fit, teaches us valuable individual, team and leadership skills and brings our communities together.

Professionally, men’s competitions have dominated for decades, but now, there’s a new challenger.

In recent years, women’s sport has grown insurmountably, restoring the gender imbalance within professional sporting codes.

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, Aurecon’s Roads and Highways Practice Leader and Olympic Water Polo bronze medallist, Jane Waldburger, speaks with Dr Sarah Kelly, who has over 20 years professional experience within the sports, marketing, law, education and waste management sectors, as well as being a Board member of the Brisbane Organising Committee for the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Sarah is also the Queensland Chapter Leader of the Minerva Network, a national social enterprise providing mentoring to professional sportswomen to help them transition their skills to careers beyond sport.

Jane and Sarah discuss the revolution in women’s sport, and the positive social change this new wave of female role models can inspire within business and communities. They also discuss how the 2032 Olympics will create a legacy for Brisbane, Queensland and Australia and the important role engineers can play in this exciting transformation.


Jane Waldburger: Well, thank you so much, Sarah, for joining our podcast today. As someone who's heavily involved in sport, and the sports industry, who inspires you?

Sarah Kelly: What an amazing athlete. And what an amazing person to have transitioned so successfully into business as well. So, that's the first thing - you inspire me. It's hard to pick one person, when you think of someone like Ash Barty, Cathy Freeman, Sam Kerr, of course, Megan Rapinoe and the US Soccer Team, so many who use their platform of sport to really advocate and achieve incredible social impacts as well. And I reckon in sport, it's definitely the grassroots, the volunteers, the coaches, the people running the committees and fundraising, to make local grassroots sport happen, I find that inspiring, having been in it with four of my kids. Sport means so much to so many in our local communities.

Jane Waldburger: Yeah I think that's really critical that without all the volunteers, none of us would have got to where we got to in the heights of our sporting careers. The profile of women's sport has grown astronomically. We've seen equal pay in certain sports across the globe. As a water polo athlete, a retired one, our women's program had more success on the global scale than our men's program, we were better funded than the men's program. It can be unusual, but a lot of it is performance based. So just wanted to test with you, around the sponsorships and the television coverage. Why do you think it's important to create visibility of female athletes and the sports?

Sarah Kelly: It's absolutely critical that the visibility of women's sport continues to grow. Because women athletes and teams are much more than sport, they represent a powerful platform in economic and social change around gender equality, in particular, around some other issues as well. And it's such an exciting opportunity for our societies to benefit more broadly from women in sport. The popularity of women's sport, as you've mentioned, there are many female teams and athletes who are outperforming their male counterparts. The US women's soccer team being a great example of that. So they absolutely deserve to have the visibility, the commercialisation and growth that comes with that popularity and performance success. You cannot be what you cannot see. And when we have young boys and girls, looking up to our female athletes and teams, they're seeing gender equality. They're seeing it through the strength, the commitment, the leadership, the tenacity, the teamwork that females can exhibit just as much or even better than males in some instances. That visibility is so important that all stakeholders across sport work very hard to make that happen. And policy can be involved in making this happen.

Jane Waldburger: I don't know if many of our listeners will know about Title IX in the States. Because you mentioned policy, I wonder if you could share what that meant, and how something like that could further elevate female sport?

Sarah Kelly: The game changing nature of Title IX, it's basically about equalising male and female sporting scholarships into the collegiate system in The States. So, colleges were required to offer and expend the same amount of resources and scholarships for female athletes as male athletes. It’s really changed the face of collegiate sport. And it's provided equal opportunity for females who may be very talented in sport, who may not otherwise be able to access an education alongside their sport in high-performance in the NCAA and compete in that great competition. So, it's really moved the dial very quickly since it was introduced into equalising access to education and to high-performance in sport for women in America. So I think that's a brilliant example of a game changing policy that can absolutely translate to more diversity and inclusion in society more broadly, beyond sport as well.

Jane Waldburger: With the female sports that have had really great success in the public eye, with television rights and increased popularity, I reflect on netball as being the absolute pinnacle of, they've just done it really well. And it's something as small as changing their telecast, which suits all of the kids that have played netball in the morning and then they come home and watch the professionals. What do you think we can continue to do to elevate the visibility of female athletes?

Sarah Kelly: That’s a really good example actually, just the commercial side and the decision making around the media and access to the sports to watch and spectate. That's the first bit and probably with that, making sure we enhance the number of administrators, coaches, executives in sport, making these decisions as well from a female perspective, and as representative too of the broader community, in terms of the fans they're serving, the participants they're serving as well. I think netball won the Best Shot, the Women in Sport Action Awards, which is a competition for photography of women in sport. Those competitions, where we see the photos, we see the videos, there's great stories to tell about the adversity they might have overcome to get to that high-performance stage and participate. So I can see a lot more branded content, helping to elevate the visibility of female sports through their powerful storytelling. With that, you'd attract a lot more sponsors who are keen to partner with women's sport, in the cause of developing authentic, purposeful brands, through sponsorships. As supporters and fans, watch women's sport, support women's sport as well, we need to achieve the ratings to attract the sponsors, and the money that we can get back into the system and help raise that visibility.

Jane Waldburger: That's a call out to our listeners, go and pay some money for a ticket at a sporting event or turn the TV on. Aurecon is an engineering and advisory consultancy. And I'd suggest there's some parallels between the gender diversity that we get from the STEM as what we see in the sporting industry. When you mentioned earlier about the administrators and the coaches, that's certainly an area in the sporting industry, that there's still a lot to do. We could both mention on two hands, some well known female coaches, for instance. So how do you think we can create more opportunities for women to participate and lead in sport in the administration side of things?

Sarah Kelly: The AFL and AFLW has announced a very clear plan around this for the next 10 years of exactly how they're going to move the dial on getting more women into coaching administration, umpiring. Part of that, I would say, is to have very clear targets that are aspirational, and yet also they’re real, they're able to be achieved. That would be one way to develop clear programs that have a long-term outlook. Another great example, was out of Ireland, they had a 20-20-20 strategy, where they wanted to enhance women's participation by 20%. Ratings and attendance by 20%, around women's sport. And women in leadership positions in professional sports by 20%. There's another great example, having really clear plans and targets, and alongside that, programs around mentoring, and training of women who are identified as talented to bring them through the system so we don't lose them, perhaps if they're former athletes, but we don't lose them post-sport to the system. So, ensuring they get the resourcing and support. And, as you know, the Minerva network, which I lead here in Queensland, unites female business leaders with female elite athletes through a mentoring program. And that has been tremendously successful on a national scale. That's another great way of developing the confidence and the networks that a lot of women in sport do need. And particularly athletes, to get them transitioning and bringing, their incredible skills in leadership and business, and they do translate well, from sport. And the other one is just advocacy. And it can be men and women doing this, to advocate for women progressing in sport to the decision making and the controls of the sport and the game. If you have not even a heartbeat and a moral thread in you, it makes economic sense to have the diversity, inclusion and representation in those decision-making rooms and representing our participants as well.

Jane Moran: Corporate Australia have made big headway in the last 10 years, in that regard. Do you think because sporting organisations, with exception of the professional ones, because they're so small are they been left behind? What do you think the organisations themselves can do when they are so small?

Sarah Kelly: Many sporting organisations, they lack resources, don't they? It's really, really tricky to get highly sophisticated programs and all the rest. But there's such a zeitgeist and support for women's sport, that we can draw on the generosity of people who can help. And we've seen it, as I mentioned, in volunteers in sport. The Minerva Network, we've drawn on the goodwill of all the female business leaders who mentor, and I know you're one of them, Jane. The entire Minerva Network is all pro bono. So that's an example where we can draw on our talents and our leadership across sport and into private industry to help females in sport to thrive, to really use their skills beyond sport once they transition out of sport.

Jane Waldburger: There's quite a way to go for the sporting organisations to really catch up to the sort of gender equity that's expected in corporate Australia.

Sarah Kelly: It's often the less resourced or non-professional sports, para-sports and female sports that have the equal representation on boards. But if you look to professional sports, you don't see nearly that diversity on boards. When you go even deeper into the executive, how many female CEOs can we name in sport? Not many. And particularly in professional sports, high profile, televised sports - very, very few. So, we do have a very long way to go. But I think it is great to see some of the sports starting to address this in a longer term outlook, as does industry, but you're right industry is way ahead here.

Jane Waldburger: So 10 years ago, I don't think I would have expected the US women's football team, they’re on equal pay to their male counterparts. So, I'd like you to look forward 10 years, what do you think we will be seeing with women's sport in 10 years’ time?

Sarah Kelly: Are you excited about it, Jane, because I am when you think about that, 10 years from now, you look at how far we've come in the last 10 years. And we've got all these new women's competitions. Given the exponential momentum we're seeing around women's sport, there's been recent reports released that have valued women's sport at about $1.3 billion by 2024. That's only a couple of years away. So imagine what that will be worth in 10 years. So sponsors get around women's sport now, because you might be in for a good investment there. I'd really like to see the investment in infrastructure around gender neutral facilities, from grassroots right through to professional. We've heard the stories, where we've got female cricketers at grassroots, having to share change rooms with males, and have a rostered timing for their change. That's just not good enough, we need to be gender inclusive in all our sport. We've talked about the pathway to getting equality of female coaches, umpires, decision makers in the executive as well. So we need that as well as equal pay, hopefully, across most sports. I think too, remove all of the barriers to commercialisation of women's sport, we want to see a lot more of that. So really seeing sponsors, understanding that women's sport is an incredibly valuable asset with which to partner and leverage, it's a different asset to men’s sport. They're both very attractive, but women's sport is a different asset. In your industry, the engineering game, and infrastructure game, there's not enough females, with the STEM. So it's a great fit with female sport to actually build a brand around diversity and inclusion in some industries, perhaps, that aren't as diverse and need to attract and retain diverse talent. And I'd love to see the crowds and the ratings improve as well and I think we will see that with the media landscape changing so much, where we've got powerful platforms like social media, enabling athlete direct to consumer and fans, or teams direct to fans to occur, to tell their powerful stories, to show their powerful brands and then attract commercialisation, sponsorship and support in an exponential way.

Jane Waldburger: As you were talking, I was really reflecting on a brilliant situation that I found myself in with Aurecon. And through my journey to the Olympics I was supported and given additional leave whenever I competed with the Australian team. So, there are certainly companies out there that recognise it. And that was well before there was a huge focus on women in sport.

Sarah Kelly: That's fantastic, you're a live example of this very outcome. So, it is achievable, isn't it? That's a great story.

Jane Waldburger: I have to be a little bit careful, because there's certainly many athletes, female and male athletes that don't get the opportunity that I did. But as an amateur team, sport, female athlete, it's sort of the trifecta of getting very little support. So it was very appreciated. As an Olympic athlete, that post-Olympic blues is a real thing. It's absolutely tangible. Psychologists talk about and all athletes get prepared for. But I think in my situation where I had a passion and a career outside of sport, that was really quite seamless for me. So, the transition for me is perhaps quite a unique one. But how is Minerva helping athletes either on the field or in that transition to post-sport life?

Sarah Kelly: Many elite athletes maybe aren't as academic or have that ability to complete educational qualifications alongside their high-performance training. But Minerva really is inclusive of all female athletes at the elite level. And so there's elite athletes who may be quite entrepreneurial, for instance, they might want to set up their own business, they may want to get advice about study or staying in study and how to handle their time, they might want to get some insights through work experience. We enable that, because we have a national network of female businesswomen, business leaders. And it's kind of like having just an armchair friend or advisor there on the side, someone outside of sport, who has a lot of life experience, a lot of business experience, who can really introduce you to friends in their networks, and give you that ability to build your confidence outside of your sport. I heard Ash Barty speak the other day at a breakfast. And people were asking her about how she's going with the transition to her recent retirement. And she said, 'Look, I realised long ago, I'm not tennis. It's just what I do. It's what I did as a living', and I thought that's a really great framing. That's what Minerva tries to explain to our athletes through that mentoring program. That your identity shouldn't be totally wrapped up in your sport. You're a really talented person who has transferable skills in your own right, and our job is to help you transfer those skills as you transition from sport.

Jane Waldburger: The way I've felt with outside mentors and business mentors was just special. When someone takes an interest in you, as an athlete that is entering this world that's quite foreign. But I think also athletes can really minimise the value that they can bring. And you mentioned the transferable skills, some huge things we learnt in the women's water polo team, we'd go through six months of group psychology debriefing on just how to give and receive feedback. I think athletes coming from different sports will certainly have different sorts of skills. But what skills do you think would be very beneficial in a business sense that athletes can bring?

Sarah Kelly: I think athletes and particularly female athletes, they don't have that confidence naturally, to really identify, wow, I actually have skills in my CV, that I can articulate that are really directly relevant to success outside of sport. And that direct and honest, constructive feedback, how to give it, how to receive it. Difficult conversations is absolutely an element of effective management in business. It's brutal in business. And I guess another one in sport, there's a lot of planning, there's a lot of strategy in sport, in high-performance. But it's also about implementing that strategy. Having curveballs come at you along the way and having to be fairly flexible and agile with that strategy in real time. Under extreme ambiguity a lot of the time, it's exactly what you do in the pool, or the field or the court, or the surf. And of course, now in the sporting high-performance environment, it's very much driven around analytics, data. And athletes love that stuff. Because it's all about their own performance, how they're tracking. It's about injury prevention, rehabilitation, how soon they'll get back on the field. So they're really good at understanding data and interpreting data. And then of course, there's soft skills. We absolutely need more of those in leadership. Athletes have this in absolute spades, in managing diverse teams, how to have these frank talks with your team to ensure you perform well as a team. It's not about the individual, it's about the team. It's also people playing their roles and doing that really well. That equates to high team performance in business as well.

Jane Waldburger: One that really stuck out for me was the tough conversations, tough on performance soft on people. Something that athletes probably don't appreciate about themselves, is they've had the toughest conversations, like not getting selected for the Olympics, your heart absolutely...

Sarah Kelly: I can't imagine that. I'd be in a mess in the foetal position on the floor probably.

Jane Waldburger: But you learn so many lessons from it, right. Another thing I was just thinking of with athletes that I'm assisting just to get into starting their careers, is celebrating their sports performance. They'll write a cover letter and a CV. And they're all being very non-sporting professional. No way! Celebrate your difference. Like, you're so unique because of this.

Sarah Kelly: Absolutely. It's absolutely critical they learn how to do that translation.

Jane Waldburger: What do you think is the most valuable leadership lesson you've learned in your career?

Sarah Kelly: To bring curiosity to absolutely everything. And that in itself is the road to being more compassionate when you meet people, learning about their backstory as a starting point. I think reaching out to people who might have different views to you and learning about their views in a really lengthy sandpit style discussion. And also just going outside your comfort zone, the curiosity to try new things, to experiment. Yes, you might fail, but you learn a lot about yourself and your organisation, or whatever you're trying to achieve. Surrounding yourself with other curious people who are smarter than you or more talented in other ways. That's really important too, because you have that humility to listen to others and learn and observe. And to me, that's leadership.

Jane Waldburger: I really resonate with the curiosity one. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

Sarah Kelly: With a lot of organisations going a bit pear shaped on the integrity front. Having that curiosity, you can observe more of an ethical culture I think, and check that that's happening.

Jane Waldburger: Brisbane is hosting the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and you're on the Brisbane Organising Committee for the games. Can you tell us a little bit about what's happening with the committee?

Sarah Kelly: First up, very excited. What the 2032 Games mean for not only Brisbane but Queensland and Australia. And they’re mega events that Brisbane has never seen. I'm very excited to be involved, particularly at this time where we're planning the legacy, the infrastructural planning, the people planning. I love the Olympics and the Paralympics. The Tokyo Olympics, I think my family thought I'd lost the plot because they'd go to bed by like 11pm. And I'd still be watching the Olympics and the Paralympics, they'd get up in the morning, I'd be down on the couch, I would have slept on the couch to see it all. I'm obsessed. I love how it brings the world together and transcends a lot of the socio-political issues of our time. And it is still really powerful in doing that.

Jane Waldburger: With the Tokyo Olympics, at least it was in a decent time zone. Whereas when we were competing at London, and the television rights and digital TV wasn't quite there. It seems bonkers.

Sarah Kelly: We still watched it though. Jane, we still watched it.

Jane Waldburger: Just the access of content for the viewers is already huge, and it will just be getting bigger and bigger for Brisbane 2032. You mentioned the social legacy, I understand for 2032 the environmental, economic legacy that's all in the planning. How do you think Brisbane and Southeast Queensland will achieve those legacy aspirations?

Sarah Kelly: The Queensland Government, they're about to set up a legacy committee in Queensland. In terms of achieving some of those outcomes you mentioned around sustainability, for example, around social impacts, like diversity and inclusion, we're seeing that starting already. Even from the grassroots. There's lots of organisations already starting to talk about that legacy, start pitching programs or even running the programs already.

Jane Waldburger: That legacy committee that you mentioned, I wonder if that's a fairly new or novel concept. And I just reflect on previous Olympic host cities, where they're post-Olympic 10 years down the track, the infrastructure’s in ruins. So that sounds really promising that we're thinking of the future. And what are we, we’re 10 years before the Games?

Sarah Kelly: It's called the new norm that the IOC has invoked as part of its governance a few years ago. And we’re one of the first beneficiaries as a host region. It's actually a huge advantage. And an opportunity to create a tremendous, enduring legacy. As far as the committee's looking, and I know a lot of organisations are looking, it's 2042. That's when we'll know if we've been successful, that's when we know that there'll be the correct legacy and infrastructure and social impacts and trade. So that's what we're working towards.

Jane Waldburger: On the sustainability front, I recall that the plans for London, they were going to have many demountable arenas. And the intent was then to donate those arenas to the next host, which was Rio. And it didn't end up happening that way. But there's certainly really bold ideas out there because hosting the Olympics is an absolutely astronomically expensive venture, right?

Sarah Kelly: It's huge. The biggest event on Earth. This new norm concept is that you multi-purpose, and you don't build special infrastructure, you build the infrastructure that the region needed anyway, or that was in the master plan anyway, or you renovate the existing infrastructure. And that's exactly what we're doing. This is a really frugally innovative games. That's where society is heading, we've got to be sustainable, we can't be over the top in building things that we will never use again, or that we can't fill again. So our Olympic Stadium will have a capacity of 50,000. That's the smallest Olympic Stadium in history. We'll be able to fill that with the AFL and the cricket after the Olympics, hopefully we won't have those white elephants we've seen with some other Olympics.

Jane Waldburger: What do you think the role engineers can play in achieving these Olympic legacy goals?

Sarah Kelly: We're going to need a lot of engineering expertise. There's a lot of infrastructure that needs upgrading, and building. And it's not just the infrastructure, either. It's the clever design, and as I said frugal, it's got to be cost effective, and sustainable. A lot of engineering firms, they're really drawing on the latest, cutting-edge research around sustainable materials. Accessibility is a huge thing that I think we can absolutely improve. What does that look like to make sure all the infrastructure is able to be accessed very easily by all people? Even things like cultural understanding, engineers working with anthropologists, for instance, or historians, making sure the infrastructure fits very much with the Queensland DNA, and our culture and our oldest culture being our First Nations peoples, having them involved as well in understanding what the infrastructure means on country. And I'd certainly be an advocate of embedding innovative expertise from engineers, in the very earliest stages of every aspect or most of the legacy planning and decision making. We need that design thinking that engineers do so well. And that cutting-edge innovation.

Jane Waldburger: What an exciting time to be an engineer.

Sarah Kelly: It is.

Jane Waldburger: Well, thank you so much.

Sarah Kelly: Thank you so much Jane, it's been a pleasure having a chat.


Maria Rampa: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Engineering Reimagined.

If you enjoyed it, hit subscribe on Apple, Google Podcasts or Spotify and don’t forget to follow Aurecon on your favourite social media platform to stay up to date and join the conversation.

Until next time, thanks for listening.

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Dr. Sarah Kelly on transformation of women in sports

The growth of women’s sport has been astronomical in recent years.

While the gender imbalance within professional sporting codes is improving, there’s still a long way to go.

Dr Sarah Kelly, a globally recognised expert in the business of sport, says it’s important that the visibility of women’s professional sport continues to expand.

“Women athletes and teams are much more than sport. They represent an incredible, a powerful platform to economic and social change around gender equality in particular, around some other issues as well.”

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, Aurecon’s Roads and Highways Practice Leader and Olympic Water Polo bronze medallist Jane Waldburger, speaks with Dr Sarah Kelly about the revolution in women’s sport, and the positive social change this new wave of female role models can inspire within business and communities.

They also discuss how national social enterprise Minerva Network is providing mentoring to professional sportswomen to help transition their skills to careers beyond sport.

As Brisbane prepares for the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games, what legacy will be created and what role can engineers play in this exciting transformation?

Meet our guests

Learn more about Jane Waldburger and Dr. Sarah Kelly.
Jane Waldburger- Roads and Highways Practice Leader, Aurecon

Jane Waldburger

Roads and Highways Practice Leader, Aurecon

Jane is an engineering executive and has vast experience in navigating her career in balance with elite sport. A registered professional senior engineer, Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and an Olympian, Jane is a recognised project and design manager. Jane was awarded the Australian Financial Review’s BOSS Young Executive of the Year in 2018.

Dr. Sarah Kelly- Brisbane Organising Committee for the Olympic & Paralympic Games, Minerva Network

Dr. Sarah Kelly OAM

Brisbane Organising Committee for the Olympic & Paralympic Games, Minerva Network

Sarah an experienced commercial lawyer and non-executive director across sport, tourism, technology, and professional services sectors. As the Queensland Chapter Leader for the Minerva Network, Sarah provides mentoring to professional sportswomen nationally. In 2021, she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for her services to sports administration and tertiary education.

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