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Gender and sport

by Sally Shaw

In the 19th century women often faced opposition to their participation in sport, with complaints about women’s inability to perform strenuous athletic feats. In the 21st century more women play sport, but women’s sport still receives less media coverage and less funding than men’s sport.

Gender equality and sport

Sport is important in many New Zealanders’ lives. Over three-quarters of adults participate in a sporting or recreational activity each week. More than two million people tuned in to watch the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, and top-level netball games are consistently sold out or well attended. In 2013 Sport New Zealand was investing over $130 million in New Zealand sport and recreation annually. High Performance Sport New Zealand invested about $70 million in 2013. However, when it comes to gender, there has not always been a level playing field.


Gender may be understood as assumptions, behaviours and expectations associated with a person’s biological sex. For instance, it might be assumed that boys will be noisy and physical and girls quiet and less physical in their play and activities. These assumptions are socially constructed and are often unquestioned.

Assumptions about gender can constrain people. Assuming a girl will be quiet and non-physical may limit her opportunities to participate in sport. Assuming a boy will be naturally good at sport may intimidate a less physically active boy, and put him off participating at any level.

Sport is rife with gendered assumptions, including assumptions about the sports women and men can and should play. Women were only officially recognised as capable of running marathons in 1967, when American Kathrine Switzer controversially participated in the Boston Marathon, 71 years after the first Olympic marathon. Pole vault was only included as an Olympic sport for women in 2000, and women’s ski jumping in 2014. There are many reasons for these exclusions, but they stem largely from historical assumptions about women’s ability to participate in endurance and risky sports.

Gender and sport in the 2000s

According to the 2007/8 Active New Zealand Survey, about 80% of women and men participated in sport and recreation at least once a week. Men took part in more organised sport events than women, and women and men were equally likely to be involved in their club or centre.

At the high-performance level, the number of women and men who compete in the Olympic Games in the 21st century is about even, reflecting the International Olympic Committee’s commitment to advancing gender equality. Funding for these athletes is secured on the basis of their ability to compete and perform at the highest level, not their gender. Gender is now less of a constraint on participation in elite sport than it was in earlier decades.

Women and sporting codes

19th-century sport

Women have participated in sport since the 19th century, but in many cases not without a struggle. Their sporting efforts have traditionally been seen as less important than men’s.

Women who played traditionally mixed sports like tennis and croquet encountered fewer difficulties, though women’s tennis was not universally supported, because it was strenuous.

Women hockey players encountered similar attitudes but managed to form women’s teams in the 1890s. Hockey was the most popular women’s sport in New Zealand until it was overtaken by netball (then known as outdoor basketball) in the 1930s. The relative ease with which women’s hockey gained acceptance may have been because hockey was not an elite men’s sport.

Early 20th-century sport

Bowls and golf historically only allowed women to play during the week so greens were freed up for men at the weekend. However, as increasing numbers of women entered full-time paid employment from the 1950s, clubs across the country had to shift their perspectives and allow full membership for women.

Women athletes once encountered sustained prejudice. They contended with arguments that women were incapable of strenuous athletic feats, and were confined to sprints, hurdles and certain field events until the later decades of the 20th century. In the 1920s women like Norma Wilson proved they were capable of athletic success, paving the way for the likes of Yvette Williams, who cemented her place as one of New Zealand’s best-ever athletes in the 1950s.

1970s onwards

By the 1970s women could run in long-distance track and road races. In the early 1990s the success of ultramarathon runner Sandy Barwick provided lasting proof that women were capable of excelling in the most gruelling events.

Rugby’s status as New Zealand’s elite male sport meant that women’s teams were not taken seriously until the 1980s. In 2022 the Black Ferns (the New Zealand women’s rugby team) had won six of the nine women’s world cups recognised by World Rugby and secured other prestigious titles, but they still lagged behind the All Blacks in status and funding.

Women have played cricket since the late 19th century, but women’s teams only gained decent financial support when the women’s and men’s associations merged in 1992.

Sports dominated by women

Women players dominate a small number of sports. Almost all netballers (95% in 2007) are women, and the sport has a high profile – it is very popular with spectators and television audiences. Other sports with over 90% women participants include the minor sports of synchronised swimming, ice skating and roller sports.

Many sports have both mixed and single-gender events. Equestrian is a rare example of a sport in which men and women compete on equal terms.

Ladies bring a plate, not a bike

Barbara Levido, a well-known competitive cyclist in England in the 1950s, moved to New Zealand in 1957. Upon offering to officiate and time-keep, she was told that there was ‘no bloody room for sheilas’ in cycling – but she could help make the afternoon tea.1

Supporting women in sport

The Hillary Commission (the government funding agency for sport until 2002) organised the Women in Action conference in 1993 to address women’s low participation in sport. Despite women’s increasing success in sport internationally, girls continued to drop out of sports in large numbers. As a result of this conference, the Hillary Commission supported the Winning Women programme, which was designed to encourage women and girls to participate more in sport.

A 1992 study found one-third of sports club members were women. Another study conducted in 2001 found that 78% of women participated in regular sporting activities.

Sports programmes like Push Play and women-only gyms have encouraged women from ethnic and religious minority groups to engage in sport.

    • Quoted in Jan Cameron, ‘The issue of gender in sport: “no bloody room for sheilas”.‘ In Chris Collins, ed., Sport in New Zealand society. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 2000, p. 172. Back

Sports administration

There are significant gaps in the representation of women at the highest levels of sports administration. For many women, barriers to actively pursuing governance and other high-level administration roles have included feeling excluded by ‘old boys’ networks’, meetings held at times that do not suit women as the main caregivers in families, not being taken seriously, or being expected to be a secretary or tea-maker rather than receiving the respect accorded to other board members.

Research suggests that gender diversity on governance boards is valuable to organisations because women have different life experiences, can access different networks and markets, and can act as mentors for other women.

Distinguished female sports administrators include Anne Taylor, who umpired the first televised netball test in 1969. She was instrumental in securing netball’s inclusion in the Commonwealth Games in 1998. Kereyn Smith worked her way up the administrative ranks of New Zealand sport to become the first female secretary general (chief executive) of the New Zealand Olympic Committee in 2011. In 2016, Sarai Bareman was appointed as FIFA's first Chief Women's Football Officer and Katie Sadleir became World Rugby's first general manager for the women's game. In 2020, Raelene Castle became the first female chief executive of Sport New Zealand. In 2021, Sadleir was appointed as the first female chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Games Federation.

Golf merger

In 2006 the New Zealand Golf Association and Women’s Golf New Zealand merged to form New Zealand Golf, with the aim of encouraging collective decision-making and ensuring consistent management and governance within golf. In 2012, two of the eight members of the board of directors were women.


A 1993 study found 24% of major executive positions in national sport organisations were held by women. However, 81% of these positions were either as secretary or a general board member. Men held the vast majority of leadership positions such as director, chair or president.

In 1994 a wider study found that 27% of people on national boards were women, while 17% of national boards included no women. National subcommittees for women were in place in 27% of these organisations.

In 1996 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made a resolution to have 10% of decision-making positions held by women in Olympic sports by 2000, increasing to 20% by 2005.


A 2007 survey found that 27% of national board members were women – the same as in 1994. In 2011, 65% of New Zealand Olympic sport boards had reached the 20% female-membership threshold of the IOC (compared to 52% of boards in 2007), while 13% of the boards had no women (22% in 2007).


In 2015 the New Zealand Olympic Committee had four women and six men on its board, Sport New Zealand had six men and two women, while the New Zealand Rugby Union’s board was entirely male. Three of the nine Netball New Zealand board members were men.


The New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) piloted a women’s mentoring scheme in 2011. Mentors were matched with women who wanted to either enter into governance roles or step up into more senior roles. The programme provided women with opportunities to network and talk through opportunities and problems, and encouraged long-lasting relationships with the mentors.

In 2015 New Zealand was World Winner at the IOC's annual Women in Sport Awards. The citation recognised the NZOC's ‘longstanding efforts promoting women in sport that have resulted in strong female representation on its Board, within its senior management and on its Olympic teams.’


Does gender balance matter?

For some people, gender balance in coaching does not matter. They believe that the ‘best person for the job’ can undertake any role, regardless of whether they are a woman or a man and whether they are coaching women or men. There have been some very successful male coaches of women’s teams at the national level, for example the Black Ferns (women’s rugby team). Male coaches are increasingly evident in traditionally female sports such as netball.

However, few women coaches have had success with men’s teams. This is not because women are not as good at coaching as men but because they rarely get the opportunity to coach at the highest levels, may not have access to the networks to be promoted up the coaching ranks and may not be taken as seriously as male coaches.


Women are under-represented in higher-level coaching roles in New Zealand and internationally. In 2007, 37% of women’s national sports team coaches were women, while only 5% of men’s team coaches were women.

At the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, New Zealand women were under-represented in coaching roles relative to the number of women athletes. Of the 48 coaches from 19 sports, only 14 (29%) were women, compared with almost half of the 253 athletes. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, only three (7%) of the 43 coaches were women, compared with 46.7% of the competing athletes.

Support for women coaches

Some sport organisations have recognised the benefits of having more women coaches at higher levels. Decision-makers in netball, for example, have provided support to keep women involved in the sport and encourage them to coach. Netball Otago funded childcare for top coaches. Previously, time away from children was a major reason for women leaving coaching. In addition, Netball New Zealand has developed mentoring systems, so coaches can support each other and get advice from more experienced coaches.

Force to be reckoned with

Netball New Zealand has a programme called CoachForce. There are five national CoachForce coaches who travel throughout the country delivering coaching workshops. There are also 16 regional coaches working within the programme. The aim is to provide support and development opportunities for budding coaches, wherever they live. Other sporting codes also have CoachForce programmes.

New Zealand Football has developed a strategic plan partly designed to improve and support the development of the women’s game. In 2012 New Zealand Football employed a women’s football development officer.

Softball New Zealand has created resources to encourage women coaches and to support their entry into the men’s game. They believed that women coaches were more likely to try new approaches and have a less aggressive style, which might appeal to a wider variety of athletes.

Funding and awards

While government funding of sport is relatively even with respect to gender, the gap between genders in some codes is large. Low levels of funding had a long-term impact on one of New Zealand’s most successful sports teams, the Black Ferns (women’s rugby). Consecutive losses to England in 2011 were a first for this team, and limited funding from the New Zealand Rugby Union was identified as a contributing factor.

Television and corporate sponsorship

Much sports funding and prize money for sportspeople is supplemented by sponsorship and television deals. Limited television exposure reduces the chances of securing commercial sponsorship.

There are considerable differences in television coverage across the genders. In the 2000s the only women’s sport in New Zealand to regularly feature on television was netball, which had enjoyed considerable exposure since the development of the ANZ Trans-Tasman League.

Other women’s sport was under-exposed on television and in other media, limiting sponsorship opportunities. In New Zealand from the 1980s, men received around 80% of everyday sports coverage, and women 20%. Women receive more coverage during high-profile events like Olympic and Commonwealth games in which similar numbers of men and women compete.

Golden girl

A 2006 study of the media during Olympic and Commonwealth games found that during the 2004 Olympics cyclist Sarah Ulmer received 20% of all coverage and one-quarter of image coverage in the New Zealand media examined by the study. Ulmer won a gold medal and set a world record.


Some gender differences are also evident with respect to sports awards. Between 2000 and 2016 only 27% of finalists for the non-gender-specific, competitive Halberg Awards were women. However, 39% of winners of all non-gender-specific categories and eight out of 17 supreme award winners were women.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Sally Shaw, 'Gender and sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Sally Shaw, published 5 September 2013, updated 1 June 2016