You can’t be what you can’t see and that includes women in AFL leadership roles

Alastair Clarkson’s appointment to North Melbourne last week has crystalised a new meaning of the old adage “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Despite having coached AFL at the junior elite level I do not think my long-term career will be AFL coaching and, as a woman, my acceptance in AFL circles has not been effortless. So apologies Clarko, but it’s not you who I see and admire or whose role I aspire to, it’s Sonja Hood.

Hood and trailblazers like Peggy O’Neal, Kate Roffey and Kylie Watson-Wheeler are all presidents of AFL clubs who I follow with much more interest than I have followed any male AFL president.

I started playing AFL aged 15, when a junior girls competition was in the second year of its existence in Victoria and the AFLW was a twinkle in Gillon McLachlan’s eye. Fast forward and with the AFLW now in full swing, myself and others with an active hand in promoting women’s football cite our mantra “you can’t be what you can’t see”.

O’Neal was the first and for many years only female president, but in season 2022 four of 18 top club positions are held by women. The halls of power in the AFL are in the executive leadership at its Docklands head office, but so too can they be found in the boardrooms of each club. More women in these positions gives new imagination, possibility and a pathway beyond the field and the coaches box.

My increased interest in women in AFL presidency roles is somewhat personal. I am an avid and tragic Melbourne supporter who has followed Roffey’s journey closely. I also started my career at North Melbourne, with Hood, who was then the general manager of The Huddle and NMFC community engagement. Years later and Sonja has remained a mentor of mine.

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Despite plenty of compelling academic literature detailing the benefits of diversity in leadership, equity in leadership across the AFL industry – while improving – is still not a no-brainer. It should be. Women have made up a near equal share of membership and support of AFL for decades, yet it remains a male-dominated industry. The advent of AFLW hasn’t stopped discrimination and sexism on and off the field.

On the day after Hood was appointed as North Melbourne president, I asked her what, if anything, immediately felt different. Her response was twofold. She said the visibility was immense – as soon as she was announced as incoming president, everyone in the AFL world wanted something from her. Her second reflection sounded familiar: she was already receiving immense amounts of unsolicited advice. She didn’t say so directly, but having worked in the industry my suspicion is that the majority of this was coming from men.

When coaching both junior girls grassroots and junior talent pathways, a least favourite pastime was placating some dads armed with ample coaching advice. Never mind my level 2 coaching accreditation and direct mentoring from AFL coaches, their gender meant they could chew my ear off about everything from stoppage set-ups to team culture.

Unsolicited advice, while often well intentioned, nonetheless added to a simmering insinuation that as a woman in AFL, I was never quite up to it. After the media attention surrounding North Melbourne this year, I can’t help but feel that if North had been unsuccessful in signing Clarkson, Hood’s gender would have been silently considered a potential reason for failure.

Despite their under-representation in the ranks of presidents, women are succeeding – signing sought-after coaches and sharing four premierships between them. I hope with more AFL success that diversity in leadership might be seen as the reason for success, not the silent explanation for failure.

I had never before imagined what I would do as an AFL president. On the field, the imagination gap is overt – if there aren’t women playing on the TV, how do girls imagine themselves playing AFL? There hasn’t been a “new league” for presidencies, so the effect has crept up on me. Hearing Roffey speak about the Dees’ 2021 premiership win, I found myself analysing her words, body language and tone; I was simply more interested in the nuance.

After news broke about two Melbourne players having a physical altercation, I considered more deeply, as a leader, how would I deal with this. But I don’t see myself in other recent big moments for AFL presidents – David Koch’s misspeaking about Port Adelaide head coach Ken Hinkley’s position, or Essendon’s board-level scuffles and the related on-field rollercoaster. I spectate in male AFL executive leadership scenarios, but when women are leading, I am instinctively and unconsciously imagining myself in the thick of it.

Where my or other women’s aspirations will take us, who knows. Regardless, I feel comforted by the recent revelations that I can see it, and so I can imagine that I can be it.