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‘I would love to see long-term sustainable change’: IWG co-chair Annamarie Phelps on advancing gender equality in sport

With the UK set to take over as host of the International Working Group on Women & Sport, IWG co-chair Annamarie Phelps tells SportsPro what's in store.

21 July 2022 Michael Long

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Later this year the UK will take over from New Zealand as host of the International Working Group (IWG) on Women & Sport, a not-for-profit organisation established in 1994 to advance gender equality in sport around the world.

As part of its four-year commitment, the UK will play host to the IWG Secretariat, the strategic and administrative function for the global network, until 2026. It will also design and deliver the 9th IWG World Conference on Women & Sport, the world’s largest gathering of organisations and individuals working to accelerate gender equity in sport and physical activity.

The UK’s successful bid was put forward by the Sport and Recreation Alliance with the support of more than 100 British-based agencies, including Sport England and UK Sport. From next month, the Secretariat will operate out of the alliance’s offices in London, overseeing a host of programmes and activities in the lead up to the showpiece conference in Birmingham in four years’ time.

With the official handover from New Zealand to the UK set to take place next month, SportsPro caught up with Annamarie Phelps CBE, the former Olympic rower turned sports administrator and IWG co-chair, to find out more about what’s in store.

In what ways is the International Working Group on Women & Sport working to advance gender equity and equality in sport around the world?

The IWG was set up in 1994 as the first international conference on women in sport to establish a network of organisations, government, non-governmental, sports federations and other organisations who are committed to supporting the progress of gender equality. There are now almost 600 signatories to the Brighton and Helsinki Treaty. The IWG monitors and reports every four years through a formal published report and a global congress, changing host nation each time.

The Secretariat has been travelling around the globe for 28 years, leaving a legacy network specific to the needs and challenges of that nation or region. That inaugural Brighton conference identified founding principles upon which much of the work in this field has been based, and the IWG has continued to develop toolkits, identify actions and share examples from across the global network of what works.

IWG advocates for equality in sport and believes that sport can be a catalyst for change and equality in all walks of life.

I would love to see long-term sustainable change and a real shift in the engagement of women and girls in decision making at all levels across sport and the sports industry.

What will the coming four-year period entail as the UK prepares to host the 9th IWG World Conference on Women & Sport in Birmingham in 2026?

Lots of collaborative working to accelerate change and maximise the amazing momentum behind women’s sport; hosting events and reaching out to influencers; sharing what works locally and globally; building the resilience behind women’s sport to ensure its growth is sustainable. I am really ambitious about what we can achieve.

The UK takes over the secretariat from New Zealand in August, although the 8th Congress, organised by the NZ team, will take place in Aotearoa in November having been postponed from May due to the pandemic, so there will be an unprecedented overlap. There will be an international strategy developed with the IWG Global Executive, and a domestic agenda which we will work with UK-based stakeholders to deliver.

We will be looking to advocate, as strongly and widely as possible, for better gender equality across all aspects of sport and physical activity for all age groups. We will do this through partnerships and events across the four home nations and supporting the existing network of women’s sports organisations in the UK and encouraging male allies to be vocal and proactive.

The key to IWG success will be in harnessing the momentum we have in this country around a number of key ambitions. We are already in a great starting place here; the bid was endorsed by over 100 domestic and international supporters and ambassadors.

Just looking at the profile of the major sporting events the UK is hosting this year, and over the next few years, we are in a great place to showcase elite women’s sport and inspire younger generations, but this will require tomorrow’s stars to have access to the same facilities, activities and level of resources as their male counterparts.

I hope we will see a collaborative super-charging across the sector in areas where we are behind, such as coaching, leadership, resourcing and media coverage.

Why was the UK intent on hosting the conference once again, and why was its bid successful?

It has been a long time since 1994 and women’s sport has moved on considerably. The IWG global network has grown and the network of women’s sport organisations in the UK has grown but there is always more we can do. Both nationally and internationally, women’s sport still lags behind in many areas and there are still historic structural barriers to women having a seat at decision-making tables at all levels.

Coming out of the pandemic, we have seen how fragile women’s sport can be and the long-term impact of that on younger generations hasn’t yet been measured. I am really keen we use this opportunity to raise the profile, engage with key decision and policy makers and work together to deliver what works for the long term.

New Zealand’s IWG Secretariat, led by co-chair Raewyn Lovett (above), is preparing to host the 8th IWG World Conference on Women & Sport in November.

How will government authorities, national governing bodies and other stakeholders across the UK sports landscape support in the success of the conference and the ongoing work of the IWG secretariat?

They already have given us essential support and backing to help put the successful bid together and begin to work on our priorities. They all recognise that, in spite of the progress that we have made, gender inequality in sport is still holding back women and girls from engaging fully in the social and health benefits of sport.

The focus we can give this over the next four years can only deliver lasting change if we all work together to ensure women and girls play an equitable role and their experiences are recognised by sports organisations, government policy and national governing bodies.

What opportunities are there for sports business professionals and industry organisations to get involved in the conference and help support other IWG programmes?

We would love to hear how industry organisations and individuals want to be involved with the IWG. Everyone will have a different offer and different priority for supporting the movement and for wanting to be part of an exciting journey that can have lasting social impact.

We want to use the IWG network as openly as possible to accelerate change by engaging those in positions of power and influence to advocate and share their expertise, resource and experiences so that we can learn from one another and change the lives of all women and girls through sport, nationally and globally.

Besides the secretariat and conference, how will the return of the IWG positively impact UK sport and drive meaningful progress for women and girls over the next four years and beyond?

Personally, I would love to see long-term sustainable change and a real shift in the engagement of women and girls in decision making at all levels across sport and the sports industry. For this to happen we need a fundamentally different approach to sport: we need to think less about helping women sneak under the barriers to “fit in” and more about breaking down the barriers, so sport is open and meaningful to everyone. 

This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Women’s Sport Week, a week of coverage dedicated to the industry’s next great growth opportunity and co-hosted by Two Circles. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.

To find out more about SportsPro’s future themed weeks, click here

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