Miskimmin: Liar, Stupid or What?

By David

I’m lost for words. Let me explain what happened yesterday. Then you can decide whether the guy running Sport New Zealand is fit for the job. Are Sport New Zealand the “real enemy” as they were described to me by a senior sport’s administrator recently? Here are the facts. You decide.

On Tuesday 2 January 2013 Dana Johannsen wrote an opinion item in the New Zealand Herald, headlined “NZ women sidelined from governing roles”. In the article Johannsen reports on an interview with the CEO of Sport New Zealand, Peter Miskimmin. I’ve copied quite a long extract from her story as it is important to know what Miskimmin had to say. After all, it would be most unkind to offer a biased account of the Miskimmin thought process. So, here is what the CEO of Sport New Zealand thinks about women in the sporting board room.

A lot of sports have been hamstrung by their own constitutions, which don’t make it easy for women to go on boards. Most old constitutions have used an electoral system, whereby to get on a board candidates have to get voted on. This system tends to favour men, who look within their own networks to fill roles.

“Typically, women have not fared so well in that process – going to AGMs, putting themselves up there, doing the lobbying to get themselves voted on, is something that women don’t necessarily gravitate towards,” said Miskimmin.

As sports change their constitutions, allowing for a more even ratio of elected and appointed directors, it will provide more opportunities for women to be placed on boards.

Miskimmin said league and swimming are two sports that have recently revisited their constitutions, on the back of a wider review into the state of their respective organisations, and have been able to achieve better diversity on their boards.

Clearly it is the last paragraph that is of interest to Swimwatch. Miskimmin is telling New Zealand that his review of swimming resulted in a Board with better diversity. In the context of this article every one of the New Zealand Herald’s daily 818,000 readers will read this and will believe that Swimming New Zealand now has a Board that includes more women than it did before Miskimmin worked his magic. Miskimmin is saying his rush to abandon democracy is validated by the benefit it bestows on the representation of women on the Swimming New Zealand Board. And that’s not true. Oh, Miskimmin compromised democracy alright but the claim of a better place for women is just rubbish.

Before Miskimmin meddled in the affairs of Swimming New Zealand the Board included three women. And they were women of some stature, experience and principle. Here is a short biography of the three women on the “before-Miskimmin” Swimming New Zealand Board.

Alison Fitch was a New Zealand swimming competitor. She won a bronze medal with in the 4x200m freestyle relay at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. She competed at the 1996 and 2004 Olympic Games.

Suzanne Spear has been involved over the last 8 years with her 4 children in competitive swimming in Auckland. 2003 to 2005 Suzanne was a member of the Events Management Group and is an Auckland referee. Outside of the swimming world, Suzanne and her husband Robert have a Town Planning and Resource Management consultancy firm.

Jane Wrightson became New Zealand’s first woman Chief Censor, in 1991. Before her appointment as Chief Censor, Wrightson obtained a BA at Victoria University and a Master of Business Administration with Distinction at Massey University. Wrightson became Chief Executive of New Zealand on Air in 2007. She is also a member of the New Zealand Institute of Directors. She retired from the Board of Netball New Zealand in 2007 after an 8 year stint, and was appointed to the Swimming NZ Board in 2007.

Those are three pretty talented women. I’ve never met Jane Wrightson but Suzanne Spear and Alison Fitch have always impressed me. Of all the problems that plagued Swimming New Zealand in recent years the representation of women was not one of them. Both the number and the quality of the female members of the “pre-Miskimmin” Board were beyond reproach.

But Miskimmin says his new constitution has done better. His new Board has “achieved better diversity”. But is that true? Is Miskimmin wrong? Is he stupid? Is he telling lies? Is he dealing in corporate spin? Or is he just plain corrupt? Well you decide. Because the truth is that Miskimmin’s new Board has just ONE female member. Here is a brief version of what Swimming New Zealand has to say about its current lone female Board member.

Gabrielle Rush has worked in the private and public sectors as a senior lawyer. She has served on a number of councils and boards, and is currently on the board of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Gabrielle has had a connection with the sport of swimming as a former competitive swimmer and swim teacher, and more recently as a board member of NZ Swim Coaches and Teachers Association. One of Gabrielle’s children swims competitively for North Shore Swim Club in Auckland.

How on God’s good earth Miskimmin can tell the country’s largest newspaper that he has provided better diversity for women to the Board of Swimming New Zealand is beyond me. Previously three women with experience in international swimming, administration and business management from Hawkes Bay, Hamilton and Auckland represented women on the Swimming New Zealand Board. Now one woman with limited swimming knowledge from, where else, the North Shore Swimming Club is the sole, female voice.

One of the key problems in the old Swimming New Zealand was that no one could believe a word they said. Every communication needed to be checked. Every action analysed. The American President, Ronald Regan, once said about the Russians, “Trust but verify”. In the old Swimming New Zealand that was certainly sound advice. But at Sport New Zealand, if this sort of communication is the standard, it looks like just “verify” might be a wiser course of action.

Editor’s note – Despite the weird irony of there being fewer women involved in the management of NZ Swimming now than there were before this diversity drive, it bears mentioning that making generalisations like “women don’t gravitate towards doing x, y and z” is one thing, but analysing why women – or any group – often do or don’t do these things is the second half of that conversation. Currently in my industry (tech, internet marketing) there is a debate about why there are always startlingly few women speakers at conferences. I’ve tried to point out a number of reasons why some women are turned off attending and speaking at events. I won’t go into them here (if you’re interested, I documented them in a rather heated blog post on my site here), but there is no point in making an observation and not asking both “why is this the case?” and “what can we do to fix it?”

I don’t know the whys or the hows in NZ Swimming: I dare say the reasons are very different to those I’ve encountered in tech! But simply saying “change the constitution” doesn’t address any underlying issues as to why a norm of having few women take part might have developed in the sport. And a sweeping measure to require quotas won’t fix any underlying problems or reasons either.