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The gender makeup of sport, and sport leadership, is changing. In 2018, the Government of Canada made it clear that gender equity is a priority for all levels of sport, setting a target to achieve gender equality by 2035.

In February, as part of the Red Deer Declaration, the federal, provincial and territorial Ministers responsible for sport committed in principle to developing a “strategy tailored to their own jurisdiction so that boards of directors of funded sport organizations reach [gender] parity by December 2024.” (Conference of Federal-Provincial-Territorial Ministers Responsible for Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation, 2019).

Gender diversity in sport leadership is a precondition for equity in other facets of sport. Studies in the corporate sphere have shown that organizations are more likely to understand target consumers when they have at least one member who represents their target’s gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or culture (Catalyst, Why Diversity and Inclusion Matter, 2018). It has also been demonstrated that without diverse leaders, women, people of colour, and LGBT employees are less likely to have their ideas endorsed (Catalyst, 2018).

A review conducted by Canadian Securities Administrators and supported by the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance demonstrated that boards of directors with a written policy on gender equity had a higher percentage of women than those without (Canadian Coalition for Good Governance, 2018).

Within the Canadian sport sector, Triathlon New Brunswick, Ontario Soccer, and Curling Canada are three organizations that have implemented board gender equity into their governance documents. As national and provincial/territorial sport organizations move forward in creating gender equity action plans, these organizations provide examples of practices that can be adapted and implemented to suit individual contexts.

Making a Commitment to Gender Equity

For Triathlon New Brunswick, gender equity bylaws were an example set at the international and national level. In 2017, the International Triathlon Union brought a gender equity statement to their board, and Triathlon Canada did the same.

When Althea Arsenault became the President of Triathlon New Brunswick in 2018 and started the process of updating the organization’s bylaws, she saw an opportunity to introduce gender equity into its governance documents.

“It was something to be proactive about. The timing was perfect; it was like ‘okay, let [us] add in these three sentences that say exactly what we want to do.’”

Arsenault, the first woman to hold the president position on the Triathlon NB board, says the permanence of including it in a bylaw was more appealing than making gender equity a policy or procedure.

That commitment was also appealing to Curling Canada’s CEO, Katherine Henderson. The Curling Canada membership voted to update a bylaw about board gender equity in 2018 – reaffirming a rule that had already been in place for decades. In Henderson’s view, bringing a vote to the members was a much more assertive stance than creating a policy that would only live in the boardroom.

“I think having the discussion again allowed us to remind ourselves of the sort of sport that we want to be,” says Henderson. “Really what we were trying to say as a sport is that this is something that we believe in from coast to coast to coast.”

In the case of Ontario Soccer, implementing a gender equity policy was part of a governance modernization process that focused on gender equity as one of the principles of good governance.

The gender composition of their membership was also an important consideration – 42% of their 400,000 players are girls and women, yet only 27% of their coaches are women. Before they changed their board policy and structure, the Ontario Soccer board was 25% women – now it’s at 33%.

“When it comes to a leadership perspective to support the participants, we needed to do some work,” says Johnny Misley, Ontario Soccer’s CEO. “Some people may look at those numbers and say, wow, you have 27% women coaches, that’s pretty good. But for us it’s not acceptable.”

Taking Action

For organizations looking to integrate board gender equity into their governance documents, there are many variables to consider. Here are three steps sport organizations can take to ensure their policies or bylaws are effective.

  1. Be specific

Specifying a 50/50 gender split ensures true parity, while a 40/60 split of either gender enables organizations to accommodate fluctuations in board make-up. Either allows organizations to choose candidates with a variety of skills to tackle the complex issues facing their organization.

Critics of a 40/60 split argue that 40% can quickly become the ceiling for women—the most they will achieve—unless a genuine commitment to valuing diversity and inclusion is in place.

Content from Curling Canada, Triathlon New Brunswick, and Ontario Soccer is included below. Organizations may need to adjust content based on their election procedures.

Curling Canada (Bylaw)
3. GENDER STANDARD FOR BOARD OF GOVERNORS – In advancement of gender balance for women and men on the Board of Governors, while ensuring the prevailing criterion for election is eligibility, ability and professional performance, the Board shall be constituted in a manner such that no gender accounts for more than 60% or less than 40% of the total number of Governors.
Triathlon New Brunswick (Bylaw)
Of the filled Board positions (maximum 12), in advancement of gender balance on the Board, while ensuring the prevailing criterion for election is eligibility, ability and professional performance, the Board shall be constituted in a manner such that no gender accounts for more than 60% or less than 40% of the total number of Directors.
Ontario Soccer (Policy Manual)
10.0 GENDER EQUITY 10.1 Ontario Soccer Board sets a target of at least 40% female representation for the Ontario Soccer Board and all Ontario Soccer Committees and establish plans to work towards achieving this target by 2020; and Recommending that all Governing Organizations within Ontario Soccer consider similar plans for moving towards greater female representation on their Boards and Committees where necessary.
  1. Set a deadline

According to the Canadian Council for Good Governance, incorporating a target with a meaningful timeline is a best practice when it comes to gender diversity policies (Canadian Coalition for Good Governance, 2018).

If your board has not yet achieved gender parity, consider setting a timeline for when you will accomplish this goal. For example, in 2017 Ontario Soccer set a goal of achieving 40% women on their board by 2020.

  1. Build a supportive environment 

A threshold of 30% women is typically recognized as a critical mass that enhances the likelihood that the perspectives of women are heard (Catalyst, 2018). This helps to avoid tokenism, ensuring women’s voices carry the same weight as those of other group members (Canadian Coalition for Good Governance, 2018).

A focus on inclusion helps ensure the benefits of diversity are realized. Sport boards must do more than just appoint women; true inclusion happens when women and people of all diverse backgrounds feel welcome and like they belong.  Consider exploring resources from Catalyst or CAAWS to find out more about how to ensure your focus on diversity moves beyond just numbers.

Changing Culture, Shifting Attitudes

As of January 2019, 4 in 10 NSO and MSO boards in Canada have not reached the critical threshold of 30% women – and two have no women at all (CAAWS, 2019). To meet Sport Canada’s target of 2024, sport organizations with a gap to close will need to develop an action plan.

For Arsenault and Triathlon NB, including gender equity in their bylaws was an opportunity to follow a path set by national and international leaders, and to create a commitment that would live beyond her tenure.

“I’m always of the mind frame that you don’t need to recreate the wheel; you only need to find what is already out there,” says Arsenault. “We’re all in this together.”

Henderson has seen the benefits of gender equity first hand through Curling and through her position as a member of Rugby Canada’s board. She observed that experiencing gender equity at the board level created an awareness in board members that wasn’t necessarily there before.

“[They] start to realize the richness of it and they themselves become ambassadors and advocates for [gender equity],” says Henderson. “They start to actually realize inequalities in other areas of the sport, and they’re able to point them out.”

For Misley and Ontario Soccer, modernizing their governance documents kick-started the process of developing a gender equity strategy that affects all areas of the organization and holds them accountable. Misley’s one piece of advice to other organizations: stick with the process.

“Our strategy is long term. You’re always evolving, not just this area but other areas as well. Don’t think it’s going to happen overnight.”

Ultimately, implementing steps to achieve gender diversity at the board level is a tangible action that can be integrated across the sport sector to achieve real change, and create stronger futures for sport organizations. In Henderson’s words: “We can have philosophical arguments until the cows come home, but this is going to work better.”

Recommended Resources

CAAWS is dedicated to creating an equitable and inclusive Canadian sport and physical activity system that empowers girls and women—as active participants and leaders—within and through sport. With a focus on systemic change, we partner with governments, organizations and leaders to challenge the status quo and to advance solutions that result in measurable change.

About the Author(s)

Greer Gemin is the Communications and Administration Coordinator at the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS). A long-time artistic swimmer and coach, she is indebted to a strong community of women leaders. She is invested in finding ways that sport, storytelling, and community can intersect to create a more equitable world.


CAAWS (2019). Women in Sport Leadership: 2019 Snapshot. (PDF)

Canadian Coalition for Good Governance (2018). 2018 Gender Diversity Policy. (PDF)

Catalyst (2018b). Why Diversity and Inclusion Matter.

Conference of Federal-Provincial-Territorial Ministers Responsible for Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation (2019). Press Release – Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation Ministers Collaborate to Make Sport Safe and Inclusive.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.