Women's leadership in sport

Sue Brown in her office at Federation University. Picture Emma Brown.

Sue Brown in her office at Federation University. Picture Emma Brown.

Don’t let Sue Brown’s diminutive stature or gentle nature fool you. As the only female among seven men on the Goldfields Australian Football League Commission she has learnt, as a woman, sometimes you need to be loud to be heard. 

This determination is evident in her role as radio commentator on Dominic Brine's breakfast program on ABC radio every Friday morning where she has joined North Ballarat football coach Gerard Fitzgerald to talk sport for the past seven years.

Finally, as a mother of three energetic boys she is used to making her presence felt as the only female voice in the room.

Sue’s day job is Sport Management Programs Coordinator and lecturer, Sport Management, Human Movement and Sport Sciences, Federation University. She has worked on the Ballarat YMCA board for 14 years as well as being on the board of the Ballarat Regional Soccer Facility.

She is passionate about her research in women’s leadership in sport and has completed projects for the Australian Sports Commission and Victorian Government. And if this wasn’t enough, her PhD on leadership style and leadership development for women in sport is nearing completion.

Sue’s Australian Football League credentials are accepted. She is a past Auskick instructor who obtained a level one AFL coaching accreditation and has supported three sons in their football endeavours. Her eldest son Cameron, 28, was a two time premiership player for Skipton Football Netball Club, while twin boys Nathan and Mitchell, 25, both play at AFL level with Collingwood and West Coast Eagles respectively.

Sue's sons Nathan, left, and Mitchell Brown have both had successful AFL careers.Getty images.

Sue's sons Nathan, left, and Mitchell Brown have both had successful AFL careers.Getty images.

In her role with Goldfields AFL Commission she is dedicated to getting more girls in the region not only playing football but training as umpires and coaches. While the commission and AFL have acknowledged women’s football is growing across Victoria she is aware there are still few women in leadership roles coming through.

“We are struggling to attract female coaches. But if I can influence that as I would love to see a lot more girls out there playing, coaching and umpiring."

“Don’t compromise integrity, that’s the most important thing we have as human beings.” - Sue Brown

“I would also love to see another woman on the commission to bring more of a balance. Having men and women on board together brings a fantastic dynamic and perspective,” Sue said.  

While she is adamant she has not experienced any sexism on the commission she said there was an innocent assumption she, as a woman, was there for netball rather than football.

“I am an AFL Victoria appointee and I’m on the committee for what I bring for football.”

It is her dream to have more women involved in sport not just because they are women, but for what they bring.

In the blokey world of the AFL it is easy for women to be sidelined. Sue cites the case of sportscaster Kelli Underwood who was the first female to call an AFL match on television.

“She was the first (woman) and we weren't ready to hear a female voice in this role. She is now calling games on the ABC and getting respect from other commentators and they are treating her like a really good commentator. It has been four years or so and now we are ready.”

Another sign we may be ready for more women in AFL is women like Peggy O’Neal at Richmond Football Club, the  AFL's first female club president.

“Peggy has got the runs on the board and she is leading the way to show females can be respected and survive in this tough aggressive male environment. She has clearly shown she is and is paving the way for others.”

Watching her own sons negotiate their football journey’s Sue has seen examples of both good and bad leadership and the difference a good quality coach can make. Gerard Fitzgerald - coach of the North Ballarat Roosters and Sue’s radio partner -  has been an inspiration for her.

“The boys were in the North Ballarat Rebel program over several years with Gerard as coach. He (Gerard) gained the respect of the players by giving respect,” she said.

“I suppose having some insight into Collingwood and the leadership there, I really admire Nick Maxwell,” Sue said.

Maxwell was Collingwood captain from 2009 to 2013 and Sue believes without his style of leadership Collingwood would not have won the 2010 premiership.

“Usually teams will have the best player as captain but you need many more skills than that. As captain you need to bring people on board. Nick was always a hard worker and behind the scenes formed relationships with every player. There were little groups forming but he got them to join together with a shared vision and they all committed to it."

Nathan Brown, right, trains with Collingwood then captain Nick Maxwell. Getty images.

Nathan Brown, right, trains with Collingwood then captain Nick Maxwell. Getty images.

Her research has bought her in contact with some inspirational women leaders behind the scenes. Women such as Kate Palmer who has been Netball Australia CEO since 2006. Kate showed strong leadership to get televised coverage for netball without which the players can’t get the exposure and therefore the sponsorship Sue explains.

Influence of other leaders aside, Sue attributes her tertiary education as giving her insight into leadership questions, opening her mind and developing her desire to make a difference.

As far as her own leadership style goes Sue would describe it as questioning.

“I like to challenge. I’m someone who likes to discuss things and make sure I make decisions looking at all sides. I have often said I am going to question things so don’t take it personally. I use these questions as a point of discussion. I like to think this gives the decisions I make integrity as I look at all sides.”

As a leader she has learnt to subdue her passions and think before she speaks as when you put yourself out there you need to do your homework.

The qualities she strives for herself are close to how she defines good leadership: authentic, transformational, and decision making that is based on moral integrity.

“Don’t compromise integrity, that’s the most important thing we have as human beings. I like to think leaders make decisions for the good of community not themselves."

While she see leaders as role models, setting the standard for behaviour and trustworthiness they must also be inspirational as you can’t be a leader without followers.

“You must be clear on what you want to achieve if you take on a leadership role and the culture of the organisation you are hoping to make a difference in.”

Read previous articles in our series on leadership: 

Part 1: From battlefield to boardroom: Ben Roberts-Smith

Part 2: RAI's chief executive Su McCluskey on putting regional areas in the spotlight.

Part 3: Regional Arts Victoria CEO Esther Anatolitis.

Next week: Leadership from world leaders past and present.