TIC TALK Podcasts

Exploring personal experiences of inclusion

TIC TALK 8: Debbie Simms

A podcast with Debbie Simms
February 2014
Debbie Simms

Debbie Simms

Simmssportconsultancy.com.au

Debbie Simms has a lot of expertise and knowledge, particularly in the areas of women in sport and child protection issues. In this podcast Debbie talks about her approach to work, life and inclusion.

 

 

Transcript TIC TALK with Debbie Simms

Peter:

Welcome to today’s Tic Talk. It’s a great pleasure to introduce Debbie Simms. How are you, Debbie?

Debbie:

I’m great. Thanks, Pete.

Peter:

Now, I’ve worked with Debbie for many years and I know she’s a leading advocate for all things around gender issues in sport, for all things around child protection issues, and a whole range of things and she has an acute sense of human rights and the power of sport to transform people’s lives and we’ll explore that a little bit. But I want to go back in time, Deb, to many years ago. Particularly in your first days in the Women in Sport unit, for example, when you were at the Australian Sports Commission. What was it like in those days, because they were really, kind of, cutting edge days, you’d say, for women in sport issues and what kind of things were you addressing in those days?

Debbie:

It was exciting times, actually. It was one of those times when governments right across board, state, federal, and it was a bi-partisan approach, recognized that, as a country, we had to do more for women. And that flowed down into sports. So, we did, and I think it’s the only one time that I’ve ever seen where we really had a strong bi-partisan support and the resources behind us to actually start doing some great work. So, it was given the freedom to look at where the barriers were and where we could start making a difference. And so, in sport, it was, for us, a lot of it was around the visibility of women.

So, back in the early ’80’s, ’90’s, visibility of women was just non-existent in terms of coaches, in terms of officials, in terms of administrators, certainly in terms of decision makers. There were very, very few women who held any sort of senior positions in sport, whether that be paid or whether that be in a voluntary capacity, as a president on a committee. And so, that was a very big focus on a lot of my work and the work of the people around me is, how can we give greater visibility? How can we look at getting women more involved and getting other people, particularly males, to recognize the value that women had to bring to sport? ‘Cause there was very much of an attitude, and, unfortunately, there still is in some sectors, that, ‘What do women know about sport?’

You know, they don’t really have anything to bring to sport and I can remember being in a coaching course, they were introducing Level Three at that stage, coaching courses, and one of the areas we were trying to do was to get more women involved as coaches. And the audience, there were about a hundred males in that audience, and about halfway through, the doors literally slammed open and this woman walked in to say, ‘I’ve finally found you.’ And the information that had been distributed about that course, which invited a whole range of women, had accidentally gone missing and the women never received it. And, when the women found out about it, about this course around involving more women in coaching, they literally were driving around town to try to find where it was because the men had purposely given out misinformation so that they couldn’t turn up.

And the information and the attitudes in this course were, ‘Well, you know, we don’t want to invest time and effort into women, because all they’re going to do is get pregnant, take time off work, and then we’ve lost them to the sport. And so, it’s a waste of our time and a lot of our energy.’ So, that was a sort of an example of the attitudes that we were facing at that particular time. Very much an attitude, ‘If a woman hasn’t played AFL, then she knows nothing about the sport and how can she possibly sit on a board and have any skills to contribute if she hasn’t played since she was a baby?’ So, that’s just to give you a feel of the sort of attitudes.

Peter:

On a scale of one to ten, in those days, how would you rate gender equity in sport then?
Debbie:

Point five. Point five.

Peter:

The point of that question was, how would rate it now? How far have we come?

Debbie:

We have come an enormous way. Having said that, I still think we do have a lot further to go, but I would say we are probably up around six point five.

Peter:

Okay.

Debbie:

We don’t have quite those same attitudes. Boards just generally are much more professional and understand that everybody brings different skills to the table, whether that’s financial skills, administration skills, whether it’s legal skills. It’s not about your gender. It’s not about whether you have a disability. It’s not about what your ethnicity is. It’s about the broad knowledge and understanding and skills that you can bring to that table. And so, I think that has shifted over the years. Recognition that that’s a good practice, that an organization, to thrive, needs that diversity of input. And I think that didn’t exist back, you know, in the late ’80’s, early ’90’s.

Peter:

Can you legislate for inclusion? I know there was a time when there was a mandate coming down to put women on board.

Debbie:

To have targets.

Peter:

To have targets for gender equity. Do you think that works?

Debbie:

There’s a time and place for it. I think, back then, we needed it. We really were struggling to make the in roads, even though we had an enormous amount of will, we had the resources behind us. At that point in time, I do think we needed the legislation to make people start thinking about, ‘Well, okay, it might be for the wrong reasons we have to have at least thirty percent of women on our board and yes, there is a little bit of tokenism that comes with it.’ But, it forced boards to start thinking about, ‘Where do we find these women? What sort of women should we be looking for?’

Perhaps we should be looking at their skill sets. Maybe that’s something we can bring. But it took legislating it and forcing these targets to start getting them to think. Now, once we started that process, and it became part and parcel of ‘When we have a new position coming up, of course we have to start looking at, you know, what sort of gender balance we have.’ And you didn’t need the legislation there. A similar thing was with the coaching scholarships at the time here that were offered at the Commission.

All the scholarships that were received at that period of time, one-hundred percent of them were for males. That was all the sports ever put in was scholarships with the males. So, we had to introduce targets and say to sports, ‘Okay. One third of the scholarships that you put in for coaches must be women.’ And that threw the sport into a panic, and, again, you do get a little bit of tokenism. But, it started the organizations having to think seriously about, ‘Yes, we do need to get women.’ And then they started to move past that and say, ‘And women have something to value. And where are going to find these women and how do we approach these women?’ So, it forced the issue and I think it would have taken us a lot longer to get to that same point had we not, at that time, had targets in legislation. I don’t necessarily think we need that now, but that’s not to say we may, at some time down the track, need it again. Not necessarily, maybe, in the gender space, but in other areas.

Peter:

I’ll explore that one a little bit more. Do you think it could possibly build a resentment towards inclusion if you legislate in that way? Therefore, acting negatively. I understand the long term goals, but one of the arguments around that is that it builds resentment among others who say, ‘Oh, we have to do this, because it says so.’

Debbie:

Yeah. Absolutely. There are pros and cons, and that’s certainly the down side. I mean, I’ve found that some of the down sides were one; the tokenism. You know, ‘Well, we have to have a woman. We’ll just grab whoever is closest.’ You know. That sort of attitude. And secondly, there was a bit of that backlash, definitely. A little bit of, ‘Ugh. You know, we’ve been forced to do this and this is not what we want. This is not what’s best for us. We know best.’ Those sorts of attitudes. So, yes, there is some of that. Having said that, I still think that at that point in time, the positives slightly outweighed the negatives and I just think that that helped give us the impetus to get change started. And then, once we got people thinking about it, we could work on those attitudes and say, ‘Well, actually, yes, you may have to do it, but let’s look at the benefits for you. Let’s look at what bringing women to the table is actually bringing for you.’ We were able to have those conversations. So, over time, we were starting to, I wouldn’t say totally negate that negativity, but certainly reduce it and start to get people thinking differently.

If I had my time over again, would I legislate? It’s a really tough one. I really don’t know. I just don’t know if we would make the same inroads without it, at the time. It’s not something, like I said, I would look at doing now, at this particular time, in the [naughty 09:45] so to speak. I think understanding discussion has advanced so much that we don’t need the targets. We don’t need to legislate.

Peter:

On that similar line, Australia’s a very diverse country, and we’ve changed a lot the last ten or twenty years. In terms of equity issues now, what’s the burning issue now going forward? You’ve outlined some really, ways that we’ve progressed over the last ten or twenty years, but going forward, in the new age, with the increasing diversity of Australian culture, in particular, what is gonna be the issues in terms of gender equity in this? Particularly related to sport.

Debbie:

That’s a really good question. I think it still is about women in key decision making positions. We have a lot more women involved in all levels of sport now, to a much greater extent than what we had. But we still are behind in terms of representation of women in those really key, crucial decision making positions. And I also don’t necessarily see that gender is the biggest single issue in terms of inclusion at the moment. I really do see the issue being, more broadly, diversity. That it isn’t necessarily about now, looking at having, you know, a gender balance. I think what that discussion needs to be more is having a more diverse balance. That we do have, or we should have, a greater representation across the community involved in sport, in making those decisions.

For me, I feel we’ve moved on from the focus and the gender debate, to being one more about the diversity. And doing the similar things that we were doing back in the ’80’s with women, in terms of having the same representation of people with a disability, you know, people who come from diverse cultural backgrounds. People who are indigenous, people who have different life experiences and backgrounds that we should be looking at. What can we do to have them more greatly represented, rather than us singly focused on the gender debate.

Peter:

Excellent. Excellent. How did you get involved in this, Deb? You’ve been doing this for a long time. Why do you keep going? It’s amazing. You have great passion and commitment in this area. Was there a catalyst or was it just an evolution for you?

Debbie:

There was a few single points early in my sporting career that highlighted to me the discrimination that occurs, and I’ve always come from the background about fairness. And it’s the one thing that, if I can put it this way, really gets up my nose. And I just found it, from a personal experience, myself being female within sport, and some of the discrimination, some of the sexual harassment that I experienced myself. But also seeing colleagues, seeing friends, seeing others within sport, the way they were also being treated. And it struck me as being unfair and something that, I don’t know, just resonated with me that this is something I wanna change. I wanna make a difference here. I don’t want people to keep having to go through the same roadblocks, the same barriers, the same abuse, if I can put it that way.

And so, that sort of started me, I suppose, on a passion around trying to reduce discrimination and harassment. And then I suppose in the ’90’s, and that’s been evolving over a period of time, and then in the ’90’s another catalyst was around child protection and around children being abused. Being either physically abused, psychologically abused, or sexually abused, and I had two young boys at that time and that, again, just resonated so strongly with me. And I could see at the time in sport, that there was nothing happening in that space. It was all focused on the school system, on the child care system. And there was really nothing happening in either the churches or in sport, and to me, that was quite frightening and, I suppose, particularly in an area where you have a lot of access to children.

I mean, sport, it’s on a platter and it was just frightening to me that we weren’t looking at that and we weren’t looking at what can we do to create a safer environment for children. And that we also assist adults so that they know that what they’re doing is safer. So, it’s not about pointing finger and blaming people and saying, ‘You’re a bad person.’ It’s educating them and making sure that they are aware of what they can do that is and isn’t appropriate and how they can protect themselves as well as the kids that they’re looking after or that they have the care for. So, that was another really strong moment in my life where I thought, ‘This is where my evolution, my next focus, needs to be, is looking at creating a safe environment for children.’

Peter:

And do you think the Royal Commission, for listeners here, there’s a Royal Commission into child abuse and child safety issues in Australia at the moment, and there are expectations that that will make a difference. And you sort of hinted at the fact that the sport has been a vehicle, one of the vehicles where these sorts of incidents can occur. Is there change about to happen? Is it gonna be safer? If sport raises an issue during the Royal Commission, do you think it will make a difference?

Debbie:

I believe it will. Unfortunately, I do know of lots of instances that have occurred and I think a lot that will come out within this commission. We have, obviously, heard a lot about what’s happened within the churches, but I think, equally, there will be some disturbing information that comes out. And I think, because it is so disturbing, there will be some really strong recommendations that can take child protection that one step further. I think we have, you know, come in leaps and bounds in the last, just in the last five years, in terms of awareness, in terms of education, in terms of legislation, in terms of policy, but I think we’ve still got a way to go. I think there’s a lot of people that still put their head in the sand and think, ‘Sport’s all good. It’s all wonderful. It’s just great that kids are out there playing,’ and I don’t think they’re aware that is a dark side that we do need to be aware of. And so, I’m hoping that the commission will strengthen and speed up and accelerate the work that is being currently done in this space.

Peter:

Well, I’m sure you’ll continue, Deb, to make a difference and a dent in the world, and your commitment will be there until the day you die, I suspect. So, thank you very much for joining us on Tic Talks, and thank you, Deb.

Debbie: Thank you, Pete.