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Odd woman out - from bookkeeper to NRL board member

21 August 2014

Australia’s Footy Fever season is upon us. The NRL Grand Final is October 5, the AFL is September 27 and the Super Rugby is over for the year.  Of course, both men and women follow Rugby League.

According to the NRL’s stats: “Female participation in Rugby League is at record levels, women’s interest and involvement is at a high across Australia, following a 20 per cent increase in female registrations in 2012 (5,801 in 2012; 4,814 in 2011), and a 100 per cent increase in registered female coaches (172 in 2012; 86 in 2011).”

As for club financial members, 41 per cent are female. The startling statistic though is that 45 per cent of Rugby League fans are women, with the following NRL Clubs having more female fans than male fans – Panthers, Eels, Knights, Cowboys and Titans.

Despite such encouraging numbers, female representation and influence when it comes to the top echelons of club management lags behind male.

Women on boards

Of the 16 clubs, only six have women at board or C-suite level: Katie Bickford is on the Broncos board and its CFO is Shirley Moro; the Bulldogs have a female CEO: Raelene Castle; the Raiders CFO is Yvonne Gillett and she is also on the club’s board; the Storm’s Finance Controller is Danielle Smith; the Titans Chairman is Rebecca Frizelle and the Sea Eagles have Kerry Chrysiliou – Director (Penn Sport appointee), and Julie Sibraa – Director (MWRLFCL appointee).

The NRL itself has begun to take steps to make female representation on club boards compulsory to help clean up the game's image. It has even drawn up proposed “model club” reforms, which include at least one female board member in every club, and the majority of board members to be independent. It is hoped the move will attract more fans, particularly female ones, to the game and encourage more participation at all levels. 

According to Canberra Raiders chairman Allan Hawke: “Women bring different things to meetings than men do.  I'm not aware the men are any smarter or brighter than they are and if you're looking to attract a family element and attract women to the game, you need to hear that from women on the board. Not from blokes who think they know best.”

Yvonne Gillett Canberra Raiders board member

We spoke with Raiders Group Yvonne Gillett (pictured above) about her career as CFO and election in 2014 to the Raiders eight-person board.

Yvonne characterises how she came to be at the Canberra Raiders as a series of accidents: “One job led to another and another and here I am. I never sat down and thought I want to work in football.”

Recently the Raiders Group CFO, Yvonne began as a bookkeeper in one of its clubs more than 20 years ago and has watched it and her job change enormously in that time.

The Raiders Group has an investment arm, seven licensed clubs and the football operation which includes the Raiders team in the NRL, junior rugby league and other local league. Yvonne’s involvement in the Group’s operations has been complete, which is what has made it so interesting for her.

“It’s been a very good place to work. When I began the hours suited me and then it became more cosy.  It also comes down to the fact that it is a ‘fun’ place to work and has always been very flexible. I have been told that one of the better things about working with me is the attention paid to work life balance.

“There are a few people who have worked with the group for a long time. The CEO of the group Simon Hawkins has worked with the Raiders for a similar time to myself. He has always had a hands-off approach when it comes to managing people. Managers in the organisation have full autonomy over how we do our jobs and that comes from the top down. The individual club managers enjoy working in that environment.

“I think it’s the people in the Raiders, the job variety and ownership of your job that have made it a good place to work,” Yvonne finishes.  

As for the transition to the board, she says, it wasn’t difficult: “I had been reporting to the board on the club’s finances for many years. The directors’ knew me well. The Raiders were aware that it was an appropriate time to appoint a female to the board and when a board vacancy came up earlier this year it was offered.”

Acknowledging that diversity is hard to create, and that it has to begin at the top, Yvonne hopes her “small contribution” of being a woman in the role will help: “At least others can see that if there’s one woman then there could be others.” Certainly her successful presence on the board supports Raiders chairman Allan Hawke in his decision to look for more women candidates.

Women of Influence

“The licensed clubs have been managed very well, which has no doubt added to the success of the group. The club managers were mostly men but we now have two female club managers and they are exceptional,” says Yvonne.

“It’s been interesting to watch the women work. They sometimes go about their job differently. They look at the big picture and they also look at the detail behind it all. They look at what drives the business in different areas, the statistics supporting the business  and the future trends. They have a great handle on what is going on in the business. It could be because the women have had to be better and go the extra mile to prove they can do it. Or, it could be they are just that sort of person.  I am not sure which,” finishes Yvonne, who rather than hazarding a guess on the issue - which wouldn’t sit well with her analytic way of thinking - will not be drawn further on the point.

Yvonne does, however, believe that many women don’t feel they have a natural right to positions and worry it could slip away from them if they’re not careful: “When an opportunity presents itself, women have a tendency to grab it with both hands, putting their whole heart and soul in to it, perhaps to the detriment of work life balance and their health. Men are happy to hold the opportunity in the palm of their hand and go along with it.”

If Yvonne has one small regret it is around losing sight of her health – she eventually got back on track and now counsels women to look after themselves at every opportunity.

“I’ve been the only female on business trips. It won’t do you any favours in business relationships if you’re not prepared to go and join in. However, it is a little harder to network in a mostly male environment. If I was a male in my position I’d possibly have more mates. My network of women is not as large as I might have developed working in a different industry. I try to ensure that I keep up with my female  friends.  It is why one of the things on my list of things I do that makes me effective – aside of course from family - are my female friends and the energy and time I have invested in them and myself.”

Yvonne Gillett is guest speaking at an AIM event in Canberra on September 15, 2014. She will discuss her career, and cracking the glass ceiling. For more, click here.