GSMP 2015 Site Visits: Julie Paterson at Women’s Sports Foundation

By Brian Canever October 03, 2015

Arriving in the Big Apple, the first stop was the Manhattan office of the Women’s Sports Foundation to catch up with Julie Paterson of New Zealand and her mentor, WSF CEO Deborah Slaner Larkin.

Drs. Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman, co-directors of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace, & Society, and I, took the elevator up to the seventh floor of a high-rise, where Julie and Deborah, along with WSF’s staff were there to welcome us.

We took a seat in Deborah’s office to begin the interview. Julie and Deborah, both seasoned CEOs, cozied up to the microphones to talk about the issues that matter most: equal access for women in sport and increased opportunities for underserved and at-risk girls in their respective countries.

Julie grew up on a small farm in rural Southland, where her father, who she called “her first feminist role model,” raised his three daughters to believe they could achieve anything. After returning from overseas and managing a regional tourism body, Julie took her first position in sports, working as the CEO of Netball Southland.

Deborah, on the other hand, has been involved in sport for 3o years and has dedicated the majority of her career to promoting the rights of women and minorities. She is a passionate advocate for Title IX, and under her leadership WSF has made significant advancements for women in sports through research, advocacy and programming.

“Forty years ago, 1 in 27 girls participated in high school sports,” Deborah said. “Now that number is two in five.”

What really concerns Deborah, however, is the three in five who aren’t playing sports; primarily African-American, Hispanic and Native American girls in urban communities across the United States. Through programs such as Sports 4 Life, implemented in partnership with ESPN, WSF is closing the gap by creating new sports opportunities in communities that have historically been underrepresented.

For Julie, the challenge is reaching girls from indigenous Maori and Pacific Island populations in northern New Zealand. Without increased corporate sponsorship and funding, she is concerned that netball, the most popular sport among women in the country, cannot provide the valuable learning opportunities and life skills to the girls who most need them.

“In both our countries, we know the value of sport and the benefits of physical activity, especially for girls and women,” Deborah said. “We both need more help from our governments and sponsors to provide opportunities for girls that need it the most.”

Julie agreed wholeheartedly. And she is encouraged by the living, breathing testimonies of athletes who, through netball, have had their lives radically transformed for the better.

“Many of our athletes are Maori and Pacific Islanders who have come from difficult backgrounds to get to the highest end of their sport. That’s one of the most amazing aspects of sport — to see what somebody can achieve if they have the right support and drive to make it happen.”

Listen to the Center’s podcast conversation between Julie and Deborah at the link below