A lot of work has been done around leadership and the barriers that women, especially queer women, face. What if our difference wasn’t a ‘barrier’? What if it was a superpower? What if the way we look at the world can bring interesting insights into better ways to ‘do’ leadership?
It’s these questions that led me to do a Master of Arts (Research) at Griffith University. So, if you want to get all academic with me for a moment, have a read of this.
Below is my confirmation of candidature document. This is the work I had to do before the university would say, “yes, we will let you loose to do your research and conduct interviews.”
Right now I’m in the middle of those interviews and fingers crossed, with no more pandemic pandemonium, I will be handing in my thesis in August 2021.
This project will examine how sexuality and gender intersect to affect leadership in a sport context in Australia. How women embody leadership in predominantly masculine domains like sport administration has been considered in previous research (Adriaanse and Schofield 2013; Binns 2010: Lewis and Simpson 2010; Lott 2007; Stead 2013; Stead and Elliott 2018) but sexuality is often sidelined in these articulations. My research will explore the question of who it is possible to be in leadership roles in sport, to bring sexuality into direct relation with leadership to unsettle the masculine heteronormativity of sport. I will explore how leadership is enacted and performed with a goal to queering leadership identity and practices to open up more diverse ways of doing gender.
According to Fullagar and Pavlidis (2018), women’s empowerment through sport has become a feminist trope, and media, both mainstream and other forms, insists we’re currently experiencing a ‘revolution’ in women’s sport (McLachlan, 2019). True or not it’s contributing to an increase in the visibility of women in sport who claim a diverse sexuality both in ‘mainstream media’ and on social media (Warby, 2018). We are in the middle of what Probyn (1996) calls a ‘mutation of movements’ especially in the place where gender, sexuality and sport intersect.
This raises the question, what does this increased visibility do? Does it really challenge the status quo as Lewis and Simpson (2010) claim? What affect does it have on individuals and systems and is it really the end of the ‘lesbian boogey woman’ (Griffin, 1998) stereotype designed to keep women out of sport?
The women in sport movement seems to be coalescing in this moment into something advocates hope will see sustained change and make the ‘revolution’ rhetoric ‘stick’ this time around. For that to happen, we need a more nuanced analysis of women’s sporting lives using theories of emotion and affect (Fullagar and Pavlidis, 2018).
The goal of this research is, as McLachlan (2019) states, to “illuminate blind spots that keep social systems intact and make seeing how to change them so difficult” (p.9). I hope to contribute to the understanding of the entanglement of gender and sexuality in sport management and help inform a new conceptualisation of sport leadership. This study seeks to explore the tensions, shifts and openings on the current celebratory environment around women in sport in dialogue with the past, by using the current environment as a lens to “interrogate normative gender representations that sustain leadership as a heroic, masculine site of activity” (Stead and Elliott 2018, p.2).
What strategies are used by queer women when enacting their own formal or informal leadership through gender and sexuality in a sport context in Australia?
I’m interested in exploring how these women, in a sport context, balance this ‘self-production’ and ‘and self-observation’ that Grosz (1994) talks about to hide or display their non-heteronormative identity. That is, how did these women move through these male dominated spaces, how is the enactment of feminist leadership rendered (in)visible and what are the implications for understanding women’s influence on sport history? Gendered performativity shapes ‘self-production’ in complex ways and I’m particularly interested in individuals who are also motivated to advocate for change whether that’s gender equality in sport or diversity more broadly. How does this affect their performance, decisions they make and how they embody leadership, and what can it tell us about their present and future identities, about who they are becoming?
Currently there is no research into how gender and sexuality are experienced, understood and ‘managed’ within and through ‘leadership’ in the context of sport organisations in Australia. By offering a different perspective on the ‘problem of leadership’, it is hoped this research might lead to more diverse workplaces, new ideas of leadership and explore different ways of embodying leadership and provide some new data to help with some of the challenges faced by women in sport.
Gender, sport and leadership scholarship has yet to fully engage with contemporary feminist theory. Notably lacking are works incorporating embodiment and other more post-structuralist approaches. Grosz (1994) highlights the challenge of how women are often positioned as the ‘problematic lack’ and we are yet to fully reimagine social meanings of sexual difference more conducive to women’s autonomy.
Gender + Leadership
When working as leaders or managers, women (and men) are expected to behave in stereotypical ways that align with their gender (Lott, 2007) and transgressing those gender norms can invite hostility (Binns, 2010). Stead and Elliott (2018) encourage us to “interrogate normative gender representations that sustain leadership as a heroic, masculine site of activity” (p.2). Women can never be completely successful at conforming to the unwritten rules of heroic masculinity; It’s risky and requires effort beyond the basic performance of leadership itself (Binns, 2010). Challenging a masculine domain happens simply by entering from the margins (Lewis and Simpson 2010) and just to be present is disruptive and challenging to the ‘norm’. Being visible and different can challenge the status quo (Lewis and Simpson, 2010) but female leaders need to “do effortful identity work to reconcile the embodied feminine with the masculine ideals embedded in the dominant concept of leadership” (Binns 2010, p.169).
Binns (2010) proposed that women’s leadership is often invisible to themselves as well as others and Ryan and Dickson (2018) propose the ‘gender leadership problem’ is not the lack of women, it’s the forms of masculinities that are valued and the dominant presence of men. Therefore, women who undertake leadership work may not recognise themselves as doing such. Lewis and Simpson (2010) assert that “individuals may ‘self exclude’ and make a choice to disappear” (p.13) at various points in time and there is a “complicated picture of agitation and turmoil both within and around the norm” of leadership which they term the ‘(in)visibility Vortex’. This is a useful concept, to a point, when considering the interplay of forces shaping a subject / subjects body It can be used to model questions around identity management and negotiating subjecthood in a leadership context.
Adding Sport: Gender + Leadership + Sport
Sport can, on occasion, be a hostile environment for non-sporting males, athletic women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) individuals (Burroughs, Ashburn and Seebohm 1995; Griffin 1998; Hargreaves, 1990; Litchfield, 2015; Sartore and Cunningham, 2009; Tredway, 2014). Some of the literature (for example, Adriaanse and Schofield 2013, Adriaanse 2019) focuses more on gender relations on boards and how they affect gender equality and governance within sports organisations rather than on leadership more specifically. Though it does highlight some of the tensions present for those desiring to attain leadership positions, and provides a framework for understanding the environment of sports organisations. In their 2018 paper, Ryan and Dickson demonstrate how useful sport is to understanding gender in leadership, gender operates in complex and diverse ways and men have a privileged role (Adriaanse and Schofield 2013). Women in traditional leadership roles in administration, coaching and officiating are under-represented in sport to a greater degree than women in other industries (Sundstrom, Marchant and Symons 2011 in Litchfield 2015) and Ryan and Dickson (2018) draw attention to the invisible norms in sport that marginalise women.
Adding Sexuality: Gender + Leadership + Sexuality
Leadership is a constraining subject position for many and as Gedro (2010) argues, there are specific pressures on leaders who identify as lesbian and by extension those who claim any non-heterosexual sexuality. Riach, Rumens and Tyler in their 2014 paper expose how normative expectations can undermine the complex lived experiences of LGBT subjects which can constrain their performance in organisational settings. Muhr and Sullivan (2013) highlight, due to the binaries of the heterosexual matrix, how difficult it is for leaders and followers to make sense of LGBT leaders and leadership. Gedro (2010) proposes that stereotypes about those that take a lesbian identity, which she names as their reslliance and a predilection toward sport, would be useful when aspiring to a leadership position. While I am skeptical that this is the case, it raises the question of what positive aspects might there be for my subjects.
Bringing it all together: Gender + Leadership + Sexuality + Sport
Absent from the knowledge base is literature that examines gender, sexuality and leadership together in a sport context. Additional to context, country matters when determining what attributes constitute leadership (Ryan and Dickson 2018) therefore, I will be asking in my research, how are gender and sexuality experienced, understood and ‘managed’ within and through ‘leadership’ in the context of sport organisations in Australia?
In contrast to the bulk of the existing literature, I’ll be taking a poststructural trajectory and ‘plugging-in’ theories of anti-humanism (Fox and Alldred, 2013) and emotion and affect (Fullagar and Pavlidis, 2018). By avoiding an essentialist approach to gender, looking at the past through the lens of more recent feminist theories of self-production, this research aims to offer a different perspective on the ‘problem of leadership’.
I have the benefit of doing my research, like Brown (2015) following on from “materialist feminist attention to voice and the poststructuralist feminist focus on discourse and power” which enables me to make use of methods that are reflexive and collaborative leading to the co-production of knowledge/s. This is particularly important as I wish to avoid ‘normative social scripts’ in my research interactions and to ‘tease out overlaps’ and ‘disrupt coherence’ rather than work within identity categories (Riach, Rumens and Tyler, 2014).
I will bring an autoethnographic aspect to my methodology; the work of lisahunter and emerald (2016) give me permission to engage in some self reflection and focus on my own senses and what “I am turned towards it to give my attention.” (p.40). When working in the field, Probyn (2005 p.135) warns against the hubris of thinking “that the body’s reactions to another’s emotions and affects are strictly within the realm of the personal and therefore devoid of academic/scientific interest.” She suggests I might include my reactions and attempts to understand them as data for I am not an objective, passionless observer.
Fox and Alldred (2013) call for a more inclusive choice of research designs which includes using multiple sources of data. In my research, I will make use of a variety of methods such as feminist oral history, in-depth interviews, ethonography, autoethnography, questionairres, and reflexivity as well as bringing in cultural documents from the time period I’m focusing on.
Oral history is “a tool for accessing silenced or excluded knowledge, for unearthing and preserving this “missing” knowledge” and Leavy (2007) provides guidance on giving voice to the experience of individuals, who will remain at the center of the narrative, while simultaneously studying the structural circumstances in which the subjects operate. I will supliment my feminist oral history approach with additional autoethnographic methods by drawing from my “own everyday experiences” (Buch and Staller 2007, p.7) and my knowledge of my intersecting domains of interest to help frame my research and to “learn enough to ask better, more sophisticated, and more nuanced questions” (Buch and Staller 2007, p.23) and to critically explore my own involvement (Fleming and Fullagar, 2007) in the sport leadership space. Collaboration and curiosity are vital componants of feminist research (Pavlidis and Olive, 2014) and aim to work with participants through the ‘data creation’ process (Riach, Rumens and Tyler, 2014), which, in practical terms means reviewing and working through pre- and post-interview notes, the interview transcripts and any post-interview email exchanges together.
The goal is to conduct the interview in person and a location convenient to the participant, preferably in their home or somewhere else they feel comfortable. Interviews will be at least an hour in length, no more than two and multiple interviews may be required at the discretion of the participant. The interview will be recorded, transcribed and sent back to the participant. A follow-up interview will be scheduled to reflect on the transcript together, either in person or using video chat technology, to allow for reflexivity and collaboration of the interview / narrative. This process will be repeated as necessary to explore any other questions that may come up in this reflexive practice.
I will speak to 3-5 participants. The goal is to recruit ‘leaders’ across multiple sports in Australia who were active in their roles from 1970 to 1999,who self-identify as non-heterosexual, and who worked to change things for the better with regards to gender. I recognise “manifestations of leadership [may] derive from active involvement, rather than formal status” (Henderson 2018, p. 1038) and I would like to expand beyond current ideas of what leadership is. Participants may have held ‘leadership’ positions in sport governance or technical areas such as coaching, they may have been volunteers or held paid positions.
Participants will initially be selected from my immediate networks with the hope of setting snowball sampling in motion (Theobald, 2013) and obtaining additional participants though my extended networks.
I have taken a mixed method approach to collecting data and Fox and Alldred (2013; 2018) illustrate how an anti-humanist ontology may be applied to empirical data to explore sexuality-assemblages, event-assemblages, research-assemblages and their possible hybrid assemblages. They provide a framework to ‘dredge’ my data to identify relations and affects in an assemblage of bodies, things and social formations, and also to assess the capacities that emerge from these assemblages.
My analysis does not seek to form consensus but instead, I will focus on ideas that emerge as “contested or uncontained either across participants’ dialogues, or within [my] own analytical reflections” (Riach, Rumens and Tyler 2014, p.1686). In addition, I will attempt what Jackson and Mazzei (2013) call “plugging in” to use theory to think with data and use data to think with theory and to ask questions of the data from the perspective of different theorists or theories and back again. My focus will be on the theories “I am turned towards” (lisahunter and emerald 2016, p.40).
To attempt to piece together these assemblages and their flows of affect, I will identify possible relations by undertaking a close reading of my data, reading across and between my data sources, to progressively build understanding. I do not seek ‘truth’, I seek insight and I’m curious about the affect back on myself and my project.
Ethics and limitations
Maintaining ethical relationships is one of the core pillars of feminist research (Wheaton, Watson, Mansfield and Caudwell, 2018) and Taylor (2011) outlines the challenges and offers some recommendations on how to conduct ethical research as an ‘intimate insider.’ Taylor warns against revealing too much about the direction of her research to avoid friends being “consciously or unconsciously swayed by his/her knowledge of my own opinion and my scholarly objectives,” (Taylor 2011, p. 15). I need to be aware of the “insider blindness to the mundane,” (Taylor 2011, p.15) and to develop the skill of recognising the boundary between myself as researcher and as a friend. I anticipate I may struggle with remaining accountable to my community by being wary of airing any ‘dirty laundry’ and the effect that may have on my research. To reduce the impact of some of the issues, I will, as Taylor recommends, allow subjects to review their transcripts, interview a mix of familiar and unfamiliar subjects, and disclose the aims and intent of my research.
I will need to remain vigilant of any potential adverse events in relation to the possible ‘taboo’ dimension of the research and the effect that discussing some potentially painful, emotional or sensitive past experiences may have on the participants (Riach, Rumens, and Tyler, 2014). Personally, I need to consider what impact I might feel should I run into difficult scenarios or troubling stories; I can manage this with reflexivity methods, using mentors and other formal and informal supports to help work through any issues that arise.
I will actively seek to recruit women from culturally diverse backgrounds and of different abilities in order to explore gender and sexuality through other intersections. As a white woman who has benefited from colonialism in a myriad of ways, I must also consider my position of privilege and constantly work towards understanding and dismantling systems of oppression. I cannot claim to be representing all women’s experiences, instead the goal is to open up lines of inquiry and explore issues that cut across individual biographies in different ways.
Using mixed methods approach centred on feminist oral history this research will “plug in” theories of affect (Fullagar and Pavlidis, 2018), anti-humanism (Fox and Alldred, 2013) to explore how women who claim a non-heterosexual identity embody leadership in a sport context in Australia. By taking a reflexive, autoethographic approach to the data, followng the the core pillars of feminist research (Wheaton, Watson, Mansfield and Caudwell, 2018) it’s hoped that new knowledges will be created in collaboration with the subjects who participate in the study. This work has potential implications for sport leadership and broader cross-disciplinary implications for business, the social sciences as well as gender and sexuality studies more broadly. I hope to contribute unique knowledge on how sexuality intersects with gender, leadership and sport in Australia with a goal to queering leadership identity and practices.
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