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Reaching across cultures to achieve gender equality

April 15, 2019

Marijke Fleuren has been busy and life looks like it is about to get even busier as the European Hockey Federation (EHF) President and FIH Executive Board member continues to push for gender equality across all her spheres of influence.

In the past few weeks Fleuren, who is also a member of the International Olympic Commission Women in Sport, has been pushing the message of gender equality at a sports conference in Cairo, to a representative group of females involved in hockey administration across Europe, and at a conference in Romania.

Her travels have led her to draw two key conclusions: a sport that is 50/50 when it comes to participation must have equality in all other areas, particularly administration and leadership; and progress is being made but the road to true equality is a long one.

“If you think that in my own country of Holland – which has a reputation as a very egalitarian society – until 1956 women had to stop work when they got married, then you can appreciate that we have come a long way in a relatively short space of time,’ she says.

Fleuren has seen for herself how progress towards equality is at very different stages depending upon where you are in the world.

A recent EHF seminar – the European Hockey Female Leadership programme – saw 27 women from 22 EHF member nations come together at a two-day conference to listen to inspirational speakers and, importantly, to take away the message that they all had the opportunity and the right to become leaders.

Speaking after the event, Fleuren was still reeling from the energy the conference had produced among delegates: “It looked as if we have opened a hidden window by organising this forum. It was amazing and also emotional to notice how ready 27 women, from 22 member associations are to take the step up, all in their own way. The different speakers felt their energy and eagerness and reacted passionately. What energy! I am very confident to meet the future with this social capital behind us.”

Following that conference and with knowledge gleaned from both previous and subsequent discussions, Fleuren passionately believes that one of the strongest means to achieving equality is the creation of role models. She is a project partner on the SWING [Supporting Women in achieving their Goals] project, where a mentor/mentee programme is proving invaluable for inspiring women to step forward into leadership roles. Fleuren herself mentors an aspiring leader from Macedonia. 

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The importance of support and role models was a message she drove home when she addressed the Arabic Women in Sport conference in Cairo.

Using the FIH ‘Equally Amazing’ graphic, and images of inspirational women from the world of hockey to illustrate the four pillars of the FIH strategy  – Participation, Education, Communication and Inspiration – Fleuren explained how it was possible to turn the phrase ‘equally amazing’ from being words on a slideshow to becoming a reality.

On a very positive note, many of the women at the conference were sports administrators, already running children camps for boys and girls. “There is a sense of momentum,” says Fleuren.

But, she adds, she was aware of her responsibility to try and inspire them into leadership roles without challenging the culture within which they lived.

“It was a very humbling experience. These women are coming from Yemen, Abu Dhabi, Iraq, Algeria - it is a different world. At the same time I realised this was an enormous chance to make a difference.”

Fleuren left Cairo knowing that she had opened eyes to the possibilities but also aware that these women had a long road to travel.

The third conference in as many weeks took place in Romania. Here, gender equality wasn’t a topic on the agenda but it was an issue that is never far from the surface. “It is illogical,” says Fleuren, “that when 50 per cent of the population are female, there is not an equal combination of males and females making the decisions. Men and women bring different strengths with them, it is crazy not to work together.”

At the conference, various European sporting federations swapped ideas and discussed policies. It was a chance for Fleuren to assess how both the EHF and the FIH were faring in comparison to other federations. Naturally enough, one of the areas of assessment was equality. “We at FIH are a role model within international federations. We are exceptional when it comes to representation and that is at all levels – umpires, officials, board members.

“What is so pleasing for me is that at every conference or seminar I go to, I can tell the same story each time but, because of the momentum that is gathering, every talk is now coloured with new examples of best practice.”

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