Watching Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates berate Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk during a press conference in Tokyo after Brisbane’s successful bid for the 2032 Olympics felt achingly familiar. It’s an experience that almost every woman has had in the workplace. A male colleague – always with the best of intentions of course – comes in over the top with a correction, an explanation or a demand designed to remind everyone present that they hold the power.
While most of us don’t have our experiences broadcast to the world, they are nevertheless damaging and humiliating, a stark reminder of the role of the patriarchy in our everyday lives. As writer Anna Spargo-Ryan noted on Twitter, Coates’s tone and body language was a living echo of the millions of other men across the world who take their power and right to speak in any situation as a given.
Working in the male-dominated world of sport I have seen this manifest in so many different ways. From being greeted with a kiss on the cheek at the start of a meeting while all the men in the room shake hands, to being interrupted and talked over, to queries about my work directed at male colleagues – the power dynamic is always clear.
With a career in sports administration stretching back to the 1970s, it is not surprising to see Coates behave this way. The fact that it took place on global television rather than behind closed doors only reiterates just how common this attitude is in the sporting world – there is no reason to hide it away because this is simply the way things are.
While Coates’s tone was jovial and his comments have been downplayed by many people as a joke, for women who are exposed to “jokes” like this in their workplaces every day, his words are painfully familiar.
Palaszczuk later brushed off the comments, saying that she has known Coates for many years, although she appeared uncomfortable during the exchange. Coates too said that his comments were misrepresented.
“The premier and I have a longstanding and very successful relationship,” he said in a statement released by the AOC on Thursday afternoon. “We both know the spirit of my remarks and I have no indication that she was offended in any way.”
Coates also told the Sydney Morning Herald that he had discussed this approach with the premier as she was being pressured by the media not to attend the opening ceremony.
“The plan was I was going to fix it. I fixed it,” he said. “I was taking the heat off her. We all came back and had a drink all night in my room to celebrate. I wasn’t having a go at her at all.”
However, even if Palaszczuk was indeed completely happy with this clumsy attempt to “take the heat off her”, it is not her reaction as an individual that is important. Plenty of women proudly state that they feel comfortable in highly masculine environments, that they enjoy being “one of the boys” and have never felt discriminated against. But allowing these broader attitudes to go unchecked makes the workplace an incredibly difficult environment for a great many other women, such as those who are unwilling to let the status quo go unchallenged, and particularly for women of colour.
While women’s sport continues to prosper on the field – the Matildas’ opening game of the Olympics against New Zealand on Wednesday night attracted a broadcast audience of over 635,000 in Australia – behind the scenes the progress has not been as impressive. Sporting boards and executives are still dominated by middle-aged white men whose power remains largely unchallenged. Just as we feel we are making progress, along comes another John Coates to remind us how far we have to go. Women who question decisions and ask for more information are often labelled “difficult” – a problem to deal with, rather than a person who can bring valuable and diverse perspectives to the discussion.
Being a woman in sport – or any male dominated industry – who has the ability to make genuine change takes persistence, energy, patience and endless reserves of resilience. For every increased pay deal or rise in viewing figures for women in sport, there are a multitude of male voices taking credit, hundreds of blocked pathways, thousands of men commenting on social media that no one cares. It is frustrating and heartbreaking to acknowledge, but as the poet of our times Olivia Rodrigo reminds is, it’s always one step forward and three steps back.