Sarah Styles has always loved sport, and now she gets to take her passion to the next level as the new Director of the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation (OWSR).
“Growing up in southwest Victoria, sport was my first love,” she says.
“Whether it was Little Athletics, squash, calisthenics, countless school-based teams or, as I got older, netball, golf, and more netball!
“Sport energised me – it gave me strength, friendships, focus and the opportunity to nurture the leadership skills that would guide me on the path to come.”
Sarah brings a wealth of experience to the position, with her background including roles as diverse as investment banker and business owner. This has given her an added understanding of how sport works, and the critical role that business plays in supporting sport and driving change.
She is best known for her work with Cricket Australia, where she led a range of initiatives to increase women and girls’ involvement and inclusion in cricket as the organisation’s inaugural Head of Female Engagement.
That culminated in the record-breaking ICC Women’s T20 World Cup Final at the MCG on International Women’s Day last year, where 86,174 fans watched Australia defeat India to win the title.
Sarah has worked most recently as a strategic advisor to Sport Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport on its ‘Women Leading Sport’ initiative, which aims to significantly increase the representation and success of women in leadership positions in Australian sport.
She is also a director of Gender Equity Victoria, Victoria’s peak advocacy body for gender equity, women’s health and the prevention of violence against women.
Throughout her career, Sarah has demonstrated a passion for empowering women and girls to participate in sport and recreation, and it comes from the heart.
“I was encouraged to put my hand up to play all sport, but I quickly realised that wasn’t and isn’t the case for too many.
“A lack of support or basic opportunity, a fear of judgement, not having visible role models, intimidating or unwelcoming environments, inadequate facilities – not to mention entrenched gender stereotypes of ‘who does what’ – prevents too many women and girls from enjoying the many benefits that sport and active recreation provides.”
“That’s what drives me,” she says. “I want every woman and girl to live in a world where they know any aspect of sport is genuinely open to them – from being part of their local team to being a professional athlete, from leading in their community club right through to the boardrooms of the largest sporting organisations.”
So, when Sarah saw the Director’s job advertised, she didn’t hesitate.
“Victoria is setting the standard with its focus and investment to increase women and girls’ participation in sport, with innovative and impactful programs and initiatives aimed directly at the root causes of inequality.
“My time with Cricket Australia showed me what is possible when the eyes of a sport’s decision-makers – from boardrooms to clubhouses – are opened to the full potential of women’s sport and the involvement of women and girls in sport.
“The opportunity to drive similar change for all sports, and to lead the OWSR in what is such a crucial time, is an honour.”
Sarah has already benefited from the Change Our Game initiative delivered by the OWSR which provides a range of grant and funding programs to support women and girls across all levels of sport and recreation in Victoria.
“The OWSR is a leading example of how to tackle society-wide change with real and deliberate intent, careful planning and meaningful investment.”
“The opportunity to study social movements with the Harvard Kennedy School in 2018 thanks to a Change Our Game scholarship no doubt played a role in me being here today,” she says.
“To me, the number one lesson was, don’t leave change to chance – the OWSR is a leading example of how to tackle society-wide change with real and deliberate intent, careful planning and meaningful investment.”
Sarah started in the role in May and understands the challenges.
“I’m particularly conscious of the impact COVID-19 has had on the momentum for gender equality in sport. Striving for gender equality isn’t only for when times are nice and easy though, just as moments of disruption aren’t times to slide backwards into old habits.
“Times like this are genuine opportunities to reset and rebuild for the future.
“My focus is on supporting the OWSR and the Change Our Game initiative, to ensure that mindset of growth and potential is embedded across the entire sport and recreation sector.”
The Office for Women in Sport and Recreation provides policy, strategy and industry support to increase the number of women and girls participating in sport and active recreation, from grassroots through to senior leadership roles. For more information, visit changeourgame.vic.gov.au.