Birgitta Kervinen has never taken the easy option in life, so after her decades of service to improving gender equality in sport were recognised by the IOC in 2017, the Finn was unlikely to rest on her laurels.
“I started to think on the aeroplane to Lausanne [to collect her award] that I would like to do something special with this grant money,” Kervinen told olympic.org. “I understood that I would like to change international leadership because it does not give the right picture of the real sportswoman. It’s still men-dominated, old-fashioned, and still grey in many ways.”
Kervinen has launched an educational programme – with the help of the IOC, European Olympic Committees and Finnish Olympic Committee – to develop young leaders to become advocates for gender equality in sport. The New Leaders Programme has selected 30 youthful sports professionals from 26 countries, and is arming them with the tools to instigate change in their own nations.
The youngsters are sharing experiences and being taught crucial new skills through three workshops – in Vilnius, Lithuania, in January 2019, Dublin, Ireland (April) and Baku, Azerbaijan (July) – before a closing conference in Helsinki, Finland, in November.
“I didn’t get much support for my sports leadership career – there was not much mentoring available when I started – so I have learned the hard way, or by mistakes,” Kervinen said. “So I was thinking it would be great if we could create something together. The main purpose is to change the picture of leadership [across sport in Europe].”
One of the key elements Kervinen tries to teach her young charges is the importance of speaking up to instigate change. She has never been afraid to ruffle feathers.
“I have very often been that ‘difficult woman’,” Kervinen said. “Tens of times I have been left alone when I have not been willing to make compromises that would have sacrificed my values. I have been belittled; I have met opposition or even pressure when I have defended my own values; but I know it has been worth it.”
“If you have opinions and want to change decisions, of course you have to start a difficult debate. I want these young leaders to stand up and react on the home front, and say, ‘No, this is not the right way to behave.’ I don’t want them to sit silently – first in their own countries and then at international level.”
Another crucial lesson Kervinen seeks to impart is the importance of women and men working together to increase equality. The 30 New Leaders include 19 females and 11 males, because Kervinen said that when she saw just how male-dominated the decision-making levels of sports administration were, she understood that change would only be achieved only if both genders were on board.
She highlights the IOC’s gender equality recommendations and Olympic Agenda 2020 as roadmaps for positive change, but says there is still much to do across the world. She hopes the New Leaders will increase the pace of change: “That is what we all hope, but we know it is not going to be easy. They will understand that they themselves have to be active; they have to improve behaviour at their national levels.”
Kervinen has come a long way. She was brought up in a “very poor family” in post-War Finland where there was sometimes no food in the house. She started learning to be a sports leader at summer camp aged 12, and went on to be elected to the ruling bodies of the Finnish Workers’ Sports Organisation, the Finnish Sports Federation and the European Non-Governmental Sports Organisation.
Her 2017 IOC award came as a result of her leadership in the creation of a project to increase the number of female coaches. So what did such recognition mean to her? “I felt joy and gratitude and very honoured, and that my hard labour had become meaningful. It was the moment when a ‘nobody’ became a ‘somebody’.”
In 2015, the New Zealand Olympic Committee received the World Trophy at the IOC Women and Sport Awards in recognition of its efforts to improve gender equality in sport, with strong female representation on its board, within senior management and on its Olympic teams.
It has used the grant it received as part of the award to establish an academy that helps the country’s female athletes transition into sports leadership roles as their competitive careers come to an end. “The academy programme has been a wonderful legacy from the IOC Women and Sport award,” said the NZOC’s CEO and Secretary General, Kereyn Smith, one of the few women to hold a top leadership position in the Olympic Movement.
“It’s been a really exciting project, and obviously impactful, and it’s very much around helping young females with their transition into leadership roles and equipping them with the skills, knowledge and networks that they need to be able to navigate their way through that.”
Smith says the Women in Sport Leadership Academy could play an important role in redressing the gender imbalance she sees when she attends international sports leadership forums. Like Kervinen, she says there is “still a whole lot of work to be done”, but she is inspired by the new generation of female sports leaders who are emerging.
“I believe that, as a leader, and as a leadership organisation, we have a responsibility to support and promote women in leadership roles, and there's just so much that can be done,” Smith adds. “I'm absolutely sure that those women in our leadership programme will be significant figures within the Olympic Movement.”