The non-executive director of Football Victoria and the Victorian Institute of Sport considers sport to be a potent means of social change for the otherwise disempowered.
Azmeena Hussain OAM GAICD wanted to be a lawyer from an early age, but her athletic abilities could have steered her towards a sporting career.
As a principal lawyer at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, as well as a director at Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS) and Football Victoria, she’s now achieving the best of both worlds.
In her legal career, Hussain is striving for social justice. In the sporting sector, she’s focused on social change.
It was a love of sport, cross-country running in particular, that helped shift Hussain’s feeling of isolation as a child.
Born in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs, her Sri Lankan cultural heritage and Muslim faith gave her a sense of not quite fitting in. Competing at state level as a teenager — and bringing home two gold medals — Hussain says it was sport that encouraged her to feel part of a team.
“Being someone of colour attending a predominantly Anglo-Saxon school, I stood out and for a while, I actually thought something was wrong with me,” says Hussain, who is also chair of the Islamic Museum of Australia and a member of the SBS Community Advisory Committee.
“But when I was on the track, I was just Azmeena, and I forgot the many identifying labels I grew up with. I wasn’t different, I was part of a team and I truly relished that moment. That sense of camaraderie and support was a feeling you never forget. My love and interest in sport has developed to a passion for social impact. In an ever-increasing way, sport is a powerful vehicle for social change.”
Standing up for the underdog
In 2021, Hussain added another medal to her collection — an Order of Australia for her contribution to the community and the law. Her early interest in the profession was sparked while watching her mother navigate her way through the Australian legal system in the aftermath of a divorce.
“If you’re a third or fourth-generation Australian, you’d probably have a solid support network around you, but newly settled communities are dependent on whoever they met along their settlement journey,” says Hussain.
“That experience my mum had opened my eyes to the difficulty someone from a culturally diverse background can face.”
Sporting chance for all
Hussain was elected to the board of Football Victoria in 2019 and says she’s always been drawn to the diversity of the game.
“It’s everyone’s game, which is why I was particularly interested in joining the board,” says Hussain.
“Then the terrific opportunity came up to join the VIS. I’m passionate about extending access to opportunity so that people on the fringes and those from disadvantaged backgrounds can join elite sport. We’ve still got a long way to go to remove barriers for people to participate in elite sport.”
Hussain says peak sporting bodies do a “fair job” with governance measures, and while those at club level have aspirations for good governance, she believes that there’s room for improvement.
“A lot has to do with funding and available resourcing, because when funding and resourcing is tight, focus goes to the core function of performance and winning, and governance gets pushed to the corner,” she says.
“The reality is that with grassroots-level sport, a lot of the time we’re just fighting for survival.”
Hussain joined Maurice Blackburn as a graduate 14 years ago. In 2019, she became the first Muslim woman to be promoted to the position of partner at the firm.
However, not all law firms welcomed her faith. She recalls her first job interview, which ended with a partner expressing discomfort with her choice to wear a hijab.
His questions focused more on whether she would be comfortable shaking hands with men than on her understanding of the law.
“At the end of the interview, he politely said he wasn’t sure the firm was ready to branch out into having someone of my faith working there, because the legal profession is still quite conservative and there was the potential that I could bring a level of controversy to his firm,” she says.
“That experience fuelled me to challenge the status quo and create opportunities for women — and culturally diverse women — in the law and beyond.”
Hussain practises in Maurice Blackburn’s WorkCover department, where she represents injured workers.
Broadly speaking, according to Hussain, directors are playing catch-up in terms of their responsibilities in this area and the gravity of their non-delegable duty.
“To be able to act for the little person, to give them a voice and a platform, and to stand up for their rights, is personally rewarding — which is why I chose this area,” she says.
Level playing field
Australia will be in the global sporting spotlight this year as co-host (with New Zealand) of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Hussain recently joined Football Australia’s Legacy ’23 ambassador program, which aims to harness the growth of women’s football and become the first community sport to reach gender parity in participation by 2027.
She has also been an ambassador for multiculturalism at the AFL, where she says issues of cultural diversity and inclusion are viewed as organisational risks.
“The AFL identified that they had to do things differently if they were to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of the Australian community and to ensure their membership continued to grow and reflect modern Australia,” she says.
“To think our national code felt at risk — there’s no better organisational example than the AFL. If they can identify the risk, what does that say about other organisations?”
Just like sporting codes, if organisations wish to reflect Australia’s rich diversity, Hussain notes that conversations about representation must shift from “nice to have” to business risk.
“The starting point is to give serious thought to those you seek to serve and represent. Who do you want to be accessible to and do we have those voices around the decision-making table?”
Participants in MiniRoos Multicultural Settlement program for refugee and asylum-seeker children
Source: Football Australia Annual Review 2022
Aspirational target for AFLW senior coaching positions held by women
Source: 2030 AFL Women’s Football Vision
The amount a top-tier AFLW player can earn in season seven, up from $37,155
At the #AGS23 panel, Ready, Set, Go: The governance of sport, Azmeena Hussain AO GAICD addressed representation, its local and global importance among sporting organisations and why people from diverse backgrounds shouldn’t bear the burden of its advocacy.
Q: Can sporting organisations achieve real diversity if at the top level their boards and governing committees aren’t more representative of the communities that they’re trying to reach?
A: “When we look at board composition, we often look at it in the context of a skills matrix or contribution to the board in terms of what skills people bring. But we’re limiting ourselves if we only look at it in that context. It’s so important we have a broad range of skills on the board, as well as boards that are representative of the people we seek to serve.
If you think about sport, our vision, whatever the sport, is to be accessible to everyone regardless of their age, gender, sexual orientation, abilities or cultural background. We want to ensure our sport is accessible to everyone. If they’re not represented on the board as a starting point, we’re essentially just falling behind.
I’m often asked to speak about diversity on boards and in other forums. That responsibility doesn’t sit with me, it sits with every director. There aren’t many people from diverse backgrounds represented on boards and we’ve got a lot of work to be done.
[There are also] issues around merit [around] people who are appointed to boards by reason of them being maybe an Indigenous woman or, like myself, a person of colour.
We’re in this funny phase right now where there can be that tendency or culture to reduce their presence to, ‘that’s why they’re there’. It’s a hard thing to juggle, because you are that first person and you are going through that, but we all have an important role to play in ensuring greater representation of all Australians on boards — by ensuring greater representation of all Australians on boards — to normalise the image of what it means to be an Australian, what it means to play sport.
The last point I’d make is we need to move beyond [regarding] diversity and representation on boards as a ‘nice to have’. As was mentioned, having a lack of skill matrix on a board is a risk issue in itself — the same goes for representation.
It most certainly starts at the board level and should infiltrate every aspect of the organisation.”
Q: How does Football Victoria go about supporting grassroots organisations to have good governance structures?
A: “There’s a strong vision to have good governance at club level, but there’s still a lot of work to be done and a long way to go. At Football Victoria, we’re doing two things. Firstly, we provide consultations and a suite of services to clubs to assist them with establishing good governance practices.
We could do more to ensure constant follow-on and check in to support them in that journey. The reality is, clubs often operate with limited funding and voluntary leadership.
As a result, aspects of governance become secondary to the core function of delivering a game.
Secondly, we’re currently going through a constitutional review process, where we are hoping to overhaul the way we operate and to better streamline our governance processes, to better assist clubs and to make it more accessible for them to have access to governance, resources and support. As a sport, we’ve got it at that top level, but at club level, we’re lagging.”
Q: What is football hoping to achieve from the World Cup and how do you keep developing the game beyond that?
A: “The World Cup is the end product. It’s not the achievement itself, it’s what’s done in the lead-up — and most importantly, what happens thereafter.
Harnessing opportunities around legacy are so important — utilising that opportunity of hosting the Women’s World Cup and putting in place steps to achieve whatever legacy it is.
For example, at [Football Victoria] we have a strong commitment to ensuring gender equity by 2027 across every aspect of the game. So we’ve put a lot of investments into ensuring we have systems in place to achieve that.
As well as that, just harnessing opportunities around removing general barriers to participation for women in sport, increasing facilities, improving facilities and access, and positioning all we do around that piece of legacy.”
This article first appeared under the headline 'Voice for the Vulnerable' in the July 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.
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