The second woman and first Indigenous person to be appointed to the AFL executive, Tanya Hosch, is reforming a sporting code that has been plagued by multiple counts of racist attacks in recent decades.
It had been 20 years since St Kilda beat Collingwood at Victoria Park, so the former team’s triumph at Collingwood’s home ground on 17 April 1993 should have called for raucous celebration or bitter commiseration, depending on which side you backed.
But expressions of both were few and far between that day, and instead replaced by a deluge of racist slurs hurled at two Indigenous St Kilda players, Nicky Winmar and Gilbert McAdam. The star players, who were jointly named ‘best on ground’ that day, had faced an onslaught of abuse well before that point.
Throughout the match, Winmar and McAdam were continuously spat on, and dodged drink cans pelted their way.
McAdam’s father, who flew down from Alice Springs especially for the occasion, was so appalled by the racism levelled towards his son, he left the stadium in tears. By the time the final whistle sounded, Winmar had copped more than enough. He lifted his shirt, pointed to his torso and announced to the crowd: “I’m black, and I’m proud to be black.”
His defiant pose, snapped by photographers and splashed across newspapers the following day, has since been viewed as a defining moment in Australian sporting history.
More than two decades after the momentous match took place, Winmar’s stance against racism was immortalised in bronze outside Perth’s Optus Stadium.
Although developing the statue was a collaborative effort, there was one person who was instrumental in seeing it come to fruition: Tanya Hosch.
“This statue stands for more than just football,” says Hosch, SA recipient of the 2021 Australian of the year award.
It is one of her proudest achievements to date as the executive general manager, inclusion and social policy at the Australian Football League.
“It talks so cleanly to the impact of racism and how unacceptable it is. Nicky’s gesture of being black and proud is really wonderful, but it shows that even though the [racist behaviours against him] happened nearly 30 years ago, sadly, it is still extremely relevant today.”
Time for reform
Adam Goodes might be the most publicised example of racism in the sports industry, but he’s hardly alone in his plight. Héritier Lumumba, Nic Naitanui and Joel Wilkinson are just a small crop of AFL players to have also been the targets of racial abuse in recent years.
The sheer scale of on-field and online vitriol fuelled Hosch’s motivation to update the league’s anti-vilification rule earlier this year. Under the reviewed policy, the deadline for players to report racist and sexist abuse after an incident has been extended from two days to two weeks, with discretion to investigate complaints beyond this timeframe.
“We all have to take responsibility for creating safe workplaces and inclusive environments, and that is never just going to be up to me or people who have roles like mine.” – Tanya Hosch, executive GM inclusion & social policy, AFL.
In addition, witnesses such as umpires, office bearers, coaches and other players are able to report abuse, whereas previously the power to report often lay solely on victims’ shoulders.
Although the rule changes are active, Hosch says there’s still a “massive suite of recommendations that needs to be implemented to address the whole football ecosystem, from community football all the way up to elite”.
Effective implementation will require education and training to deal with the vilification of players, she says, as well as discussions with broadcasters and social media platforms to enforce stronger protections.
“Ultimately, we want to see racism eradicated from society, and sport is a really powerful platform to bring those conversations to life,” says Hosch, whose portfolio as an AFL executive also includes advocating for progress in the areas of gender equality, sexuality and gender diversity.
Against the backdrop of conversations about racism in Australia and the broader Black Lives Matter movement (BLM), Hosch will be speaking on the topic Are we ready? True transformation or simply progress? at the AHRI Convention TRANSFORM 2021 next month, now a fully virtual event.
Although pleased to see greater recognition of the prevalence and extent of racism, Hosch fears the BLM movement will culminate in being “just a moment in time” instead of “the great opportunity it has the potential to be”.
“We are seeing greater awareness of the existence of racism, and there have been people working towards that for decades.
“I would love to say we can see a transformation happening, but I don’t think we have made a lot of progress in relation to addressing it,” she says.
An impactful mentor
Growing up in South Australia, Hosch and her father would bond over scouring away racist graffiti daubed on the walls of her primary school. With a sponge and a bucket of water in hand, they rid the corridors of offensive comments often targeted at Hosch.
“That’s where [my passion] stemmed from – knowing what racism felt like. There were a lot of people who suffered far more than me, and I knew how hard it was for me.”
The unwavering support of her family and friends helped her through, along with the opportunity to lean on mentors – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous role models who offered a nurturing place to debrief.
“Their objective perspectives, and them having so much more experience than me, but having gone through such similar things, was really valuable.”
Since paying the deed forward as a mentor to other professionals, Hosch says being privy to the challenges and vulnerabilities of her mentees has also widened her perspective.
“You can look at the most successful and confident person in the world and believe they are very self-assured, and you soon find out that’s not the case,” says Hosch. “We all have areas that we know we need to work on, and we can all be challenged.”
Hosch’s reputation as a respected mentor and diversity advocate have placed her as a figure of authority on best practices for eliminating racism in the workplace. When she calls out racist behaviour, she’s often commended for her forthrightness.
“People will say to me on the way out of a meeting, ‘That’s great you said that,’ and I will say, ‘Well yes, but why didn’t you say it?’
“Often they’re a bit surprised, and it’s quickly followed by, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I need to think about that’. It often paralyses people. None of us like to look silly, and you can make yourself vulnerable by raising questions that you don’t have an answer to yourself.”
While Hosch empathises with their trepidation, she says, “We all have to take responsibility for creating safe workplaces and inclusive environments, and that is never just going to be up to me or people who have roles like mine.
“We need to share the burden of responsibility and increase accountability.”
One of the key considerations in doing this is to delineate between comments intended to hurt someone or bring them down, versus those borne from a place of ignorance.
“It is clear not all comments are designed to deliberately offend, and I pay attention to intent. But intent doesn’t mean that racism hasn’t had an impact and hurt someone, and this is what should be dealt with. An apology from, and education for, the person who has caused the offence is essential.”
Hosch also advises HR to develop a protocol on how to respond to unacceptable behaviour, so victims and bystanders can feel more confident when communicating their concerns.
As a starting point, the Australian Human Rights Commission suggests following the ‘Support, Record, Report’ method by offering support to the victim, recording the incident, and reporting it to a senior employee.
Learning for Justice also offers some techniques for responding to racist remarks in the workplace including the following:
- Interrupt early to nip racist remarks in the bud.
- If a racist joke is told, interrupt the laughter by querying: “Why does everyone think that’s funny?” and explain the effect the joke has on you, or others.
- Create an alliance with like-minded colleagues to work towards building a more inclusive workplace.
- Escalate the issue to a senior leader, particularly if the racist remarks are occurring on an ongoing basis.
Startling figures from the Diversity and Inclusion Council’s recent Gari Yala report give further weight to the pervasiveness of workplace racism.
Forty-four per cent of Indigenous employees reported hearing racist slurs sometimes, often or all of the time, and 63 per cent said they experience high identity strain – defined as the stress Indigenous employees can feel when they themselves, or others, view their identity as not meeting the norms of the dominant culture.
It is hardly surprising, then, that many companies are struggling to retain their Indigenous employees.
Hosch believes a lot of the issues around retention stem from recruitment, which she says is typically targeted at more junior candidates.
Many organisations run recruitment drives with government funding support and are successful in their efforts to hire Indigenous employees, but subsequently find themselves “hugely surprised” that they don’t retain Indigenous people.
The underrepresentation of Indigenous people at the senior level is a major contributing factor, says Hosch.
“The tendency to try to fill roles at the lower level with traineeships or apprenticeships is great, but if you don’t have Indigenous presence and influence at the senior levels of an organisation, younger staff of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background don’t see a forward path for them up the ladder.
“It can be very daunting for a young and junior Indigenous employee to raise a complaint if there aren’t more experienced Indigenous people in their workplace who may have already improved the culture of the workplace through their presence and feedback.
“It’s time we saw many more Indigenous people on company boards. It signals to employees that this is a place where Indigenous people are welcome, are treated seriously, and it’s part of what this organisation seeks to be and do.”
A version of this article first appeared in the July 2021 edition of HRM magazine.
Want to hear more from Tanya Hosch? Register to attend AHRI’s TRANSFORM 2021, a full virtual conference packed with amazing speakers, content and networking opportunities. Discover more here.