Sunday 09 July 2023, 14:00

FIFA Women in Leadership Graduate paving the way for women in New Zealand

  • Paula Hansen explains her journey from small town men’s league Chairman to National Legacy Manager

  • Credits FIFA programme for providing confidence to ‘step outside her comfort zone’

  • “I’m proud to work in a game that is so powerful that all you need is a round ball.”

Before the world tunes in to the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023™, a quiet, coastal city on the North Island of New Zealand is preparing to host its national team for the first time. The Football Ferns’ match against Vietnam in Napier on the eve of the biggest tournament of their lives is especially significant for Paula Hansen, whose job it is to ensure the FIFA Women’s World Cup boosts the female game in New Zealand. It is the region that the General Manager of FIFA Women’s World Cup Legacy and Inclusion calls home, and where her own trail-blazing career took off.

Paula Hansen pictured at the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 Cultural Panel office

Paula Hansen was among 24 women worldwide handpicked for the FIFA Women in Leadership Programme in Zurich after being the only female in New Zealand to chair a men’s national team club. She did so for an impressive, albeit challenging, seven years. “Even up to my last season at Hawke’s Bay United people would ask me ‘who’s the man in charge today?’ The assumption was that I was a woman, so of course I wouldn’t be leading a national club. But I was able to influence people and show through my behaviour that building relationships is just as important in business. It took them a while for them to realise that I did have value.”

FIFA Women's World Cup 'One Year To Go' event at FMG Stadium Waikato on July 20, 2022 in Hamilton, New Zealand.

So much value that she went on to chair the all-male national league stakeholder group. Although determined not to fail, she still didn’t recognise her leadership abilities – that is until FIFA came knocking. “If I look back, it was the FIFA leadership programme that gave me the confidence to venture outside my comfort zone. To learn who I was as a leader and realise I wasn’t there by fluke - I did have leadership skills and that was when I really started to think I could have a career in this game.”

Paula has spent the last two years delivering programmes that are shaping and improving football in New Zealand, with the first year focused on launching the national legacy plan, ‘Legacy Starts Now’. While legacy in the last nine months has revolved around shower heads, floodlights and urinals, the much-needed upgrades making clubs more accessible to female players is something she is very proud of and a “massive legacy outcome.” “It will have an incredible impact on community football. Legacy can be a throwaway term, but I believe you’ll feel and see legacy when things are different and better. Open, cold showers and urinals are not a welcoming environment. Building these new relationships and these upgrades, everything going on behind the scenes... it’s what makes the difference long term.”

Her leadership journey continues to inspire and influence women across the country, and she continues to be involved in New Zealand Football’s national women in leadership programme, which now boasts more than 80 female graduates. “It’s so refreshing to see all these women come through the programme in the last three years and they’re out in a wide range of roles really changing football and their communities for the better. “Having more women leaders means diversity of voice and thought at decision making tables. We’ve got two female chairs of our six federations and that’s where the legacy is: it’ll be when the female voice is truly heard, and clubs reflect our wider community.”

FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 - One Year to Go - Hamilton

She admits there’s a long way to go when it comes to inclusion and accessibility but hosting a World Cup only comes around once in a lifetime and that’s enough motivation for the toughest of workdays. “If we provide an opportunity for just one child of any gender to use football as a positive to help them manage being bullied, or if football is the reason they stay in school, where they meet their best friend or can connect with someone in their family... that’s what I’ll be proud of. “I’m proud to work in a game that is actually so powerful that all you need is a round ball. If we can find a way to get one to everybody that wants it, then that will be a legacy felt for many generations to come.”