Sarai Bareman was accused by some of sleeping her way to the top, but this young CEO of Samoa Football Federation has proven every sexist remark wrong, by excelling in her role as a leader in Samoa sporting circles, and personally praised by FIFA.
On the worst days she has been forced to lock herself in her office to hide the tears as she questions why she is doing what she does.
Fortunately for the beautiful game she is inspired by the dedication of her team, the smiles on the faces of people discovering football and the challenge the role poses.
“Being the CEO is a huge responsibility and the pressure to perform is immense,” Bareman said. “Nevertheless, when I witness the smile on a young girl’s face when she scores her first goal, and the cheers from the crowd as she jumps up and down and celebrates with her team, her mother screaming on the side line with pride – I love my job.
“When I hear the story of a school that we have been working with, reporting that thanks to our football programme there are more children attending school than ever before, this takes the passion I have for the game and builds on it 100 times over as I see the positive impact it has on children, schools and communities and even more – I love my job.”
Bareman’s high profile role comes with a huge amount of responsibility and while her position should be seen as a step forward for women in society, unfortunately she continues to be subjected to gender bias. “As rewarding as it has been, it has also been one of the most challenging experiences of my life,” she says. “More like a battle, and one that I am determined to win.”
Born in New Zealand, Bareman moved to Samoa in 2008 and after starting off as the FFS finance officer soon moved up the ladder, landing the role of CEO in 2011. “I was quite unprepared for the in-your-face opposition I encountered as a female, afakasi or half-caste in a male-dominated country like Samoa, and a heavily male-dominated sport like football.
“I have been called a stupid palagi woman who has no idea what I’m talking about, with no brains. I’ve had my ideas and suggestions ignored, or laughed at simply because I am a woman. I’ve had people tell me straight to my face that my place is in the kitchen and not the CEO’s office and I’ve had to deal with hurtful rumours stating the only reason I got my job is because I slept my way to the top.
“I’ve had male employees who don’t respect me or my authority and who deliberately disobey me or try to shame and embarrass me. I’ve dealt with older men who don’t like to be told what to do by a woman who is younger than them, who is a half-caste.
“I’ve been sitting in serious meetings with high level people and I’ve had to put up with men hitting on me and using sexual innuendos right in the open, while everyone laughs. I’ve had my butt grabbed, been subjected to wolf-whistles and sneered at by all types of males.
“But perhaps what is the hardest is other women, other females, have tried to undermine me by spreading nasty rumours, making up lies, refusing to support me or accept my leadership. Why? Because of jealousy, insecurity, fear? Who knows.”
Despite everything she has been through, Bareman remains strong and says all of it has had the opposite effect.
“I’m still here, I’m still working and I still love my job.
“I have this fire that is burning deep within me. It’s a fire that is burning for me to succeed, to make a difference, to fulfil my purpose and to lead the way. To lead the way for every woman I’ve seen beaten and abused, for every girl who is bullied and teased because of her gender, for every woman who has had to work twice as hard as any man and for every girl who has had her hopes and dreams trodden upon because she’s a female.
“When I’m told that I’m not capable, or I get disrespected because I’m a woman – it’s fuel to my fire.”
Bareman says this conference has been a chance for each and every participant to discuss and share their own experiences, as well as look at how sport can be used to improve people’s lives.
As a leader in sports herself, with 100 per cent certainty, she says this is true – especially when it comes to empowering women.
“Sport creates a platform for women to become leaders, to recognise their true potential, to socialise and participate on a level playing field with the respect of other women, and men alike. There is an expectation that as a woman, we will automatically fail and through sport we can change these perceptions and eliminate inequality.”
Bareman is a true leader who is making progress in breaking down barriers for women globally, but especially at home in Samoa.
“I refuse to shrink my goals and dreams because I am a female. I will keep using that burning fire within me to lead by example and create opportunities for women to be a role model for young girls and to show men that as a woman, I have earned respect and I am capable.”
She implored all those present, but especially the men, not to accept any action verbal or physical that degrades women.
“Ladies, if someone puts you down or treats you like a second class citizen, if you are abused or degraded or made to feel inadequate because you are a woman – use it. Build your fire and use it as fuel.”