Health, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

18 March 2020

Women’s involvement in sport has grown rapidly, but if Australia hopes to achieve equity, there are still many hurdles to come, Kathryn Henne and Madeleine Pape write.

Australia has become a hotbed for women’s professional sport. Today, young girls and women can see people like them across the upper echelons of the nation’s professional sports – even in codes that have long been the strongholds of Australian men and masculinity, such as cricket and football.

On International Women’s Day this year, Australians were able to turn on their free-to-air television and watch their national team excite a home crowd of over 85,000 fans during the T20 Women’s World Cup Final. As tournament victors, the Australian women’s team, for the first time, received prize money equal to that of the men’s competition.

Despite these promising changes, Australians should still ask the question, ‘are we there yet?’, because if the destination is gender equity in Australian sport then the answer is still an emphatic ‘no’.

The Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) season was restricted to eight regular-season matches in 2020, a far cry from the 13 needed for all participating teams to play each other at least once. Even though the AFLW is attracting large crowds and television viewership, top-tier players will take home only $29,856 in pay, significantly less than minimum wage earners in Australia, let alone the salaries of players in the men’s competition.

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Clearly, Australia must do more. Although adult women are on average more physically active than men are, they are far less likely to be members of sports clubs. Their numbers drop even further at the level of decision-making: women account for less than a quarter of the board chairs of sports organisations, 13 per cent of chief executives and only 15 per cent of high-performance coaches.

Further, there are ongoing debates over where sex and gender minorities fit within women’s sport, resulting in a patchwork of grassroots and elite eligibility policies – applying especially to trans women – that remain both scientifically and ethically contested.

These issues raise a key question. What policy interventions might move professional sport in Australia towards equity? Addressing key policy areas offers a compelling start for a more comprehensive agenda.

Greater visibility and compensation is the first crucial step. Although women’s sport is more visible than it was even five years ago, its mainstream media coverage still lags behind men’s sport. Research shows clearly that more coverage generates more interest.

In addition, while Cricket Australia’s embrace of pay parity for the World Cup is notable, it remains an unusual step. This was never more obvious than when one of the world’s most successful sporting teams, the United States Women’s National Soccer Team, resorted to suing its federation for equal pay and working conditions.

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Policymakers must understand gender equality as encompassing working conditions like pay and parental leave, as well as professional resources like sports medicine. The recently re-negotiated Women’s National Basketball Association collective bargaining agreement in the United States reflects these priorities: it increases compensation while committing to greater revenue sharing, improved childcare and travel arrangements, and stronger career pathways.

The second place policy can make an impact is bringing more women into leadership positions. Despite investment in programs to support women’s leadership development, men still dominate coaching and leadership roles in Australia sport.

There is some progress on this. In 2018, former Sport Australia chief executive Kate Palmer introduced a talent program aimed at immersing emerging women leaders and coaches in the upper levels of their respective sports.

Some organisations have taken additional steps: as of July 2019, all sport and active recreation organisations funded by Sport and Recreation Victoria and the Victorian Government must comply with a mandatory quota of 40 per cent women board members.

The entrenched association of masculinity with decision-making power in sport – and more generally – is pervasive. Policies must target institutional change, rather than laying blame on the supposed shortcomings of aspiring women leaders.

Finally, sports policymakers must work for better gender-affirming practices. In 2013, the federal Sex Discrimination Act recognised that gender identity is not confined to two-category binary distinctions. Then, in 2019, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Sport Australia released a joint policy outlining recommended practices for the inclusion of transgender and gender diverse people in sport.

Developed with the input of major professional and participation sporting bodies, the policy outlines responsibilities with respect to affirming the gender identity of all participants. However, it leaves room for governing bodies to form their own eligibility regulations where they believe it may compromise ‘fairness’.

Invariably, such regulations raise scientific and ethical concerns that sports governing bodies must be prepared to engage with, not disregard. A sustainable and just vision of gender equality in sport demands the recognition and inclusion of sex and gender minorities, backed by strong leadership, outreach, and education efforts.

These policy areas are mere starting points. Wider access to grassroots level women’s sport remains a challenge, as barriers, such as cost and opportunity, affect groups of women differently. The women of Australia are diverse, and not all are equally visible or supported to participate in sport.

As gender inequalities crosscut other socially meaningful forms of difference, such as class, disability, ethnicity, indigeneity, race, religion, and sexuality, policy must be attentive to how they interact if we want systematic change in Australian sport.

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