American sports broadcaster Howard Cosell once said sports is human life in microcosm. Much of what we think and feel about sport is just as pertinent and true in everyday life.
This is particularly applicable here in Australia, where sport is so deeply ingrained in our culture; it is in the very fabric of who we are.
How we talk about and treat women in sport, both on and off the field, is echoed in wider society – both the good and the bad. Sport has long been lauded as a tool to create social change, and it could prove itself to be the most useful way in which we create longstanding and meaningful changes towards achieving gender equality.
This means trying to alter the perception that men’s sport is the dominant, default, and only worthy setting. And it is a perception which has been normalised for hundreds of years.
While these changes will take time it is by no means impossible - change has already happened.
Show me the money
A cupcake sale at a Queensland university aimed at educating people about the existence of the pay gap lead to death threats towards the event’s organisers. While this is an extreme reaction, it highlights some of the attitudes towards wage inequality.
In sport, the push to eradicate the pay gap is dismissed as nothing more than an egalitarian fantasy due to the commercial viability of women’s sport.
The argument against equal pay focuses on the apparent lack of everything.
There are not enough fans, which means there is not enough incentive to sponsor, invest in, or broadcast events. This in turn means that there is not enough coverage of these athletes or the events.
The onus is repeatedly placed back on the athletes to somehow make themselves more successful and more interesting. People seemingly forget to question why audiences aren’t engaging with women’s sport. Perhaps it’s because they don’t want to acknowledge there is, in some areas, an unconscious prejudice against female athletes.
There is an implicit association between men and sport. Consequently women and sport are seen as opposite and incompatible. Changing the way in which we think about women and sport would require a massive shift in the way in which we have been taught to think about society. Sometimes it is easier to blame commercial viability solely for the lack of equal pay.
Although it’s not all bad news. A lot of sports do practice equal pay between men and women, with the four tennis grand slams being the most notable examples. This is a trend that should continue.
If she can see it, she can be it
Seeing more female athletes has a positive effect in two distinct ways. Firstly, and most obviously, increased exposure is beneficial to these athletes and their sports. Recently, both the Women’s Big Bash League and the Matildas have shown that there is definitely an audience for women’s sport on free to air television.
The WBBL had an average audience of 142,000. For a bit context into just how huge those numbers are, the WBBL consistently had more viewers than A-League games. In fact, the top two highest rated WBBL matches - the Melbourne and Sydney derbies - both had audiences in excess of 200,000.
Secondly, more coverage of women’s sport means more female athletes will be visible to the wider public. Representation is an important topic of discussion currently occurring in society, especially in terms of racial diversity in the media. Female representation in sport is something that needs to be encouraged and normalised. The role model argument is well-known and with good reason. The slogan for Geena Davis’ PSA on gender in the media is “if she can see it, she can be it” and this is ultimately the heart of the issue.
The visibility of women in sport not only applies to those playing but in all other aspects of sport. It was only recently that the idea of women and sport re-presented itself as some unfathomable concept, with Rebecca Maddern’s appointment as the new host of the AFL Footy Show.
It is important that we see women not only playing sports but covering them in the media like Maddern. Or officiating them like Eleni Glouftsis. Or working on the boards or in administration like Holly Ransom.
Girls just wanna have fundamental rights
The conditions some of these athletes are being subjected to are simply unacceptable.
The W-League had its first player meeting to discuss the state of the game at the end of this season and some shocking revelations emerged about the working conditions. These players were, in some instances, denied even the most basic necessities: proper change rooms, showers, adequate training pitches. How can athletes be expected to perform in subpar surroundings?
More worrying for the players was the lack of minimum medical standards. This meant that amongst other things, some matches were played without a defibrillator present at the ground. While this is no legally required, it can be found at every men’s match and it is always better to be safe than sorry.
Even off the pitch, female athletes have to contend with less than acceptable working conditions. Heather Garriock’s legal fight against Football Federation Australia (FFA) saw the Matilda attempt to be reimbursed for the cost of organising alternative care arrangements for her young daughter while on tour with the national team.
The costs equated to roughly double Garriock’s income from the tour, but the federation declared that it was not their responsibility to cover costs. While the court dismissed Garriock’s case, the ruling did imply that the FFA had discriminated against her, but, “the Act does not provide a remedy for all forms of discrimination.”
If pay gaps, decent working conditions, and coverage on mainstream media are all too much change then consider this.
I once overheard a conversation between a boy and a man about a W-League match which was being shown on TV. The boy was complaining about how boring the game was, how it wasn’t as exciting or interesting as the men’s version. The man responded that it wasn’t that bad and for a moment I was pleasantly surprised. That was until he finished his sentence: “it’s not that bad, for girls.”
The connotations in those six words were pretty clear; you can’t expect much from the women’s game. And this is ultimately what we need to change. We need to create a culture of respect. We need to normalise women’s sport so it is not seen as an inferior version of the men’s game but a bona fide, entertaining and valuable product in its own right.