• Kate Jenkins with Aussie Rules coach Peta Searle (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
For Australia’s new Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, sport is both a mirror of social attitudes to gender equality and a powerful setting for cultural change.
Amy Coopes

18 May 2016 - 3:00 PM  UPDATED 18 May 2016 - 3:22 PM

Growing up in Victoria in the 1970s in a family full of Carlton supporters, Kate Jenkins was – of course – a devoted AFL fan.

Like most kids of her generation Jenkins, who was in February appointed Australia’s new Sex Discrimination Commissioner, recalls sport as a rite of passage.

Weekends were crammed with basketball, netball and tennis, and the hallowed ritual of the Carlton match.

In 2015 she was appointed to the Blues’ board of directors, but back then Carlton-mad Jenkins never imagined that kicking the Sherrin was something that she, as a girl, could do.

“It wasn’t even contemplated that women would play football,” she says. 

Now the pioneering equal opportunity lawyer is leading the charge for greater gender equality in sport, describing it as a key platform for grassroots cultural change.

Formerly Victoria’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Jenkins has identified three priority areas for her five-year term: violence against women, economic security for women, and women in leadership.

Rather than separate from or secondary to these issues, Jenkins sees sport as a reflection of broader gender inequalities and a powerful platform for change, touching Australians from every walk of life and at every level.

“I’m looking at sport because it reflects a lot of the problems in terms of inequality that we have across our community,” she says. “It’s using sport to ask why are women paid less - it’s a really stark example.”

“Or how are women treated in terms of equality? Women playing sport like men playing sport says that they are equal, and not the more subservient watchers while the men do.”

“Or how are women treated in terms of equality? Women playing sport like men playing sport says that they are equal, and not the more subservient watchers while the men do.”

While anti-discrimination legislation has been in place for decades, theoretically affording women to the same opportunities as men, Jenkins says significant systemic and attitudinal barriers remain.

In sport, this has meant women are relegated to lower-quality facilities, overlooked in stadium upgrades and broadcast contracts and, until recently, were expected to travel economy while their male counterparts flew up front.

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“There are issues about facilities, about pay, about sponsorship, at absolutely every level,” she says.

For Jenkins, these kinds of structural inequalities feed a cultural narrative privileging men’s sport, a narrative that overlooks the fact male athletes compete in nicer stadiums and that their games are televised.

Corporate sponsors, advertisers and the media perpetuate this primacy of men’s sport by “continually reinforcing who’s important and who’s not”, she says.

Female athletic achievements are framed as exceptional and focused on the body, she says, offering the AFL’s Tayla Harris as an example, or swimmer Liesel Jones, who won the same Olympic medals as Ian Thorpe but only one-tenth of the sponsorship.

“She said the only way I could have made any more money was to take my clothes off, and I remember thinking that’s really stark, even in a sport that’s pretty good on gender equality,” says Jenkins.

Rather than being prescriptive on reforms that need to take place, Jenkins says it is up to the sporting codes to lead the way, with action needed on several fronts, not the least of which is facilities.

Her husband is American-born and Jenkins sees the United States’ Title IX legislation, banning sex discrimination among US students, as a real boost for equality in college sports, something it’s “really clear that we don’t have here”.

“For men’s sport the investment has been huge, we haven’t had anything yet that has said you need to have equality in that spending,” she says.  

“We need to talk about where we’re putting funding and how we’re looking at the gender impact of decisions that we make.”

And while part of that funding conversation has to include wages, Jenkins says it’s just one piece of a much bigger puzzle.

“I’m not saying that pay isn’t important, it’s essential, but it’s not the only thing that’s not being done very well,” she says.

“Providing facilities and providing opportunities, there’s a whole range of other initiatives that need to be put in place as well to improve participation and recognition of women.”

Whether their motives are economic, public image or genuine altruism, Jenkins believes the major codes are starting to see the case for investing in gender equality.

“I think a lot of the sporting codes are realising while they mightn’t see the commercial sponsorship yet, from a pure business point of view when we know that 45-50% of the supporters are women, why wouldn’t you be meeting their desires?” she says.

“And there clearly is an audience for women’s sport, it just either hasn’t been available or there have been historic barriers.”

Corporates, too, are starting to see a business case for sponsorship of female athletes and teams, with Australia Post’s recent announcement of equal prize money in the Stawell Gift for both male and female competitors just one example offered by Jenkins.

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Before 2015, men winning the Gift took home $60,000 while women got just $6,000, a tenth of the purse. Currently, less than 10% of all corporate sponsorship goes to women’s sport.

“It’s not there yet but there is some momentum, and over time I think the financials will change,” she says.

A seasoned soccer parent of a daughter and stepdaughter, two stepsons and a son, Jenkins says the gender divisions remain stark, even in 2016.

Where her sons were valorised among their peer group for playing sport, Jenkins saw negative social pressures for her soccer-playing stepdaughter, with friends questioning the value of her athletic commitments.

Even now, at the age of 7, her younger daughter is one of just two girls in their mixed football team of 14 “when there is no physical reason, just social reasons why girls choose netball and boys choose soccer.”   

With engagement from leaders in both sport and government, and an interest at club, community and national level about what can be done to address gender inequality, Jenkins says the time and climate are right for reform.

Jenkins has always been inspired by female athletes – when asked to do a school project on an Australian sportsperson she always chose Shane Gould or Dawn Fraser and cites Cathy Freeman’s 2000 victory lap around the Olympic Stadium as one of her favourite moments in sport.

She looks forward to the day where such achievements are celebrated, not as an exception, but the rule, and women enjoy true equality both on and off the pitch.

“To get there you’ll need more community engagement, and sport is such a great way to do that.”