The State of Play

22 / 09 / 2015

There are some dodgy divides in the sisterhood that help to keep us from nailing our collective colours to the mast and understanding that no matter what guernsey, metaphorically speaking, we wear, we’re all on the same side in the struggle for greater equality. For Sheilas sports issue, we hoist staunch feminist and life long sports tragic Angela Pippos aloft in the arms of cheerleaders and thank her for explaining this with such pithy perfection.

Being a feminist helps define who I am. It also shapes the way I think about sport and invigorates me to never give up. It powers me to fight for change.

I’m also a born optimist, which is just as well.

I’m not sure I’d have lasted this long as a sports broadcaster if I was a ‘glass half empty’ kind of gal.

The challenges for women in sport are many and great. Despite a history of overachieving there is still a steep hill to climb. The vast majority of our women athletes are still striving for equality, respect, recognition and a decent income.

Here’s a snapshot of this year.

The Matildas became the first senior Australian football team to win a World Cup knockout game on their way to the quarter finals. The Diamonds won their third straight Netball World Cup title and the Southern Stars regained the Ashes – their first series win in England in 14 years. This week canoeist Jessica Fox became the first woman to win three consecutive world titles in the C1 class, hot on the heels of Kim Crow’s gold in the single sculls at the World Rowing Championships.

On the domestic front, Cricket Australia announced the establishment of the Women’s Big Bash League, starting this summer. The AFL declared it would “push everybody to be a bit more adventurous” in its quest for a national women’s league in 2017 and Melbourne City introduced a women’s team into the W-League.

This picture tells you Australian women excel in sport and interest is growing to the point where the governing bodies now realise women actually play sport.

While these changes to the sporting landscape warm my heart we are a long way from equality. To get to that happy place we have to address the root of the problem – outdated attitudes that have for too long dragged us down and held us back.

Sport is a microcosm of society. It magnifies our broader culture in a way very few things can.  The myths, double standards and stereotypes that plague women in society are up in bright lights on the sporting stage for all to see. It can be casual sexism like asking a tennis player to do a little “twirl” after a win or the entrenched kind – unequal pay, objectification of women and underrepresentation of women in positions of power.

Sexism keeps many women in sport (athletes, administrators, media) marginalised and stops them reaching their true potential.

Attitudinal change is where we have to start.

It’s not enough to say you feel proud of the Matildas, Diamonds and Southern Stars. Pride alone won’t change thinking and bring sustainable change.

We have to do more for the sake of our daughters.

Take them (and their brothers) to watch women’s sport at all levels. Flick over to women’s golf, netball or cricket on TV. One Meg Lanning innings would smash a few pre-conceived ideas about the way women play.

Get noisy about the lack of coverage of women’s sport in this country.

A recent Australian Sports Commission report, Towards a Level Playing Field: Sport and Gender in Australian Media found women feature in only seven per cent of sports programming in Australia. This was despite “the ongoing successes and strong participation levels of women in sport”. Coverage of male sport made up 81 per cent of television sports news coverage, compared to women at 8.7 per cent.

“To put this into context, horse racing received more air time than women’s sport in Australian television news,” the report said.

For a sport to prosper it has to be supported and it has to be visible.

Call out sexism. It usually contains one or all of the following pathetic and feeble statements – women’s sport is boring, women athletes aren’t strong enough, skilful enough, fast enough or entertaining enough.

And stop comparing women’s sport with men’s sport. It’s such a tired, stupid, boring and ridiculous argument. How about we recognise and celebrate the differences between men and women’s sport instead?

Both have a whole lot to offer and should be valued and respected equally. Stop pushing the idea that to have equality in sport women must compete with men.

Why should men always be the measuring stick of greatness?

Finally, we have to fight.

Take a leaf out of the Matildas book.

This month the team cancelled its tour of the US amid a pay dispute with Football Federation Australia. (Their $21,000 annual salary is well below the Australian national minimum wage of $34,158).

Importantly, this dispute is about more than money. It’s about access to high performance environments and growing the women’s game.

It’s about respect.

And that’s what makes it a watershed case for women and sport in this country.

For too long sport has been defined by men and for men in Australia. The opportunities, facilities, pathways and the will to change the grossly lopsided landscape just haven’t been there.

And we wonder why girls drop out of sport in their teenage years?

Girls deserve a clear pathway, not one with potholes and ill-informed attitudes. They deserve to see a reflection of themselves. They deserve strong, independent and healthy role models – the kind society is crying out for.

We can achieve this change.

It is not a pipedream.

Last November a record crowd of 55,000 turned out at Wembley to watch England take on Germany in a women’s soccer friendly.

The final of the Women’s World Cup this year featuring the USA and Japan was the highest-rating soccer match in US television history.

In both countries there’s been a shift in the national consciousness.

And ten years ago if you said there would be a woman in the top five pound-for-pound fighters in the world you would have been laughed out of town.

Well today there is. Her name is Ronda Rousey.

In 2011 Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White said women would never compete in his octagon.

Rousey not only competes, she is the face of the UFC.

This proves that large powerful organisations, when they are serious, and when they put their mind to it, can implement real change.

Major sports take note – there are lessons to be learned. Change doesn’t have to be as slow as continental drift.

There’s no reason why a shift in the national consciousness can’t happen here.

Only when it does will we see real and meaningful change.

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