Skip to main content

Invisible women in sport

Discrimination Sex Discrimination
Kate Jenkins on stage speaking, gesturing with her hands.

Kate Jenkins
Australian Institute of Sport Conference
6 November 2019

 

Thank you very much for joining me here today. 

I will start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respect to their Elders past, present and emerging. Every time I make that acknowledgement, I make it genuinely and from the heart. I'm really proud to live in a country with such a rich history and culture. And I'm also very ashamed to live in a country that caused its first people such harm over almost 250 years of colonisation. Right at this moment I feel hopeful for progress, as Minister Ken Wyatt explores a serious way we as a country might create a real voice for Aboriginal peoples. 
 
I'll start with a quote. 

“Imagine a world where your phone is too big for your hand, where your doctor prescribes a drug that is wrong for your body, where in a car accident you're 47% more likely to be seriously injured, where every week the countless hours of work you do are not recognised or valued. 
 
If any of this sounds familiar, chances are you're a woman.”

It's from a book by Caroline Criado Perez called Invisible Women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Today I want to talk about invisible women in sport. 
 
As Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I'm often reminded that I should ensure I focus on preventing discrimination against men, as well as discrimination against women. Both men and women tell me that sex discrimination happens both ways. 
 
But in reality, the data tells us that unfavourable discrimination is primarily experienced by women and on a daily basis, that it's embedded in our systems and in our data. And so when I started this role as Sex Discrimination Commissioner in 2016, I quickly looked to that data, and identified three key priorities where Australia really needs to do better: 

  • preventing violence against women and girls; 
  • promoting women into leadership roles; and 
  • advancing women's economic security. 

 
On all those three measures women do significantly worse than men. But surely discrimination isn't a problem in sport? Everyone plays sport - boys play sport, girls play sport - Australians love sport, we are outdoorsy and active, with a great tradition of sporting heroes and achievement. So what is the problem for Australian women in sport?
 
Let me take you back to 2015. I'm a Melbourne girl and yesterday, we celebrated the Melbourne Cup - a Melbourne and Australian sporting tradition. In 2015, Her Excellency the Honourable Linda Dessau had been appointed as the 29th Governor of the State of Victoria. At the Governor’s traditional Cup Eve event, the new Governor gave a tip on the horses for the Cup to the assembled crowd. The Governor told us - as the first woman ever to hold the role of Governor, it was only fitting that she would tip the horse with the only female jockey - her odds were on Michelle Payne on Prince of Penzance to win the Melbourne Cup. At 100 to 1 betting odds, there were many people after that event that thanked the Governor for her tip. This week her Excellency recalled how that successful tip has created high anticipation every year for her thoughts, as she duly delivered her 2019 tip. 
 
That was 2015 - not that long ago. Now the reason I particularly remember that day is that in my head, I regard that as a moment where progress for women in sport accelerated and quite rapidly so. What happened was that we saw the race. We watched this woman win the race in the one sport where men and women can compete in the same competition, where girls who have grown up loving horses should have equal access, where being light and small is an advantage - surely women have the edge? This is a sport that actually makes sense that women could do well, certainly a unique sport where you don't have a women's team and a men's team - you can all compete together.
 
And yet Michelle Payne gallops through, gets to the end, and basically says, “stuff you all who said a woman was not good enough to do this, I did it”. I think Michelle Payne used that moment brilliantly to call out the often hidden, chauvinistic experience of women in too many fields. And as I was watching that, I know as a woman, I felt like I just so knew what she meant. As a woman with a relatively successful career I still knew of the barriers to my success, the people who believed I should focus more on my children than my career, systems that gave more opportunities to men than women, even in an industry where women and men enter at equal rates. At that moment, I think a lot of women wished they could have a moment of supreme success and just say “stuff you all” to the people who told them they couldn't do it. So many were delighted with Michelle Payne’s interview.

But at the time a lot of people - a lot of men - said, “Where did that come from? What is she on about?” Michelle was pointing out all of those often invisible systemic and attitudinal barriers to her success. The people who said she couldn't do it but also the systems that didn't allow her to get through, and the people who really didn't want her on the back of that horse on that day. And so, at that time, I felt like this was a really good moment for us to highlight the experience of women in sport. We've now got a film, Ride Like a Girl, so I obviously was on the right track.
 
The following day I received a call from sport journalist Sam Lane, who was at that point working for The Age. Sam called me and said, “Kate, did you see Michelle Payne yesterday? Did you see her win and did you hear her comments? And as Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner do you have any comment to make?” And because of the fabulous thing about clever journalists who are secretly trying to move the agenda along, I had an avenue to highlight the hidden barriers to women in racing. And Sam also asked, “Have you called like Racing Victoria? Have you called anyone to discuss this issue of women in racing?” And I said, “No, but that's a good idea.” So I called the CEO of Racing Victoria, Bernard Saundry. And I said, “You heard what Michelle Payne said, could I come down and have a chat to you about what that might mean, how you might use this moment to change racing for the better?” 
 
I met with Bernard and his head of human resources, and it was a very positive meeting because they were like, we are totally aware of these issues but we are not the decision makers in the racing industry across the country, so we don’t hold the levers to challenge the biggest barriers. We actually are only involved with the training of the jockeys, we're not the employer, we don't organise the trainers, all the decision-making is out of our hands, we’re a little organisation. But they explained to me what they were doing in their organisation. They were doing some good things, but very much, it was, we don't have the levers to control this, but we know there’s a problem. 
 
And so, as a result of that conversation and to this day Giles Thompson, who's the current CEO, says that was the moment where they started seeing their role differently. And some of you might know that Male Champions of Change established a sport CEO group, and have produced a report on pay equity. I think the most valuable part of that report was recognising the ecosystem of sport – the interconnections of influencers. That it’s very easy to say, well, I don't hold the levers. But actually as a collective the levers were all there. 
 
Everyone does have a role to play. Michelle Payne couldn't point to one person who was the problem, because actually all of it intersecting was the problem. I think that from there, it feels like we've reached a turning point in women's sport, and lots of you will know this. I won't go through every statistic but we have seen progress:

  • Participation numbers in a whole range of sports have gone up.
  • Female athletes have a much greater profile and voice. When I grew up there was swimming, gymnastics and tennis, but pretty much you didn't have a female athlete in almost any other field that you could follow.
  • Women are taking executive and board roles. Peggy O’Neal at Richmond is often recognised and Kate Palmer is the CEO of Sport Australia. There are actually lots of women joining boards and even more who are keen and I know you've seen them here, women like Marina Go, other women who are getting into those board roles and improving governance of sporting organisations. 
  • We're hearing about investment in new facilities because increasing female participation creates demand for more and better facilities - more hockey fields, more netball courts, more footy ovals, more soccer pitches. 
  • We see more focus in the media, and increased sponsorship of female sport. 
  • We hear about women’s pay increasing from zero to something, that's huge progress, but it's nowhere near to equality yet. Although the FFA deal with the Matildas and Socceroos this week showed real progress for women’s sport globally. 

 
So in four years the profile of women’s sport and the conversations about it have really accelerated. And I think Michelle Payne’s win was an inflection point and I really am encouraged by that. 

But when I think about this conversation I again come back to my personal experiences. 

I'm a Melbourne girl, an AFL fan, and a Carlton supporter. Barracking for Carlton is part of my heritage, inherited from my mother and her father. I have memories of going to the footy with my mother and her three sisters, cousins, everyone went to the footy, so I grew up very much loving the sport, the excitement, the pea-and-ham soup in the stands, the fun. 

But as a young girl it did not even cross my mind that I could play footy. I kicked the ball with my brothers, not particularly well, but actually I never wished I could have played. I'm Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I hear women talk about it all the time, say they always wanted to play. No, I didn't want to play, did not even cross my mind that this was something that I could do, I wasn't particularly sporty, I was just a normal kid. So I haven't had a long-held regret that I missed the boat because I never knew that was a boat I could be on. 

But if I jump forward to now it has been the greatest privilege to be involved with Carlton getting one of the first licenses for their women's AFL teams. I am so passionate about what the women’s team has done for women athletes, but also for the club, how it's improved that club so much for the better. And more personally I can see how that change has improved my daughter’s life for the better. 

Let me move from talking about elite sport to grassroots - I want to tell you about that impact of that progress on the ground. So many of you will have had this experience. 

I have a daughter who's now 10. When the first AFLW competition started she was seven going on eight. She went to that first game, the one that everyone said no one will turn up. But gosh, everyone did turn up at Princes Park, where we watched rivals Carlton play Collingwood. 

And I remember the conversations with my kids in the grandstand. My daughter, absolutely, from that minute said, “I want to play this game, I want to play this now.” She does swimming, gymnastics, and soccer - she does all these things still - but she wanted to play this game. And I my husband and I were kind of like, “We’re not sure when we're going to fit that in … but okay.” My son, who was about 10 at the time and equally excited about the game, said, “Mum, I can't think of even one reason why women haven't been playing this game. Not one.” To him it absolutely did not make sense. 

That year my husband and I didn’t navigate how we could get our daughter to play some footy, so she didn't. The next year, she came to the first game of season 2, she watched it, and said, again, “Mum, Dad, I want to play this sport.” Fortunately, my husband is more attentive to those things, so he made some inquiries and booked her in. 

In 2018, she joined in an under-10s team, and she was definitely the youngest. She had a great season playing with these older girls and learning about the sport. At the start of the season she couldn't kick, she couldn't handball and she tackled with her head. She loved it - she would just get in and play. 

This year was her second season, but all those girls had moved on to the under-12s team, so the team was all new players and she was the only child that had ever played before. Some kids on the other side had done Auskick, but my daughter was the only one our team that had. That first game, we're talking 52 to zero. 

Watching her and that team play over the course of this year has been one of the greatest delights of my life. 
 
But really early we saw some real talent: a 7-year-old girl who I’m confident has AFLW potential, others with a bunch of brothers who clearly knew what they were doing. The coach was an 18-year-old girl who was a footy player and an elite rower, athletic and a brilliant role model. The kids all thought that she was so cool. The families involved were from around the area, different schools and friendship groups. We watched them over the course of the season, their physical development, their skill development, their social interaction, their new friendships. So, we ended up with this team of cool kids from all over who were having a go. And by the end they were consistently winning, I will admit which was fun for the parents but seemingly less important for the girls. 

As a parent on the sidelines over the season I would take photos of the players, and share photos of them being so physically active - the smiles on their faces every time were so inspiring. There were a few in the team who were a bit scared of the ball, including one little girl who I would train the camera on in the hope that I could get a shot of her with the ball. I spoke to her mum at some point and said, “You know, I do have a little challenge getting your daughter with the ball.” And her mum said – “it doesn't matter, when she comes home she thinks she's touched the ball 14 times, she loves the sport, and what she gets out of doing this is absolutely fantastic.” 
 
When it comes to kids’ sports, usually you divide and conquer with one parent with one kid and one sport, the other parent with another. But with this team it was two parents there, almost every time. Fathers hoping the other fathers wouldn’t be there so they could be the umpire or on the goals - everyone had their role and was completely engaged, and by the end we were all regretful that the season had finished. Through that experience I could see the impact on the kids and the parents, the community impact, and I could see a club that was getting re-energised because of this whole activity.
 
Of course, I could also see how the boys’ teams were still treated as the norm. At our club there are 10 boys’ teams and three girls’ teams now, and we’re very proud of that. But when I looked on the club’s Instagram page one day I counted thirty photos of the boys’ teams to one picture of the girls. When it comes to the footy ground, there are arguments with the local council on where we can play because there’s been this explosion in the numbers of girls playing. And I wonder why is seen as the girls’ problem, to find the different ground? And I hear about concerned parents not letting their daughters play footy because of the unknown impact of AFL injuries on girls and women’s bodies. Now, it's not as if men don't get injured playing football. They get concussion, they are often injured. But, as explained in Invisible Women, we don't know how women will be affected by injuries because we've never really collected the data. 

We are at a turning point because we now can see the benefits of women’s sport. The financial benefits of women watching sport, buying equipment, paying memberships. The physical and social benefits of participation. The improved governance of sporting organisations with more diversity in staffing and leadership. There are studies on CEOs in the US that found most of the female CEOs have an elite or a high-performance sporting background. The things you learn from teamwork and performance and discipline when playing sport has benefits in other areas of life. 
 
We also know that our community progress on gender equality is accelerating because of the influence of sport. At the first bounce of the first game of AFLW, Sarah Hosking ran straight in and tackled an opposition player, and I could feel so many people's attitudes changing and old biases shattering in that moment. Instead of wondering how a woman’s breast will handle the impact, we saw the athletic potential of the female body as never before. 
 
So why is systemic change so hard in sport, in particular? 

Despite strong discrimination laws since the 1980s, Australian society as a whole continues to hold attitudes about quite gendered roles for men and women in society, at work and home. Men are still seen as stronger, the leaders, the breadwinners, while women are seen as softer, gentler, as the carers. When you look at sport through those gendered roles, the view is men are strong, physical, and active, and women are soft, weak and gentle. 

The other factor in sport is that it has been organised on gender lines for a very long time, so much so that discrimination in sport is embedded in our laws. In the working world people don't say you can't be a lawyer because you’re a woman, but in women have been told they could not play sports like AFL after the age of 12. The Sex Discrimination Act specifically defines that it will be permissible to discriminate in competitive sporting activity on the basis of sex or gender identity where the competition relies on strength, stamina and physique. This discrimination has been used not just to create separate teams, as it was intended, but to deny access to sport for women and girls. 

We are now at a moment where this discrimination has been recognised. We now recognise the benefits of inclusive sport. Suddenly we are creating opportunities for women and those women are becoming more visible. This is why it seems like there’s this big explosion. When you start from excluding women from sport and then start to include them, that feels like a big explosion. 

How, then, do we use this momentum to make systemic change? In the world of gender equality in Australia we've had some good progress, especially in our laws and education. We also have a framework for advancing gender equality called Change the Story from Our Watch, including some resources that look specifically at sport. 

Change the Story recognises that if you want change, it's not as simple as passing a law: you've got to implement multiple mutually-reinforcing initiatives in high impact settings (like sport), which together will progress change. When I speak, I'm often asked, “What's the one thing we need to do to achieve gender equality?” The reality is if there was just one thing, we would have done that. It is a whole lot of things happening at one time that will make the change. So Michelle Payne, and progress in the AFLW, cricket, football, netball, basketball, and Ash Barty in tennis, all of those together create momentum. 
  
Everyone has a role to make a difference and everyone can make a difference. I spoke about the recent progress, on participation, on facilities, on sponsorships, pay and governance and in the media, in a whole range of areas for women in sport. I gave you some good examples, but I want to be clear. If you look at the data, and you think about the ‘invisible women’ in sport, women are still a long way behind men and we need to be realistic about the work that still needs to be done. 

In my work, I always think about how I can impact sport at both ends of the spectrum - the elite and grassroots levels. From working with national sporting codes, to co-chairing of Play by the Rules, to being a parent at my daughter’s footy. Those small messages and engagement at all levels are important. In the work we do at the Australian Human Rights Commission, for example, we’ve produced Guidelines for equal opportunity for women and girls in golf, and Guidelines for the inclusion of transgender and gender diverse people in sport, to help organisations understand what they can do better.
 
In closing, I want to remind you that you absolutely have a role to play in making a difference. There’s a whole range of things that you can do in the normal course of your work. Whatever you do, big or small, will make a difference. The more people that are engaged and understand the position for women in sport and know they can contribute, the more progress we will make. I want you to be optimistic and hopeful, but I don't want you to be misled, or complacent by the progress. There was no female jockey in this year’s Melbourne Cup. The progress is encouraging, but I know from this book, Invisible Women, that the data tells us that we still have plenty of work to do. There is real momentum right now for women in sport and I encourage you to find your role, whatever it is, big or small, in making change. Thank you.

Kate Jenkins

Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Area:
Discrimination Sex Discrimination

See Also