Elite athletes settle score on equality in women’s sport

15 AUGUST 2023

Elite athletes settle score on equality in women’s sport

Three female members of Charles Sturt's Elite Athlete and Performer Program talk of how the Matildas have bolstered women's sport and what needs to be done across the industry to get it on a level playing field to the men's competitions.

The success of the Matildas in the FIFA Women’s World Cup has been celebrated around the world. Female members of Charles Sturt’s Elite Athlete and Performer Program give their insight as to the changes that need to be made to get women’s sports on the same playing field as men’s.

The dominant performances of Australia’s Matildas during the FIFA Women's World Cup over recent weeks are an inspiration to current and emerging athletes.

Each game has been watched by global audiences of millions while the match between the Matildas and Canada saw in-stadium crowds reach record-breaking capacity at 75,784 people.

The Matildas game against Denmark had a larger television audience than game one of State of Origin and the 2022 AFL grand final.

Saturday night’s game against France had an estimated average television audience of 4.17 million, the biggest TV audience since Cathy Freeman won gold in the 2000 Olympics.

The global interest in this powerhouse display of female commitment, athleticism and skill begs the question as to why we do not see more of it.

Three female members of Charles Sturt’s Elite Athlete and Performer Program (EAPP) have shared highlights of their experiences about playing at different competitive levels of women’s sport, along with the disparities they have witnessed between the women’s and men’s codes.

All three women agree that the success of the Matilda’s FIFA World Cup campaign has proven that women’s sport warrants a national platform and that there should be more attention, funding and media hype directed toward women’s codes.

Ms Harriet Elleman is one of 164 current members of the Elite Athlete and Performer Program. She is in her final year of studying a Bachelor of Teaching (Secondary) in Wagga Wagga after previously completing a Bachelor of Animal Science, also with Charles Sturt.

harrietHarriet plays as hooker for the Brumbies Super W Rugby Union Team. She said being part of the EAPP has allowed her to cover the costs of travel to games and training, purchase new sports equipment and have conversations with her lecturers about game schedules and requesting extra time for assessments, when needed.

“It has been incredibly supportive, and I believe it is one of the reasons I have been able to train consistently, study and work and be successful in all three,” she said.

However, since joining the Brumbies team in 2018, she has noticed some obvious differences between the men’s and women’s teams.

“Women’s rugby 15s is not equitable to the men’s Super Rugby, and this is because of money,” she said.

The women’s season runs from March to May, but preseason starts in October and they train and travel out of their own pocket until the final squad is selected. This is the first year the squad has received a salary since its inception in 2018.

Harriet said the women’s competition and talent has grown immensely since 2018 but it still has a long way to go to be on an even playing field to the men’s competition. A start would be to ensure the women’s teams have equal access to sporting facilities, such as the gym, and training.

It is commonly thought the women’s team train as hard and for as long as their male counterparts and their games are just as physical, but Harriet said equal focus is not placed on the efforts the Super W team commit to each season.

“I feel that people view women’s sport as second to men, that we might not be as physical as the men’s games, but I can attest that it is incredibly physical,” she said.

“I believe that women may make more sacrifices to play at a semi-professional or professional level in any sport.”

GWS Giants AFLW midfielder Ms Alyce Parker is also in her fourth year of a Bachelor of Agricultural Business Management, studying part-time based in Wagga Wagga.

Harriet and Alyce are among 1,220 online students currently studying in the Wagga Wagga footprint, which spans from Young to Yass, Griffith, Tumut to Tumbarumba and Wagga Wagga.

Alyce said being part of the Elite Athlete and Performer Program has been ‘the greatest resource and asset’ in her study journey.

“The program understands the commitments of being a part-time semi-professional athlete and offers valuable resources and support.”

When it comes to opportunities on the AFL field however, Alyce said there has always been a large gap between her AFL male counterparts, whether in the form of payment, resources, facilities, season lengths or training opportunities.

There has been a gradual shift to close that gap through efforts to become a full-time program, but Alyce said discrimination and ‘trolling’, especially via social media, continues to plague women in sport.

“Being supported by those around you, and in a safe environment, you are quickly reminded of the special journey we are creating and to shift and focus your attention on the young girl or boy you’re inspiring,” she said.

“Change is happening, it has been happening for a long time, but unfortunately it’s happening gradually. There is a direct link between success and growth.”

AFLW is only eight years old and Alyce said it is hard to compare her league to the men’s, comprised of physically stronger and bigger humans playing in a league that has decades of support.

“The negative mindsets are the ones that compare our female sporting careers and performance to that of men,” she said.

“You cannot compare us to sports and leagues that are being played by physically taller, stronger and bigger humans, that have had opportunity and existence for 100-plus years.”

keesjaMs Keesja Gofers is a second year part-time Master of Education student studying online and living in Sydney. She is one of more than 6,450 current Charles Sturt online students based in the greater Sydney area.

Keesja represented Australia in water polo at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and the postponed Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Male and female water polo players in Australia are amateur athletes that require a professional level of commitment.

Keesja said being part of Charles Sturt’s EAPP allowed her to balance scheduling of sport and studying while looking after her four-month-old baby.

However, when it’s time for her to get in the pool, Keesja said she has not seen the same levels of discrimination within her sport specifically, but agrees there is overall less attention, funds and respect for women’s sport and female athletes.

“Some see women's sport as inspirational, thrilling, exciting and others say it's not the same as men's sport,” she said.

“To me, that's the point. The fact it's different adds to the excitement.

“Why would you want it to be the same?”

The World Cup came with a fanfare of media coverage, big brand name endorsements and social media saturation from players and fans.

Despite the differences in levels of professional classification, training opportunities and game schedules, all three women agree that there is one major bridge that needs to be crossed to equality – media exposure.

According to these athletes, it comes down to money, sponsorship and clubs being willing to invest the same amount into all codes.

The women’s teams are not lacking the skill level or professionalism to elevate them to the same level, but they often lack the commitment from those calling the shots.

Harriet, Alyce and Keesja all said that media coverage and money were necessary to elevate the profile of women’s sport.

Harriet added that the same media coverage needs to be given to men’s and women’s competitions, and that clubs should be seeking sponsorship for women’s teams too.

Alyce said the World Cup has brought a global exposure to elite women’s sport and will hopefully prompt the investment needed to elevate the position of women’s sport.

“Women’s sport needs investment, financially, socially and physically from everyone in order to gain the traction and trajectory we know we can achieve,” she said.

“It is amazing to watch and experience, we may be a different sport, but we are all on the one team fighting for female athlete opportunities and rewards.”

Media Note:

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Nicole Barlow at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0429 217 026 or news@csu.edu.au

Photo caption: (From left) Harriet Elleman (photos by Lachlan Lawson Photography), Keesja Nicholson and Alyce Parker.

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