What I learned from women when I researched gender in Australian Rules football leadership
In 2015 I embarked on a research project to explore the lived experiences of women present in traditionally male-dominated leadership positions within the sport of Australian Rules football. I spent countless hours sitting across from women in their workplaces, at nearby coffee shops or speaking with them over the phone, engaging with them about their careers, the path they have taken, barriers they have faced and their thoughts on the state of gender equality within the environment in which they work.
Oftentimes within the general media, when discussing gender equality within sport, we hear the perspectives of those in power (often championing the work they are doing toward inclusion and equality) – though there are very few women in powerful positions within the top hierarchy of the Australian Football League. While any discussions involving gender equality are important, it is vital that the experiences of women in traditionally male-dominated spaces, such as sport, are continually explored (and from various perspectives). Exploring the reality of the situation directly from women themselves is perhaps the most pertinent.
Did they feel equally represented?
There was an incredible amount of insight from women about their roles working in football departments, on boards, as umpires, in finance and within the media at national and state level football. There were wonderful, positive anecdotes and stories of struggle. Of gender being at the forefront of challenges and gender not coming into question.
There were women on the verge of tears, their voices riddled with frustration and exasperation. There were women recalling events from years (and sometimes decades) ago, whom have witnessed significant (but remarkably slow) change. And women fresh into their roles who had not experienced such a magnitude of hardships.
Change is coming but gender barriers still exist
It is evident (simply from my point of view as a women in Australian society, let alone my academic view) that there is change occurring within the realm of sport, by which the passion, knowledge and capabilities of women within the sporting space are increasingly being recognised and validated. However, this does not disregard the challenges that are still prevalent within traditionally male-dominated sports such as football. Women are still facing doubt over their abilities, a lack of clear pathways into the sport, few role models in leadership positions, sexism and discrimination. This is perhaps not unexpected in a sport with an incredibly rich, yet heavily male-dominated, 150+ year history. Particularly when long-standing supporters (and some people in power) are hanging on to upholding tradition – in which women were marginal to the game.
While there are still gendered barriers present within sports such as football, there are some incredibly encouraging movements within sport (as a sub-section of society’s discussions around gender equality) in which the recognition of women as leaders is growing. There are increasing signs of inclusion of women, support for women, advocating for women and the championing of women.
There are incredibly influential and intelligent women, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes, contributing to the sporting space in a manner that not long ago would not have been possible. Women who partook in this research spoke of feeling included, having a significant level of influence in their role, of bringing a different perspective to their workplace (that was once lacking), and the belief that their gender did not impact on the role they held. These are incredibly positive stories shared by women in the sporting space.
Upon reflection, I often ponder whether the women I interviewed truly understand the significance of their situation. I believe some do. And I believe others do not think twice about the position they are in, because their gender has not had a negative impact on their role in sport. Both of these outcomes signify positive change within the historically male-dominated environment. And not all women want to make a fuss about it. Because it is their norm.
There is a sense of empowerment being in the space and presence of women who are (at times unknowingly, at times unashamedly) breaking down barriers and creating pathways for women who will seek such roles in the future. And a sense of empowerment knowing that through research and listening to their stories I can share information and knowledge about the changing environment, which I hope facilitates further progress toward gender equality.
This research (and ongoing research of its kind) is so important to my fourteen-year-old self, who aspired to be a boundary commentator within the AFL. To my 19-year-old self at university whose passion and knowledge about Australian Rules football was met with surprise and critiqued by family, friends and peers, because of my gender. For my late-twenties self, navigating the significance of this research with a desire to make an impact, whilst newly married with a young family. It is important today, for women and girls with aspirations to work within sports where they historically have not been welcomed, but where gender equality is being worked towards.
Ultimately, women working in sport are hopeful
When women were asked their opinions about the state of gender equality within Australian Rules football, the underlying response was hope. They were hopeful for the future. Even now, a few years on from sitting down with these influential women, the environment of football has changed at a much quicker pace to what we were seeing as I first started my research. Significant improvements have been made by both men and women within the sporting domain, where the championing of women, by women and men, is present. I too am hopeful that the increasing discussions and actions for inclusion and equality for women leaders in sport will one day lead to an environment where women leaders in sport is the norm.