Women kicking on in all fields
2 July 2013
When Julia Gillard was toppled by Kevin Rudd as prime minister on Wednesday night, she told her audience what she was most proud of was that her time as PM would make it ''easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that''.
In many ways, Gillard could have been speaking for the girls who ran out on Saturday representing her beloved Bulldogs at the MCG. In a historic occasion, the Bulldogs battled it out against Melbourne in the first AFL-sanctioned women's game, falling short by 32 points.
In truth, the elite women were battling it out for the nation's attention as much as for the win.
Women's AFL is the fastest-growing sport in the nation. Last year more than 136,000 women played the game, which marks a 20 per cent increase in participation on the 2011 figures. On the back of such figures, the AFL has recently announced it intends to run a national women's competition beginning in 2020.
As it stands, however, the women's game lacks even a small portion of the financial and public support required to get the 2020 competition off the ground.
Across the country, women's AFL still relies largely on the generous support of its mostly female backers. Susan Alberti, vice-president of the Western Bulldogs, has injected huge sums into the Victorian league. As a young girl, it was a dream of hers to run out onto the 'G in a Bulldogs guernsey, and she considers herself lucky enough to be in a financial position to make that dream happen for other women.
Yet Alberti's generosity will not be enough, not until the men of the AFL also start to get serious about the game.
It is said that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored, and in the AFL this is certainly the case. While having women in club colours has been a huge, symbolic leap forward, the girls still receive no income as footballers, and many had to take valuable time off work simply to attend training in the lead-up. But while progress is slow, times seem to be changing.
Jan Cooper, female football development manager at the AFL, approached several club CEOs a couple of years ago to gauge their support for having club-affiliated women's teams. At the time, she says, the answer was a ''categorical no''. They argued that it was too much of a financial outlay with too little reward.
As the fastest growing game in the country, this simply doesn't make financial sense. Women, after all, constitute half the population, and at last count, 35 per cent of club members. It makes little sense to ignore the portion of those women who, like their male counterparts, would give anything to represent their club: women who bring with them a passion and investment for the game that at least matches their male counterparts.
Having more women involved in the game can only have a positive impact on the AFL. It already has in the success of umpire Chelsea Roffey and women coaches, such as Peta Searle, who is current assistant coach at Port Melbourne and coached the women's Bulldogs team on Saturday.
Yet these women are still hitting their versions of the glass ceiling. Of the many I spoke to in the lead-up to the game, not one failed to mention the coaching credentials of Searle. If it isn't about gender, they asked, why hasn't an AFL club taken a punt on her?
It's a good question. Searle coached the Darebin Falcons to five consecutive premierships and played the game for more than 15 years. When Gary Ayres appointed her as assistant coach at Port Melbourne, he noted that it was a ''no-brainer'', that she was the outstanding candidate for the job.
Searle says the most common objection to her coaching men is that she ''hasn't played the game''. Of course, she has played the game, but not the game, not men's AFL.
But what if women's AFL was spoken about with even a portion of the reverence of the men's game? In that case, Searle's career in women's football would cease to be a negative.
It's no doubt a catch-22. Searle speaks of the need for someone to take a ''leap of faith'' with her, but the same leap of faith must be taken with the women's game. Until it is invested in and given the potential to succeed, its heights will never be reached.
This means, primarily, financial outlay, but also certainly a leap of faith. If the AFL can invest millions into the hostile market of Greater Western Sydney, then there's no reason it can't invest in the pure passion that permeates the women's game.
The inaugural women's round match has been a huge step forward. But it's a step that simply cannot be a flash in the pan. It means too much to the women involved, and the AFL owes the women of the game something in return.
This could be as simple as adding several curtain-raisers across the season, until enough girls get involved to grow the talent pool into a national league.
Gillard tends to get to a Doggies game whenever she can. She'll have a lot more time for it now. While she's out of a job, she'd be wise to think about becoming an ambassador for these women: they are trailblazers as much as her.
Former Victorian cricketer Kate O'Halloran is a PhD candidate and tutor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Find out about the Sydney University Women's AFL team.
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