Economy class just business as usual for women in sport

23 July 2012

Female athletes encounter hurdles that their male counterparts never face, writes Kate O'Halloran.
Female athletes encounter hurdles that their male counterparts never face, writes Kate O'Halloran.

Those who buy the argument that the Boomers travelled in business class while the Opals languished in economy "for height reasons" need to wake up to the gender inequality that persists in most sports in this country.

As someone who represented Victoria in cricket as a teenager, I should know. Selected at 17 to represent my state, I was by then an established cricketer in the boys' game. I had already captained my local boys' side, won the bowling average for the competition, and represented the Western district in the (boys') Hatch Shield side.

As a successful girl, I was treated mostly with surprise and respect. I took delight in running out blokes who thought they'd sneak an extra run on my arm. They soon learnt their lesson, and I rarely experienced my gender in a derogatory fashion. That is, until I started playing girls' cricket.

My first memory of this is captaining Girls Sport Victoria in the national schoolgirls carnival. While the boys were fully equipped at no cost to themselves, we were told to come in a white shirt and blue shorts that, hopefully, matched. Despite our enormous success - champions for three years running - we received no recognition for our efforts from Cricket Victoria. Instead, it was left to our coaches' good will (and own expenses) to laminate for us our winning team photo.

The next year, I was chosen to play for Victoria in the under-17 team. It was an honour I had coveted all my young life. As it turned out, it was an honour I had to pay - and sew - for. We received oversized, leftover Bushrangers' tracksuit pants for our training gear and were told to sew our Victorian Women's Cricket Association logo over the Bushrangers one. It was an irony not lost on my mother, who also forked out the several hundreds of dollars it took me to get to the national carnival.

The inequality persisted after this disappointing experience. Chosen for the under-19 Victorian squad, I was asked to pay $100 simply to attend the pre-squad fitness program.

Soon after, my cricket career was over. Not because I had lost the passion for the game, but because I was crippled by persistent back injuries. With no team physio or money for rehab (a given in the men's game), I focused my energies on my education instead.

Now, eight years later I am a PhD candidate in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this means I am consistently faced with demeaning attitudes from students (often girls) about women's sport. Not wanting to be seen as "feminist types" many girls tell me that men are "innately" more talented, and men's sport "naturally" more enjoyable. I dispute this and can only wonder what my cricketing career would have been had I been a boy. One only needs to look at a sport like AFL to see the incredible speed with which players recover from injuries when given the right level of care and financial support to do so.

This round in the AFL is Women's Round but you wouldn't know it unless you went out of your way to find out. On the AFL web site, it is written in small white text above the fixture. A couple of short stories about female coaching and an all-girl Auskick clinic languish below the ladder, analysis and opinion and latest news. Tokenistic gestures do little to redress gender inequality in most of Australia's favourite games.

Thankfully inroads have been made in women's cricket. Juniors now get airfares, clothing and accommodation paid for, thanks to sponsorship from the Commonwealth Bank. Nonetheless, seniors are still on measly contracts and the majority balance sport competition with full-time work.

While such funding inequities persist, there is little or no motivation for talented girls and women to pursue a professional sporting career. This means that promising talent simply drops out of the system to pursue a more sustainable career.

It upsets me, then, when people suggest women's sport is not as enjoyable to watch as men's.

As it stands, this is not a fair comparison. Until women are adequately encouraged and compensated we have no idea about their true sporting capacities. Those who are already at an elite level ought to be admired for their dedication to get there of their own volition.

Across the board, they will have encountered hurdles and setbacks that their male counterparts will never face.

Former Victorian cricketer Kate O'Halloran is a PhD candidate and tutor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney.

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