The Feminine Critique: Women in Sport8 August 2016
In 2016, the sporting world has demonstrated how tough it is for women to participate in a field dominated by men. From Novak Djokovic’s claim that male tennis players deserve to be paid more than female counterparts to Eddie McGuire telling Triple M listeners he’d like to drown sports writer Caroline Wilson. The subordination of women at a professional and commercial level isn’t simply produced from thin air, it is the result of discrimination and a lack of representation for women from a young age.
Hannah Manassah trained as an AFL umpire for eight years in Perth. She struggled to participate in a sport where being a woman made her a minority.
“I quit umpiring at 15 because I was the only girl,” Manassah said. “When I heard another girl had joined two years later, I decided to pick it up again. I thought it would be easier having each other there.”
Throughout her teenage years, Manassah worked as a goal umpire for the West Australian Football League. She quit at twenty when she decided to move to Melbourne and study at Deakin University.
“I did umpiring for the love of it,” Manassah says. “But I was often patronised by the older men in the sport who called me ‘honey’ and ‘darling’ off the field. That stuff never happened to men.”
Manassah’s experience shows the discrimination women continue to face in a male dominated industry.
The AFL, for one, is all too conscious of this reputation. It was only this year that the AFL appointed their first female field umpire. More recently, it planned to launch a female league with up to ten clubs. This progressive announcement was followed by the AFL’s appointment of Indigenous rights campaigner Tanya Hosch as the league’s head of inclusion and social policy from August this year.
According to Julie Anderson, the Vice President of the Australian Womensport and Recreation Association (AWRA), progress for women in sport is long overdue.
“Change has been typically slow,” Anderson says. “We’ve just reached 36 per cent in terms of representation of women among nationally recognised sporting groups. Our goal is 40 per cent, and has been for some time.”
The AWRA has become a prominent advocacy group involved with some of the most well-known cases of gender inequality in sport. This includes the campaign surrounding equal rights for Australia’s women’s basketball team, the Opals, who were flown economy class to the 2012 London Olympics, while the lowerranked men’s team were flown business class.
Anderson has been the Vice President of AWRA for two years. She grew up in a family of six girls and two boys. Unlike a lot of other girls growing up, Anderson was encouraged by her parents to pursue sport, no matter her gender.
“I wasn’t trained to sit at the back of the bus,” Anderson says. “My parents spent equal time in my athleticism – as much as our brothers. It’s what taught me to become the strong, assertive woman I am today.”
Anderson says advocacy for gender equality in sport has taught her not to accept change at face value. After years of observing double standards in the sporting industry, she is understandably critical of developments for women, including the AFL’s recent appointment of Tanya Hosch as the first Indigenous women on their executive team.
“It’s just a start,” Anderson says. “It’s all well and good to appoint a strong and confident Indigenous woman to the board but has she really got a seat at the table? Has she really got a voice?”
She makes a good point – female athletes experience inequality in the sporting world but it’s executive, board and leadership roles that require equal consideration. In 2007, the AWRA found that women make up half the number of active participants in organised sport but hold only seven per cent of leadership and governance positions. The advancement of representation and opportunity for women in Australian sport concerns the legitimacy surrounding gender equality. It begs the question, are sporting industries like the AFL simply ticking the box? Manassah takes a harder line.
“It’s one hundred per cent tokenistic” she says. “It’s great that there is more visibility surrounding women in sport but the agenda behind it isn’t authentic.” Based on her experience as an umpire, Manassah says the opportunities for women to participate in sport compared to ten years ago have increased but change needs to be taken a step further.
“There isn’t enough diversity in the sporting world. Inequality in sport concerns anyone that isn’t a white male” Manassah says.
The opportunities for people of colour, age, ability and the LGBTI+ community are further limited because of intersectional disadvantages. The publicity surrounding women in sport is a reflection of media and social trends but the other minorities should also be acknowledged by leading sporting industries as a priority for change, especially when individuals are still young. “It is most crucial that encouraging participation in sport occurs between the ages of 15 to 17
“It is most crucial that encouraging participation in sport occurs between the ages of 15 to 17 years of age,” says Anderson. “That period is a major point of development where individuals must be supported to participate in sport for the sake of their character and confidence.”
This suggests that as well as focussing on the representation of successful female athletes, a more effective and authentic focus will lie in the encouragement of the female athletes of tomorrow, and minorities, from the beginning. Individuals are most vulnerable to social judgment and scrutiny when they are young. A true change will see the encouragement of a young woman to join a team not simply for the love of the game but for themselves.