(AND INVENTED MY OWN HOMEMADE CHOC PEANUT BUTTER CUPS) “So you’re a nutritionist? Does that…
The single biggest reason we’re passionate about women participating in sport is because it is empowering—especially when you’re talking about traditionally male-dominated sports.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re seven, 17 or 77—picking up a ball or a barbell—building a strong and capable body gives you a sense of power. In a world where women are too often made to feel weak and small, it allows you to assert yourself and take up the space that you deserve.
UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri said “Women in sport defy the misconception that they are weak or incapable. Every time they clear a hurdle or kick a ball, demonstrating not only physical strength, but also leadership and strategic thinking, they take a step towards gender equality.”
Female participation in sport is, thankfully, on the rise in many sports. Liz Craven is currently ranked as Australia’s Number One Powerlifter, and has noticed significant changes in her sport during her career.
“When I first started and I went to Nationals, there were 13 girls and about 60 guys. It was very male dominated. Now we’re taking over, and our females are performing a lot better than our males.”
Having recently opened powerlifting gym The Strength Syndicate, Liz says her clientele are about 60 per cent female. She credits the surge of female participation to the rise in popularity of Crossfit among women.
“Once women started getting barbells in their hands, that’s when the change started happening. Girls wanted to be strong instead of skinny, and realised that this is a sport where you can do that, and hold your own against the boys.”
The rise in popularity has obviously been beneficial to the sport, with women now being treated as equal to men in many ways—but not all. Liz says that it can be hard to attract coaching clients, particularly men. She speaks of the feeling of needing to prove yourself, a sentiment that’s echoed by coaches across many sports.
“You have to be number one, and continually be the best forever—and then people will start to realise that maybe you do know what you’re talking about, even though you’re female. That is the hardest bit about being a female in the sport.”
Wallaroos player Louise Burrows says this kind of sentiment is prevalent in women’s rugby as well.
“I feel that sometimes people think, ‘oh she’s just a women’s rugby player’, or ‘she just plays for the women’. They don’t really appreciate that what we do, we do pretty well.”
It begs the question, where does this negative attitude come from?
“I think its because they’re jealous and threatened by what we’ve done and achieved,” says Louise.
Ex-Olympic wrestler and President of Wrestling ACT, Kyla Bremner, agrees.
“We’re disrupting the structure of sports that men see as part of their masculine identity. When women start coming onto the mat and succeeding, and being able to beat men, it’s very frightening for them. It’s like we’re taking up their space and crushing their masculinity.”
Kyla has endured a long-standing battle against discrimination in her sport.
“Wrestling Australia has been very unsupportive of women’s wrestling over the last 20 years. Two years ago, I took them to the Human Rights Commission over discrimination because they still refuse to have a woman’s programme. In mediation they agreed they would have a women’s coach…then they just didn’t do it.”
This episode is the latest in nearly two decades of conflict between Kyla and the Wrestling Federation, including an allegation of sexual harassment by male team members during her first international trip for wrestling, which she says the Federation failed to address. Kyla says that while she suspects the harassment of women may be slightly less prevalent today, she expresses concern for young athletes entering the sport.
“I feel bad for girls coming through, because I think those attitudes are still there.”
And they’re apparent in every aspect of the sport.
“Why do we always have to go on the bottom oval?” asks Louise Burrows. “I’ve been there since 1995 and we’ve always had to play there, but why does it have to be that way? So much in the world is changing, why can’t things like that change?”
In some sports—including Rugby—women don’t even have access to facilities as basic as separate changerooms, meaning that they’re forced to use the men’s changeroom or be denied entirely.
And then there’s the issue that’s perhaps most hotly contested—that of equal pay.
It’s an incredibly complicated subject, and one that varies between sports. Kayla Nisbet is a female jockey who is grateful for the gender equality in her sport. As a young athlete, she hasn’t experienced the sexism in the sport that’s been cited by other female jockeys including Michelle Payne.
“It’s quite equal” she explains. “We’re probably one of the only sports where we’re on a level playing field with the men. We get paid exactly the same as them, and now that there’s a lot more opportunities and a lot more girls riding, I would say a lot of girls are making almost the same as men.”
It’s starkly different to a sport like Rugby.
“I don’t know if [equal pay] is a realistic expectation” says Louise. “I think definitely there needs to be some type of payment and recognition of female athletes. If we’re not getting paid as much as professional athletes, we’re not able to put as much time into our training.”
2017 marked an important step forward, with the inaugural AFL Women’s series proving that female athletes are capable of not only excelling in sport, but also captivating audiences and, importantly, filling stadiums.
It’s a catch-22: to secure sponsorship, athletes need to showcase their talent. However, with little-to-no financial support to play their sport, athletes are short on resources to dedicate to their athletic development. There are costs including physiotherapy, remedial massage or individual coaching, as well as time constraints, given that many female athletes are required to work full-time to earn a living.
Liz Craven has shaped her income to include revenue from The Strength Syndicate as well as her sponsorships.
“Previously, the girls that were getting sponsored were the girls that showed a lot of flesh. I’m proud to be sponsored purely for what I’ve achieved in my sport. I’ve got a meals sponsor, I have a supplement sponsor, I have all my equipment sponsors but I still have to go out and be a coach and earn a living. My lifting helps feed that industry, because people come to me to learn how to lift, so it all works together.”
It’s encouraging that sponsors are starting to see the potential of women’s sport, and showing that through funding—or in the case of Buildcorp, removing their funding. The company made waves in the Rugby community when they threatened to pull their funding if the Australian Rugby Union didn’t launch a women’s 15-a-side rugby tournament, following the national Sevens competition.
“She [Josephine Sukkar, Buildcorp’s cofounder] stayed true to her word, and she pulled her funding” says Louise. “She recognised that Sevens is a very different game —it’s good for one type of woman, but 15s is for every woman—every shape and size.”
The issue of funding is almost redundant when it comes to women’s wrestling. Kyla says that wrestling is one of the most poorly funded sports in Australia, estimating that the annual budget for the entire sport is around $100,000 a year. Development is so stifled that hardly any women make it to the elite level.
“You could show up to Nationals, and not every weight class there has competitors. Then you get the issue of women walking into the team uncontested, and it just makes a mockery of it. You’ll get someone sent to the World Championships, and it’s their first match ever because they walked onto the team unopposed.”
Kyla says the solution, as it is for many sports, is increasing female participation and focussing on the development of the sport.
Interestingly, nearly every female athlete I spoke to apologised immediately after discussing the challenges of being a female athlete.
“People just think you’re a whingeing woman” says Louise. “We’re made to feel like all we do is complain, when all we want is to be treated as equals in terms of respect.”
The result is that too many women don’t speak up, creating a culture where woman feel as though they need to keep quiet and ‘put up with it’ to be included in sport.
The issue is multifaceted, complicated and highly variable between sports and even codes. What is clear is that we all have a role to play—as spectators, participants and sponsors, we have the power to harness our collective voice and show up—to play, to support and stand up for our female athletes.
Photography by Martin Ollman.