Courtney Gum’s four-year-old son, Buzz, thinks girls are stronger than boys. He’s come to this conclusion after sitting in multiple AFL Women’s training sessions. See, his mum is one of the star players for the GWS Giants in Sydney, who made her AFL Women’s debut at the age of 36.
On Thursday Gum spoke at Future Women’s International Women’s Day event in collaboration with Twitter and Cricket Australia. Gum took the stage with Adelaide Strikers cricketer Megan Schutt, Australian Opals and WNBA basketballer Liz Cambage and Channel Seven sports presenter Mel McLaughlin to discuss the issue the entire nation can’t stop talking about in 2019 – the rise of women’s sport. The panel, moderated by sports reporter Sam Squiers, tackled everything from pay equality and raising children as an elite athlete to the value of a business class seat.
But the most critical issue they all agreed on was the importance of cultural change. While it’s crucial young girls must “see it, to be it”, it’s vital for young boys to see women on the ground, or field, or court at all. “When Buzz talks about AFL, he thinks it’s a women’s sport, and the other day he said to me, “Girls are stronger than boys” because that’s his current perception,” Gum said.
“Seeing the little boys on the sidelines has been the big change. They don’t care whether you’re female or you’re male, [if] you’re in the blue, they want your autograph.”
“Seeing the little boys on the sidelines has been the big change,” Megan Schutt said. “They don’t care whether you’re female or you’re male, [if] you’re in the blue, they want your autograph. When I was playing cricket as a young girl, there were no female teams around, I played with the boys at school. Now there’s so many grassroots teams. Creating it from the bottom is really important and I think Cricket Australia are doing really well to push all these grassroots teams.”
Pay equity is a big issue for Liz Cambage. She emphasised that in order for clubs to continue to develop women’s sports and for women to get paid more fairly, change has to start at the bottom – this includes growing a young female and male fanbase. “It starts with making big connection with grassroots, getting kids involved, growing the fanbase, and from there it comes from out organisations… going after bigger marketing, bigger sponsorship,” she said.
But changing the way women’s sports are perceived also requires action beyond the grassroots. There needs to be cultural and structural change at the very top of the industry. Mel McLaughlin believes there is no longer any excuse not have equal representation in governance positions. “The boy’s club to me is a ridiculously outdated concept and I think has led to problems in the past,” she said. “In terms of governing bodies, it’s particularly crucial to get the balance right.”
Gum said she is seeing firsthand how issues like pay inequity and lack of childcare options are stopping younger women from pursuing a career in sport. “It’s a really difficult time for a lot of the girls… because it’s a massive commitment… and they’re essentially putting their lives on hold,” she said.
“I do think over the next five years if the pay rate and the duration of the season in AFLW stays the same there will be a point where some people will have to choose between their career [or] an AFLW season. It’s just a difficult time in AFLW until it grows and the girls can make a little bit more money out of it.”
“I’ve always had a voice, and I’ve always had the power within me to be in the limelight and be the centre of attention and stand up for others as well as myself.”
While some codes are moving at a slower rate, others like Cricket Australia are leading the way to address pay inequity. “The biggest difference now is I can make a living from [cricket],” Schutt said, who now earns $180,000 each year, thanks to the code’s salary reform. “The first contract I ever signed was $5000 and that was six years ago. How things have changed in that time is incredible.”
Calling out inequity, the panel agreed, is important and necessary. Cambage recalled a time she and her team were flown premium economy to the London Olympics while the men’s team was flown business class. When a female journalist wrote an article about it in The Age, the piece generating enough public outrage for the situation to be rectified.
“It was in that moment that I [realised] the only way we can get change is if we are public and use our voices,” Cambage said. “I’ve always had a voice, and I’ve always had the power within me to be in the limelight and be the centre of attention and stand up for others as well as myself.” Now more women than ever have the microphone. And, if Thursday’s panel was anything to go by, they’re using it.
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