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AFL women's league may threaten not boost diversity



It's been a long time coming: starting next year, women will have the opportunity to play professional Australian Rules Football at a national level. The competition was announced earlier this year, with the AFL to run a competition that will start in February and last for the eight weeks.

 Women footballers dwarfed by the specter of male footballers. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonThere are both inherent risks and opportunities in developing the new league. The risks are that things will be done as they always have been: that the values and approaches of sporting institutions over 100 years old will infect the league from the beginning.

The AFL is disproportionately white, male, straight and wealthy. While the players will be female, there is a danger that the new league's administration will replicate the AFL's existing power structures.

But there is also opportunity. With the new league can come a new focus on intersectionality: in ensuring that players from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds are given every opportunity to thrive, and where, rather than replicating historic power structures, the leadership of the competition can be built around values including diversity.

Unfortunately, the early signs have not been good. From player payments to the lack of diversity in exhibition teams to recruitment of off-field staff, it seems the women's league is heading down the same path as its male counterpart: mostly white, with men in positions of power and few opportunities for women from poor backgrounds.

Early recruiting has certainly suggested existing power structures are likely to be replicated in the League. Of the seven coaches named so far to the women’s league, only two — Fremantle’s Michelle Cowan and Adelaide’s Bec Goddard — are female.

This dominance of male coaches again replicated model in which women are accountable largely to men: both as coaches and in senior management roles. The exceptions are Adelaide, Fremantle, Brisbane and Collingwood, whose org charts have women in senior roles in their women’s football department.

If a leadership role in the women's league is seen as a stepping stone into coaching or administration in the men's competition and remains a pathway primarily for men, it will be a problem. The league needs to provide pathways for women to develop those skills in at least equal numbers to men. A women's league that is dominated by men off the field substantially undermines the project of developing opportunities for women in football.


"Football has been a site where Indigenous men have had opportunities rarely available to them in other parts of life. Indigenous women should have similar opportunities."


The concerns extend beyond hiring decisions, though. This week, it was revealed that most of the players in the women's league will earn just $5000 for an eight-week season. It seems that the clubs will be limited in the number of hours women can train (nine hours per week). Without that limit, they would earn below minimum wage.

But the lower wage has serious equity implications, beyond the clear discrepancy between men's and women's wages. In order to train three times a week, many players will be required to relocate closer to their clubs. This puts their day jobs in jeopardy, meaning only those who can afford to change jobs or take time off can afford to play. This has the potential to seriously skew the playing group towards those who are from higher socio-economic status.

It will also disproportionately exclude women in regional areas (which also disproportionately affects Indigenous women) and women who don't live in the states with a team.  

Additionally, weekend and evening child care, when players are most likely to need it, costs substantially more than weekday child care. There is a strong likelihood that for women with caring responsibilities, the bulk of that meagre salary would be eaten up by child care costs. This has the effect of excluding women with caring responsibilities from participation in the league.

So the foundation for a genuinely inclusive league is not strong. Fair pay is an essential part of that: to ensure that women of disadvantaged backgrounds aren't excluded from participating in the league.

The league has also been disappointingly quiet on the participation of Indigenous women. There has been no public commitment to develop pathways for Indigenous girls to be involved in football, which is absolutely essential for the league to be truly inclusive. Football has been a site where Indigenous men have had opportunities rarely available to them in other parts of life. Indigenous women should have similar opportunities.

So while there are great opportunities for the AFL National Women's League to forge new ground and create a more inclusive competition, so far the signs haven't been positive. The groundwork seems to be in place for a competition where the players are disproportionately privileged, and the off-field roles are occupied more by men than by women. Rather than challenging the paradigm of gender and sport in Australia, and recognising intersectionality and inclusiveness as vital parts of that, the league is perpetuating old power structures. Sure, it might get better later on. But there's no reason it can't be better from the start.


Erin RileyErin Riley is a sports writer and historian from Sydney. Her writing is focused on understanding the role sport and its institutions play in Australian life.

Topic tags: Erin Riley, AFL, Aboriginal Australians, women's league, fair pay



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Existing comments

Thanks Erin. Angering wages. Low diversity commitments. Yet the TV figures, average and peak, beat those for men's AFL Sat/Friday. Great play. Figures are a leverage for women but will they take it. Same story as Football on pay, disappointing.

Jan | 05 September 2016  

My concern Erin is that wages may well be closely connected to TV rights and its association with gambling advertising in family viewing time and the consequences for families. Any thoughts?

Richard Collyer | 05 September 2016  

Excellent article Erin. My understanding of this morning's news report was that more TV viewers watched Saturday's game than had ever watched any other AFL game. Surely that means that sponsorship should be readily available. The fact that it was the first women's game shown on TV would have boosted numbers of viewers, but it's clear that the interest is there. You raise several other points why wages should be equal, and you clearly explain why there needs to be diversity and opportunity across the board.

Irene | 05 September 2016  

Erin are you telling us that women are only being paid $5000 for both games and training for 8 weeks? That alone is the most disgraceful thing I have heard. These clubs pay exorbitant amounts to even mediocre players in the men's league. What possible excuse could they come up with for this travesty? I am appalled. Once again women being undervalued for essentially doing the same job! I pray I read this incorrectly.

Tracey Sinclair | 05 September 2016  

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