“The Australians can start celebrating! Australia has won the gold medal in the Women’s Sevens Rugby! What a win for Australian Women’s Rugby!”
In a blur of a 25-minute game, the Pearls beat arch-rivals New Zealand and sent Australia into a euphoric frenzy. Local media and news networks went ballistic, the hype around the team went near stratospheric and messages of celebration did the rounds; social media went into meltdown, it seemed.
The awards, the media coverage, the publicity; you name it, it seemed the Olympics was of secondary importance to the actual Women’s Rugby Sevens event itself. Even former AFL greats like Wayne Carey heaped huge praise on the team as well as giving high kudos to the sport and its incredible athletic ability.
Now imagine a world where women aren’t instantly recognised for their sporting or other achievements without a grumble or snigger from the male peanut gallery, or where their effort versus financial rewards is incongruous.
That is actually the norm and has been since, well, forever.
What is Gender Equality and why is it an issue?
Gender Equality is a view aimed at upholding equal treatment of people, regardless of their gender. In essence, for a given set of circumstances such as the same job in a specific industry, males and females should receive equal rights, equal recognition, equal opportunities and, probably most importantly, equal pay.
As a global movement, it has gathered momentum in the last few decades. In 1979, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), along with other specific conventions and treaties aimed at specific areas such as education and violence against women. In the last decade, more formal means in employment and board representation have also come into force.
Note: While gender equality is by its very nature not meant to favour one gender over another, we will focus in this article on women’s sport given that the inequality is skewed that way.
What is sport’s track record on Gender Equality?
In 1896, the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin said, “No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.” It is worth noting that women have been able to compete in the Games since 1900.
Without doubt, de Coubertin would be publicly shamed and castigated in this day and age for that comment. And for good reason, no matter your belief in the physiology of the respective genders!
Fast forward to today, and it is really quite staggering that female sport has taken this long to gain the momentum that we are currently seeing, with new competitions, sports and elite athletes popping up at a rapid pace. This is in the main due to a glaring lack of participation and opportunity, probably itself due to misplaced gender perceptions and beliefs.
There are exceptions of course – tennis being the obvious one, along with athletics, swimming, hockey and gymnastics to name a few others. These are sports that have been in the mainstream of elite female participation for some time. Predictably, these also have limited gender inequality, as far as I am aware. On the flip side, netball is the most gender-biased sport towards females.
Here are some Australian stats on women in sport:
Despite this obvious disparity in media coverage versus participation and success, it should be noted that the tone and content of reports on women’s sport have greatly improved over time, particularly in the last 5 years. There are less sexual or gender-bias undertones in sports reporting; that seems to be reserved for the entertainment media.
Australia, though, still has a long way to go to America: the 2015 Women’s World Cup soccer final was the most-watched soccer match (male or female) ever in the USA, with nearly 25.4 million viewers.
Turnaround: “This is now my full-time job”
At the core of the Pearls’ effort was a young lady named Alicia Quirk, who played every minute of every game in the team’s Olympic campaign. Alicia is one of the few in that squad whose life has seen a seismic turnaround due to the rise in popularity of women’s sport and the resultant flow of funds towards female athlete pathways.
“I came from touch football where I had to pay a lot of money to represent my country, to now a position where this is now my full-time job, which, in a 3-year turnaround, is phenomenal.”
After being head-hunted into the Women’s’ Rugby Sevens program in 2013, she also had to navigate a major obstacle, as at the time, she was studying for a physiotherapy degree through Charles Sturt University and had one year to go, namely the placement component.
While Alicia recognises that physiotherapy is what she originally wanted to pursue before the rugby opportunity came along, her message to aspiring female athletes is still to have something outside of sport to fall back on.
Therefore, in an agreement between the university’s Elite Athlete Programme and her rugby coaches, she was able to juggle both, and a few weeks ago completed that final year (which she had done over the last 3 years) and graduates in December.
Women’s Rugby Sevens is helping to close the gap on Gender Inequality in sport
Alicia is the first to admit that while equality is important, the product must still be sellable in terms of viewings and ratings. “While our sport needs funding and continued backing from the ARU, we need to keep performing and winning and doing well. The exposure we got at the Olympics was second to none and the impact it has had on the Australian population was huge. Times are changing.
“Looking at the ARU’s investment in our program, it goes to show that when you do back women’s sport and put the funding and the right people behind it, with the right information and knowledge, you do get results.
“It’s hard not to notice gender inequality. We’ve had to fight a lot along the way for changes in our program, but when you’re loving it and doing well, those changes come a lot more easily.”
Sport or Employment: Gender Equality matters
While rugby is the main focus for her at the moment, she ultimately wants to open her own practice, but in the meantime is open to pursuing employment opportunities with established businesses once she finishes rugby.
“I wouldn’t want to work for an employer or private practice that showed any bias towards one gender over another. There should be fair and equal pay, access to the same information, care and support. I want that same equality to be achieved, much the same as on the rugby pitch.
“However, gender inequality, even if it’s present, shouldn’t limit what you choose in terms of your career path. I chose rugby because I loved it and it’s something that we push to fight for, now that we know our value and our worth.”