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Five things Australian Womens Sport can learn from the Matlidas success

By Sarah McMahon

The Matlida’s heart breaking loss to Japan yesterday shattered their dream of reaching the World Cup finals. However the loss has reignited a vital conversation regarding women’s sport in Australia.

The Matlida’s have made no secret of the fact that this is “just the beginning”, with their heart set on greater success in the 2019 World Cup in France.

“The future looks bright and I’m excited for 2019…We have so much potential. We’ve only had six months together really, so imagine another four years. There’s so much potential.”

-mid fielder Elise Kellond-Knight.

However it is clear that to achieve a World Cup Final “we Aussies” have a long way to go in supporting women’s sport. Simply turning up to cheer on the Matlida’s at the World Cup every four years just isn’t good enough.

One of the key issues the Matlida’s recent success has raised is the discrepancy in pay between men’s and women’s sport with the Socceroos receiving fifteen times more pay per game played. This is an important issue that reflects the reality of a far more profound gender divide in sport.  For example, it has been well documented that there is a huge discrepancy across various domains including media coverage & sponsorship, with less than 10% of these resources being allocated to women. Furthermore, this discrepancy is not limited to soccer. It exists consistently across all women’s sports where there is a male counterpart. Is it sexism? Partially. Unfortunately the introduction of the Women’s Lingerie Football League in Australia may give us some indication of the sort of sport particular men are interested in watching.  However this is a limited few and sexism need not be so blatant. Ultimately what this gender difference is about is a much more subtle socialisation process within a patriarchal power structure. Indeed, gender differences occur in the rate of participation across all roles (including participants, coaches, officials, administrators and Board Directors), age categories, and in most population sub-groups. Participation rates are worse within certain segments of the female population; for example, persons with disability; culturally and linguistically diverse groups; Indigenous; young girls, teenagers and the mature aged are generally under-represented when compared to their male cohort. Similarly, gender differences exist in audience participation of sport. Therefore, a gender bias may be preventing half our population from receiving the full benefit of sport and physical activity.

Why is increasing female engagement in sport important?

Increasing female engagement in sport is vital for the health of our community. Female participation in sport improves body image and self worth, which are significant contributors for further engagement in health giving behaviour. Yet adolescence is such a common time for females to become disengaged from sport. Indeed, there is some suggestion that the drop out rate for girls is six times that of boys. Reasons for this include:

  • pubertal changes resulting in body shame;
  • increased desire for connectedness rather than competition;
  • reduced confidence levels;
  • lack of positive role models.

Ironically, these issues would typically improve by continuing sport, rather than dropping out of it.

A further reason why it is vital for young women to continue to participate in sport is that those who experience a good relationship with food, exercise and their bodies when they become mums are more likely to instill these values and practices in their children- and therefore ultimately positively impact on future generations.

What can we do to improve the fate of women’s sport in Australia?

  1. The argument made around the limited sponsorship, media coverage & pay discrepancies of women’s sport is an economic one. We need to be more than just armchair activists. The best start to supporting our female athletes is to show up & take a genuine interest in it!  Everyone has a role and a responsibility to improve this situation- stakeholders are not just the media and sponsors but each of us in the community- males & females alike.
  2. We need to have genuine opportunities for female athletes. Similarly, this comes from each of us taking women’s sport seriously. Our female athletes need to have “a voice” and a platform- they deserve this! However this also creates role models to inspire younger female athletes.
  3. Lets make sport fun! Participation in sport needs to be enjoyable and positive for females. This means ensuring that barriers (fitness standards, dress, costs of engagement) are managed. Ensure the activities are not threatening. This is particularly relevant for adolescent age groups where drop out rates are so high.
  4. Positive public health initiatives need to promote & encourage women’s engagement in sport, such as the fantastic “This Girl Can” advertisements. Let’s start seeing women, of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes participating in physical activity regularly- and enjoying it!
  5. It may be that females and males are motivated by different aspects of sport, for example females may prefer non competitive activities, skill building and social elements. The emphasis should be on building participation & confidence- rather than winning. Emphasis on “looking good” or losing weight needs to be removed. A great example of this is No Lights No Lycra.

 What other things do you think can be done to improve engagement of females in sport & interest in women’s sport in Australia?

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