I'm a Melbourne girl, an AFL fan, and a Carlton supporter. Barracking for Carlton is part of my heritage, inherited from my mother and her father. I grew up very much loving the sport, the excitement, the fun, the pea-and-ham soup in the stands.
As a young girl, who wasn’t particularly sporty, it never crossed my mind that I could play footy. I don’t have a long-held regret that I missed the boat - because I never knew that was a boat I could even be on.
Things could not be more different, however, when it comes to my own children. In 2017 I went with my daughter and son, then aged 7 and 10, to the first AFLW competition - the game that was supposedly going to be a fizzer. Of course we all know that that game was a lockout, with a capacity crowd turning out to Princes Park to watch Carlton play Collingwood.
At the first bounce, Carlton’s Sarah Hosking ran straight in and tackled an opposition player. In that moment I felt old biases shattering in the grandstand as we saw the athletic potential of the female body as never before.
My daughter, who already did swimming, gymnastics and soccer, said “I want to play this game, I want to play this now.” My son – equally excited about it all – told me, “Mum, I can't think of even one reason why women haven't been playing this game.”
In 2018 my daughter joined an under-10s team and has been playing ever since. Watching her and her team play has been one of the greatest delights of my life. Early on we saw some real talent emerge, including one 7-year-old who I’m confident has AFLW potential. The coach was an 18-year-old girl who was a footy player, an elite rower, and a brilliant role model.
The children’s families have watched their progress: their skills development, their social interactions, their new friendships. At our club there are 10 boys’ teams and three girls’ teams now, and we’re very proud of that. But I can still see that the boys’ teams are treated as the norm.
We are at a turning point now because we can see all the benefits of women’s sport. There are the financial benefits of women watching sport, buying equipment and paying memberships. There are the physical and social benefits of participation. The improved governance of sporting organisations with more diversity in staffing and leadership.
It has been a great privilege to be involved with Carlton getting one of the first licenses for their women's AFL teams. I am so passionate about what the women’s team has done for women athletes, but also how it's improved the club so much for the better.
Progress has been slow because sport has been organised on gender lines for a very long time; so much so that discrimination in sport is embedded in our laws. Women have been told they could not play sports like AFL after the age of 12. The Sex Discrimination Act specifically defines that that will be permissible to discriminate in competitive sporting activity on the basis of sex or gender identity where the competition relies on strength, stamina and physique. This discrimination has been used not just to create separate teams, as it was intended, but to deny access to sport for women and girls.
We are now at a moment where this discrimination has been recognised. We now understand the benefits of inclusivity in sport. Suddenly we are creating opportunities for women - and those women are becoming more visible.
How, then, do we use this momentum to make further systemic change? In the world of gender equality in Australia we've had some good progress, especially in our laws and education. We also have a framework for advancing gender equality called Change the Story from Our Watch, including some resources that look specifically at sport.
In my work I always think about how I can impact sport at both ends of the spectrum, at the elite and grassroots levels. That includes everything from working with national sporting codes and co-chairing Play by the Rules to being involved with my daughter’s footy. Those small actions and engagement at all levels are important.
Everyone has a role to play. The more people who are engaged and know they can contribute, the more progress we will make. Be optimistic and hopeful, but don't be misled into complacency. There is real momentum right now for women in sport and I encourage you to find your role, whatever it is, big or small, in making change.
Kate Jenkins is Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Co-Chair of Play by the Rules Management Committee.
This is an edited extract of a speech give to the Australian Institute of Sport’s World Class to World Best conference in Canberra on November 6.