March 2017

female traffic lights 

Today is International Women’s Day. I thought it important that Play by the Rules runs a feature on the day to highlight the great progress made in recent times in women’s sport. After all, Play by the Rules is all about inclusion and there’s a lot to celebrate. 

My initial instinct was to ask one of the many women in sport I know to write the feature. Or, I could interview a few women in sport to get their direct perspectives. Either would be a good option. 

But, ever since watching the powerful Jason Katz TED Talk Violence Against Women – it’s a men’s issue I’ve held the belief that the issues of inclusion of women into sport are primarily men’s issues, not women’s. So I thought I would break the unwritten rule of no personal opinion pieces and write the article myself.  I should stand up and be counted, Justin Trudeau style, as a feminist for women’s sport. 

There’s no doubt that the recent rise and popularity of the WBBL, the AFL Women’s competition, Super Netball and Women’s Rugby have done much to advance women’s and girls participation in sport. While it’s a good start there are still a number of underlying issues that, from my male feminist point of view, continue to undermine women’s sport. I’ll raise just three of them here. 

The desire to compare

Why is it that we seem compelled to compare women’s sport with men’s sport? Even in a recent discussion on Offsiders, ABC’s usually excellent Sunday morning sports show, panellists were bemoaning the fact there seems to be fewer goals kicked in women’s AFL. 

“if you look at the skills of the women compared to the men, the women are as intense in the contest as the men – they certainly try their best – they pass well – they certainly run – but I just can’t see a significant improvement in the kicking.”

You can compare apples and oranges as they are both fruit. But they are also uniquely different and should be appreciated in their own right. Comparing one to another is only ever going to end up as one being better than another. When comparing women’s sport to men’s, particularly when it’s men doing it, what do you think the underlying message is? 

The comparison debate often focuses on pay differences between male and female athletes. It’s true that many female athletes are grossly underpaid. Administrators have found it difficult keeping up with the growth of women’s sport. The actions of the Matildas and the Australian Women’s Cricket team have pushed and prodded administrators to take action. It’s getting there. 

But the differential pay issue is a red herring to discrimination per se. The disparity is more a function of the business market than discrimination. 

What’s more disturbing is the overt discrimination in the argument that women don’t work as hard as men in sport – an argument that often underpins the pay issue. Kevin Netto, a sports scientist from Curtin University, recently published analysis of pay and sport from the perspective of exercise science. His conclusion: 

“female athletes work as hard if not harder than their male counterparts to achieve an absolute target – especially in sports such as tennis and cricket.”

We should stop comparing. 

The dismissal of quotas

I have come full circle on the issue of quotas. In my early years of work in the inclusion and diversity space I was vehemently against quotas for women’s representation on boards and committee’s. I saw it as tokenistic and, in some ways, a form of reverse discrimination against men. My belief was that representation should be based on merit, regardless of gender, and if more men (or women) were suitable for boards and committee’s then so be it even if women ended up being under represented. 

However, as the years went by I gained a better understanding of power dynamics, cultural change, disadvantage and habits of exclusion. Essentially, I learnt that even though most men believe in selection based on merit they fail to recognise the entrenched cultural habits that inform those supposed open and merit based decisions. They also fail to take into account the position of disadvantage that women come from. 

There’s a long history of gender disadvantage and discrimination and even though things are improving it’s a very slow process. Cultural change takes a long time. Do we seriously want to wait another 30 years to see genuine gender equity? Quotas would fast-track cultural change. 

To date it’s been far too easy for administrators to dismiss quotas as unworkable. But they are easily workable and they reinforce the basic inclusion acid test – that clubs reflect the communities they are in? At the moment, they don’t do that for the most straightforward of human differentiation – male and female. 

Sure, it may well cause some tension and the familiar arguments against will be made. But, it would be a price worth paying to fast track inclusion. Give it a try! 

Small changes make no difference

Yes they do. At the time of writing this article VicRoads were about to put in place a 12 month trial of having pedestrian traffic lights depicting female figures rather than male figures. Chief executive of the Committee for Melbourne, the non-profit of business and community groups that are behind the trial, Martine Letts said having only green or red silhouettes of men discriminated against women.

"The idea is to install traffic lights with female representation, as well as male representation, to help reduce unconscious bias," she said. 

Unconscious bias refers to the stereotypes, both negative and positive, that exist in our subconscious and affect our behaviour. We make decisions everyday without having to think consciously about them. These decisions, or habits, are often informed by the little things that ultimately make a big difference. 

Minister for Women Fiona Richardson said the use of a woman's figure on pedestrian crossings would make public space more inclusive of women.

"There are many small — but symbolically significant — ways that women are excluded from public space." she said.

“A culture of sexism is made up of very small issues, like how the default pedestrian crossings use a male figure."

Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point demonstrates emphatically how small changes can make big differences in attitudes and behaviour, for example, how simply cleaning the subways and fixing the windows reduced crime rates in New York’s notorious underground railway. 

Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit describes how unconscious habits form and how small changes in routine can make big differences in behaviour. 

And I’ve seen it time and time again in my career. The wearing of the rainbow socks as a catalyst for discussion on homophobia in the Fair Go Sport program is a great example.   

Symbols and small changes matter. So put up that poster! 



Peter Downs is Manager of Play by the Rules.