Women in Sport: The Battle For Gender Equality

Physical activity is crucial for physical and mental health, and yet girls and women often don’t feel comfortable and confident playing, or being involved in, sport. So, researchers from Victoria University (VU) are committed to discovering why and pushing governments and organisations to ensure gender equality in all sports. You too can help increase the number of women in sport by understanding the barriers and joining the conversation.

Pioneering inclusive Australian sports

Despite an often keen interest in sport and exercise, girls in Australia are less physically active than boys and female physical activity remains less than male activity right through adulthood. Since insufficient physical activity increases the risk of chronic health concerns like heart disease, diabetes, and dementia, and prevents us from accessing the mental and physical benefits of exercise, this gender disparity is worrying to say the least.

Thankfully, VU is prioritising research that aims to increase physical activity among girls and women by making all sports more welcoming and inclusive. Researchers like Dr Kara Dadswell and Professor Clare Hanlon have been at the forefront of this transformation, dedicating their careers to understanding and enhancing the participation and leadership of women and girls in sport. As a result, the last two decades have seen the Australian sporting landscape undergo a significant transformation.

A quote from professor clare hanlon that reads: “when i started getting involved with women in sport 15-20 years ago, change wasn't occurring and i was hitting a lot of closed doors. At times, i was also perceived as being ‘bossy’ because i was the only woman trying to lead in this space. But fast forward to now, to the last even five years, and it’s really exciting. As an example, we’ve had netball australia make a change to inclusive uniforms. Now girls have the option of wearing shorts, dresses, skirts, leggings, and men too can wear singlets, t-shirts, v-necks, round necks, long sleeves. What they wear is based on the needs of the individual provided they wear the club or team’s colours. It’s been really rewarding to see that change. All the hard work, all the knocking on doors — all that is now coming to fruition. ”

Through rigorous research and both community and industry engagement, these researchers, and their colleagues, are illuminating the complex landscape of sports inclusivity, advocating for a level playing field where sport is a universal right rather than a selective privilege.

Making a mark

Kara and Clare’s work, in collaboration with colleagues from a variety of disciplines, is shaping national and international policies and pushing clubs and codes to do things differently by offering practical solutions and insights. This has led to actionable changes in sports organisations across Australia.

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Professor Clare Hanlon, Susan Alberti Women in Sport Chair and Victoria University researcher at the Institute for Health & Sport.

As just one example, their research revealed school and club uniforms, if not well-designed, can be a significant reason for girls dropping out of sport. Thankfully, their research also uncovered simple ways to create a uniform that allows girls to feel comfortable playing a wide variety of sports.

Uniforms should be flexible, made from climate-suitable materials, and above all, should give players choice. Choices should include the following most desired items:

  • Shorts designed for female bodies
  • Loose-fitting t-shirts
  • Dark-coloured bottoms

 If a sports uniform you or your children are being asked to wear is discouraging participation in sport, share this clear and concise guide to developing inclusive and supportive sports uniforms with the school or club and start a conversation about the effect the uniform is having.

Clare and Kara also co-authored a similar guide on inclusive and supportive uniforms for umpires and referees in an effort to remove a significant barrier to girls and women moving into officiating roles. If you’re one of the 61% of female umpires and referees who feel uncomfortable in your current uniform, share it with your club or sporting body and tell them what it would mean to you to have a comfortable uniform.

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Dr Kara Dadswell, psychology lecturer, women in sport research fellow, and Victoria University researcher at the Institute for Health & Sport.

As another example, Clare was a member of the advisory panel to the Victorian government’s 2015 Inquiry into Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation, which made nine recommendations for how to deliver a future where “women and girls in all roles in sport and active recreation are the norm and where females and males have the same choices and opportunities to lead and to participate”. The government invested one million dollars to implement all the recommendations, and the findings of the inquiry inspired the creation of the Change Our Game campaign.

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Since the 1980s, VU has maintained a robust partnership with the Western Bulldogs. Clare collaborates closely with the club, particularly with the AFLW and VFLW teams.

One tangible outcome of that work was the establishment of a 40% quota for the percentage of sporting board roles filled by women. In 2017, only 44% of Australian sporting organisations met that quota. By 2019, thanks to this work, 93% of organisations met that quota, and that percentage remains fairly stable today.

Most recently, Kara and Clare, with funding from the Change Our Game Research Grants Program, have been researching influences on gender bias in relation to leadership roles in sport. They found children are more likely to have exposure to male sporting officials and coaches and, as a result, they’re less likely to be satisfied with female coaches and officials and more likely to be biased towards associating those roles with men, especially if their parents have similar attitudes.

However, the study found just being exposed to female officials and coaches helped overcome those issues — exposure leads to greater satisfaction with female sports leaders and reduced bias against them. This further underscores the importance of ensuring uniforms for female sports officials are not a barrier to women taking up those roles.

If you want to contribute to gender equality in the sports you’re involved with, share Kara and Clare’s recommendations and conversation starters with the schools and sporting clubs in your life.

The impact of Clare and Kara’s work is evident in the increased visibility and success of female athletes and leaders within the Australian sports domain. By challenging the status quo and advocating for change, these researchers have helped pave the way for a more inclusive and diverse Aussie sporting landscape.

Charting the future

 This journey towards inclusivity in sports is a testament to the power of research and advocacy in forging a more inclusive society. And Clare and Kara are optimistic about the future of women in sport over the next 10 years.

A quote from dr kara dadswell that reads: “i think it will look much more equal. One of the things we’ve learned from our work is that visibility matters. The more people see women in coaching and officiating roles, the better the perceptions of women being in those roles. We’ve done a lot of work to get women in those positions. We now just need to see more of them there. ”

But it will take the continued perseverance of researchers, like Kara and Clare, to uncover further barriers and advocate for effective solutions. And it will take continued persistence from parents, participants, and other advocates, to ensure organisations continue to take on board those solutions.

A quote from dr kara dadswell that reads: “i hope ‘women in sport’ will no longer be a topic we even talk about — that it will be embedded in our culture. ”

If you want to be part of the solution, why not start a rewarding career in research at VU or find an inclusive sport guide to share with a school or sporting organisation in your life.

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