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Women’s league; but only by name

Women’s league; but only by name

By Madi Howarth

Sydney Swans Youth Girls Academy at training

The AFLW has no women coaches. In a competition that’s made for women, where are they all?

Imagine a maze, you’re at the beginning and the lights are turned off – now find your way.

This is how Dr Julia Walsh, from Deakin University, likens the experience of a woman forging a career as a coach in a male-dominated sport.

“As a male, the lights are on and they’ve got a sat-nav,” says Walsh.

“That pathway is more explicit for them and people will pave them on their journey.”

Walsh is referring to the network that is already established for men when they begin their careers in coaching elite sport.

When the AFLW was announced, sports fans might have expected that it would shake up the status quo, that more opportunities would be given to women in all facets of the sport, not just players.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.

Rather than enabling women to open doors and break through glass ceilings, it seems that the women’s competition has become another stepping stone for men wanting careers as AFL coaches.

In its inaugural season, the AFLW had 8 head coaching positions and only two of them were held by women.

One of them was Bec Goddard, who coached Adelaide to make history as the first ever AFLW premiers; but she’s now back in Canberra working for the Australian Federal Police.

The second, was Michelle Cowan, but she has also resigned.

Walsh says that because coaching, as a profession, is relatively young and has been traditionally dominated by men, they’ve been able to establish networks over time, so without this it’s more challenging for women to begin and sustain a career as a coach.

“To the female coming into that role, it’s a bit of a foreign space and you will find that it’s a traditionally male dominated role and they don’t have the same networks or just haven’t had time to establish that same learning network,” says Walsh.

Swans Youth Girls Academy training

Aspiring women athletes may have assumed, or hoped, that the introduction of a women’s league would be embraced by AFL fans, however a quick scroll through the comment section of the AFLW Facebook page and it’s evident that attitudes in the sports community must change, as well as systematic changes to encourage women to undertake coaching as a profession.

“The only elation was when the siren sounded and the AFLW was over, no disrespect ladies, but u (sic) would get more enjoyment watching the under 5s at a country game – at least they have potential,” says a commenter, on the highlights reel of the AFLW Grand Final.

“AFLW is a joke, I cannot take it seriously,” says another commenter.

It’s this kind of culture within Australia’s much-loved sport, that discourages women from being involved and begs the question; why successful coaches would resign?

As an up and coming player for the Brisbane Lions, Kalinda Howarth feels the unequal playing field first-hand and her day-to-day routine that she followed in the 2017/2018 season would disagree with the sentiment that she lacks potential or can’t be taken seriously.

“A normal day for me looked like 7:30am – recovery, 8:30am – start work, 4:30pm – finish work early, travel straight to Brisbane for training, train from 5:30pm to 9:00pm and home at 10:00pm,” says Howarth.

“Most nights I wasn’t getting to bed until 11:30pm and then up again at 6:30am. It was very tiring and draining.”

On top of a packed routine, the women’s team also have to wait for the men to finish using facilities, like the gym, before they’re given access.

Howarth calls this “the king-like treatment” that the men’s team receives and says she understands it, but as an Indigenous woman, wishes there was more diversity in leadership and mentorship for women.

“I have only ever had 2 assistant coaches that were female and my experience with them was nothing but positive,” says Howarth.

“The Indigenous boys are given a lot of support culturally; they’re provided with their own Indigenous player welfare and have strong links to other Indigenous support networks,” says Howarth.

Pictured: Kalinda Howarth

“In the AFLW there is virtually no diversity in the mentors and coaches and our program has limited funding so there is very little support staff we have access to. I had a particularly tough experience and if I had a mentor or someone who I could talk to, I feel my experience would have been a lot different.”

There’s something that both Howarth and Walsh mention; that if there are the right males in the right roles, they will be able to build those relationships with their athletes regardless of gender.

“I think having more females it would be a much more comfortable environment, however in female sport it is all about finding the right people and if you have the right males in the role they will be able to build close enough relationships and be open minded,” says Howarth.


AFLW Brisbane Lions

Walsh says that it’s about learning and taking the time to build and establish the network like men have had the opportunity to do, since the beginning and that working together will be better for sport overall.

“I think we have to open our eyes to what can we learn in how males have got there and some of their learning,” says Walsh.

“We do not underestimate the power of males that champion women.”

A lack of opportunity, pathways and funding to make the AFLW a success for sportswomen at all levels, is a central issue.

Walsh is optimistic about the future and says that it won’t just be women benefitting from female sport.

“Once female sport gets profile with money attached to it, it becomes a dual pathway for males,” says Walsh.

In a report released by the NSW Government’s Office of Sport, it was stated that women’s sport is an untapped brand opportunity and that you can’t just put a ‘W’ on the end of something and say it’s for women.

So, the answer seems simple; with more funding there will be more access to opportunities and support for women to be encouraged and take the appropriate step in pursuing their passion for AFL and coaching.

The AFL needs to turn the lights on in the maze.

Piece to camera