'The girls were treated as if they were put up with, rather than welcomed': Dr Greg Downes on the injustices faced by women & girls in football

‘The girls were treated as if they were put up with, rather than welcomed’: Dr Greg Downes on the injustices faced by women & girls in football

When Dr Greg Downes’ youngest daughter began playing football (soccer) in Byron Bay years ago, he noticed some major differences in how her team was treated in comparison with equivalent boys’ teams.

At a club level, the girls’ teams were given second-hand jerseys, had limited and more restrictive training spaces than boys, difficult game schedules and a lack of club support and resources.

“The girls were clearly treated as if they were put up with rather than welcomed,” Downes told Women’s Agenda recently.

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As a parent who expected more for his daughter and her teammates, Downes became involved in the fight to make sure teams of girls had an inclusive and equal experience. As he delved more into the issues behind the injustices he saw, his eyes were opened to the inequality women in sport face on a much broader scale.

He realised that “women’s sport was of little interest to most” and next to no research had been done in the area.

For Downes, this was the start of his research into the history of women’s football in Australia, a topic that has seen him complete a PhD in 2016 and author an upcoming book, Dedicated Lives: An oral history of women’s football in Australia.

Downes took the time to answer some questions for Women’s Agenda on the research behind his book and shared some fascinating insights into some of the pioneers of the women’s game in Australia. He also talks to the recent successes of the Matildas, a team that is seeing record fan engagement.

Why did you decide to study the history of women’s football? Was there a moment that brought your attention to the idea?

My youngest daughter was playing football (soccer) for Byron Bay (she had been playing from the age of 11) at the same time I was completing my Masters in International Sport Management. By this time she was a member of the very successful senior women’s team.

Over the years it became clear that things were different for the girls in relation to the boys. Although they all played for the same club, the girls were clearly treated as if they were put up with rather than welcomed. There were many examples of the differences, but most were evident in the second hand playing shirts, limited and restrictive training spaces, difficult game schedules and lack of club support and resources.

As a parent I became involved in the fight to make my daughter’s involvement an inclusive one. I started to become more aware of the issues on a much broader scale, and the lack of attention paid to the issues surrounding women and sport. As I began to research the topic I quickly realised that women’s sport was of little interest to most. This led me to my Masters Research topic and eventually to my PhD.

Dr Greg Downes

What are a couple of the main takeaways from your PhD research that you’d like others to know?

The PhD thesis, An oral history of women’s football in Australia, is based on the oral testimony of a number of women (and men) who pioneered the game in Australia. My approach provided these women with an opportunity to express, in their own words, their role in the history of the game.

I would like people to know about the long and interesting history of the women’s game in Australia, and the many hardships the women had to face to play a game, which was traditionally looked on as a men’s game. This required them to battle against widespread gendered discrimination in a search for recognition, resources and support.  Despite the hardships the women shared a genuine love and passion for the game and along with family and community as major cornerstones of support they continued their efforts to play.

While the women often battled against male generated discrimination the research highlighted the importance of the ‘supportive male’ in the contributions of fathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands and coaches in enabling these women to participate and grow.

Lastly, I would like people to know about these pioneers of the game and that without their efforts and sacrifices the game wouldn’t be in the position it is today. In recognition of these women I have named the book, Dedicated Lives: An oral history of women’s football in Australia.

Your upcoming book looks at the hardships the pioneers of women’s football faced in their pursuit to play the game. Can you tell me a little about these women and their experiences?

My upcoming book is based on the women’s experiences of football. Yes it does include the hardships they faced and how they overcame them, but also their love of the game, acknowledgement, respect and achievement, and what participating in the game meant to them. The majority of the women began playing football at a young age (some as young as 12 playing in open age women’s teams) in the formative years of football in Australia.

The 1970s is recognised as the decade in which women’s football found its feet. Several are children from migrant families who arrived in Australia in the early 1970s (England, Wales, West Germany, USA). All faced hardships in their attempts to play the game.

The women I interviewed come from Victoria, NSW, Queensland and the ACT. These were the leading states in the developing years of women’s football. Some of the players represented at State level, some became Matildas while others worked as administrators. Several of the women are well known in Australian Football circles (Elaine Watson OAM, Heather Reid AM, Betty Hoar, Paul Turner, Belinda Wilson) while others are not, but all have played a role in the development of the women’s game in this country.

They fought for equal rights and resources, developed competitions (regional, state and international) and formed associations across the country, and rallied against the might of FIFA for fairness and equity for women coaches and the right to hold a Women’s World Cup. 

Women’s football in Australia has experienced a meteoric rise to prominence over the past few years. Recent research that gauged fans’ emotional connection with sporting teams showed the Matildas have the best fan engagement of any team in the country. Could you comment on why you think this is?

This is a very good question, and not an easy one to answer.

Yes, according to a recent Benchmark Emotional connection study the current Matildas are now ranked as Australia’s most loved sporting team. How did this happen?

I think we need to start with the change in society generally and how we look at gender and discrimination. I think this is becoming more balanced and is being reflected in how women in sport are treated. In relation to women’s sport, the playing field has changed radically over such a short period of time which again is reflected in gains in relation to equal pay, resources, and support. You just have to look at the Australian women’s cricket team and the AFLW competition. In addition, these teams are winning and attracting media attention. Success leads to recognition leads to marketability.

In relation to the Matildas, there has been a groundswell of support for the team both in the lead up to and during the recent WWC campaign and the growth in support for the bid to host the 2023 World Cup in Australia. This comes on the back of recent international successes against world ranked teams such as the USA, Brazil and Chile.

The current players are enjoying some of the benefits of the many giant steps taken by women’s sport and football in particular in recent times.  The players are now well known both in Australia and internationally – look at Sam Kerr. They are also great role models for young girls and the game events are family friendly, attractive and welcoming to the wider family group. The game is now engaging fans, attracting wider media attention and driving participation numbers. Having recently qualified for the now 2021 Olympics I think this position will only improve.

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