Footy clubs still missing goals for female players

Footy player Sammy Whitelaw in her SFNL uniform. Photo Vincent van Oorschot.
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While participation at all levels continues to rise in Aussie Rules, particularly for women, some say more needs to be done to adapt to change. Vincent van Oorschot reports.

After finishing their Saturday night match at seven o’clock, the Beaumaris Sharks senior women’s football team made their way to their club’s function room in its newly refurbished pavilion.

As they did so, they encountered men’s senior players, who had stayed long enough to hear the women’s final siren after their own game, chatting to one another with their backs to the field and beers in hands, watching an AFL game on television.

It seemed a glaring reminder of the lack of support that some local women teams are still receiving today.

Earlier in 2019, the AFL released statistics showed a 14.2 per cent increase in female participants across all levels of Aussie Rules. In turn, this accounted for a 6.5 per cent overall rise for the game as a whole (1,649,178 active players).

This statistic suggests that one in three players who play competitively are female. But why is the gender divide at the local level still very prevalent?

With football historically played predominantly by men, female footballers are shifting the dynamics of footy clubs off the field. However, with this change comes some odd behavior, according to a senior player.

“The boys and the girls do all attend club events together which is very good,” said Beaumaris player Ally Gilchrist, “but still there is this kind of divide where the boys think they’re too good for us.

“It could also be this kind of social awkwardness where they don’t feel comfortable coming to talk to us because they might cop ridicule from the other boys.”

“They [Beaumaris] really want us to mix and the club is putting girls onto the social committee next year. But it’s just boys being boys and just unsure of how to act in some social situations at this stage.”

The Beaumaris Sharks are in the Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA), a league that has many high schools associated with its competitions.

As far as promoting junior football goes, many clubs in the association have excellent reputations when it comes to nurturing young female athletes, according to Gilchrist.

“A lot of people at clubs like Beaumaris have been in the area for years and many people there have local businesses that can sponsor and promote. This is really helpful in terms of spreading the word to younger girls and getting them involved at an earlier age,” said Gilchrist.

Beaumaris fields the most female teams in Melbourne
metropolitan and for the first time a female Sharks player has made it on to ‘The Record’ magazine.

“The club is always promoting our games on Facebook and always encouraging everyone to get down to our games, which just shows that they’re trying to make it as equal as possible.”

Nevertheless, the challenges for local women’s football teams extend beyond those at a social level.

Financially, security is not a certainty for numerous clubs trying to field female squads every season, as leagues like the Southern Football Netball League (SFNL) require money produced by clubs to compete in the competition.

According to Mark Seymour, former chairman of the SFNL, “clubs who wished to compete in the league needed to pay affiliation fees.”

“With clubs trying to field four senior teams at a time (three male and one female team) it takes a lot of fundraising to maintain a women’s team in the league.”

The VAFA and SFNL’s respective logos on playing shorts. Photo Vincent van Oorschot.

“We needed more administrative staff as a result to organise the set-up of the first SFNL women’s season for 2016 and looking back I’m happy to say I took part in the process,” said Seymour.

But with clubs sometimes being unable to provide adequate resources to their women’s teams, some female players have had problems settling in at new clubs and have had to move around as a result.

Sammy Whitelaw, who has played three seasons at both the Highett Bulldogs and Oakleigh Districts football clubs, is concerned about women’s teams in leagues like the SFNL and the lack of resources provided to them.

“Once a girls’ team is created and ready for the upcoming season, the likelihood that its coach is paid, is very unlikely,” said Whitelaw.

“My previous club had to discontinue its female program because we had no coach, which was sad because many of the friends I had made also had to find other clubs. I’m now looking at playing at a third club for next season.”

“It’s a sad cycle and I hope in the future there is enough growth in the sport for participation to not be such an issue like it is today at the local level.”