Last year, I was driving my then five-year-old son to a birthday party, and we inevitably started talking about his own upcoming birthday party. A football party, at the Boulevard oval, Dad can umpire, Ned can be captain of the other team, we'll eat hotdogs -- he went on, you get the drill, and very few details were ignored. And I have to admit that until this point, there had been no discussion about girls being invited or not. So his next comment really stumped me "and the girls can be the crowd".
Seems harmless and innocent, and on the one hand it is. But if you look at the coverage of women's sport, you very quickly see that it is rarely, if ever, featured on the back page of the paper, nor showcased during prime-time television. That space is usually reserved for sportsmen -- AFL, NRL and cricket.
And so it was with goosebumps that I walked hand in hand with my five-year-old daughter into Whitten Oval last Saturday night. We were there to watch 50 of the best female players in the country give us a glimpse of what we can expect to see when the AFL launches a professional Women's League next year. It was a serene moment, as another glass ceiling was smashed. And I quietly celebrated the fact that my daughter and sons are unlikely to ever remember professional football as being the exclusive domain of men. I love AFL, and can't wait to see the Women's League take off next year.
Of course, the introduction of women to an arena traditionally dominated by men requires the challenging of biases and stereotypes as this quote from "Bernie", which featured in the comments section under an article about the introduction of a female mascot, Navy Nina by the Carlton Football Club, demonstrates:
"This is a sport devised by males, for males, played by males. If the sheilas want to watch, too, of course they're welcome. But all this PC crap about 'gender imbalance' and 'need for cultural diversity' is destroying the game.
"It would be the same as women whingeing about not enough men watching netball. Give it a flipping rest and get back to the basics, where PC is banned. Get on with the game and just play footy."
But, just as sexist jokes are meant to be 'funny', (Bernie probably smirked at his comments) behind every joke, act and symbol is some truth.
Which is why it is so important for the AFL to seize the opportunity to prioritise gender equality with the introduction of the Women's League from the outset.
In recent days, the pay terms and conditions offered by the AFL to female players have been revealed. The most problematic figure is the $5,000 salary for the vast majority of the players. That amount includes training (which is capped at nine hours per week because otherwise the amount will fall below the minimum hourly wage). Players are also expected to pay for their own health insurance and, because nobody can live on $5000 a year, the amount will also be taxed at a higher rate because it will be a second income.
Now is the time to invest heavily in the Women's League. Here are five reasons why the AFL needs to level the playing field from the outset.
1. You can't call them professional and then tell them they can't earn a living from it.
The introduction of a women's league means the professionalisation of the sport for women. But if female players can't earn a living from playing AFL, then they fall short of the definition of "professional", which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as: "Engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as an amateur: a professional boxer."
Not only will female players be unable to make a living from playing AFL, they will have to negotiate substantial flexibility with their current employers just to participate, meaning many will actually be worse off financially for the privilege of playing AFL. As an AFL hopeful who is also a Year 12 teacher recently told me, her Principal is not going to be able to explain to the students and their parents that she needs to take every second Friday afternoon off.
2. They can afford to, and the business case makes sense.
Saturday night's exhibition match between Melbourne and Western Bulldogs was the highest rating Saturday night match for the year, proving that the landmark curtain-raiser from last year, again between Melbourne and Western Bulldogs, was not a fluke.
Every new business proposition requires investment to get it off the ground. The AFL knows this only too well. And let's be honest, with its lucrative new broadcasting deal, the AFL can't exactly cry poor.
3. Athletes need a reason to choose AFL beyond just passion
Other sports are paying more. Take netball, where the salary cap for each team is $500,000.
If the AFL is going to compete for the best talent, they'd better put their money on the table; gratitude for the opportunity to play AFL isn't going to underpin the success of the competition.
4. Attitudes to women in sport are mirrored in our community
It is important -- for the female players as well as for the message it sends to women and girls across the community -- that the AFL demonstrates that women players are valued.
When it comes to gender equality, we must be intentional, and focus our efforts both on the significant interventions, as well as the small actions we can take. Because it's what lives beneath the surface of the messages that society sends to men and women, boys and girls, about what -- and, more importantly, who -- matters. In a majority of the communities, institutions and workplaces in which we all operate, the concentration of power lies with men. And whenever men are paid more, we make a big statement about who matters more.
To pay women less than men for doing the same job is to disrespect them, and, as Prime Minister Turnbull said last year, "disrespecting women doesn't always result in violence against women, but all violence against women begins with disrespecting women".
For the AFL to keep repeating that "the female players understand that we are on a journey" is nothing short of exploitation and an abuse of power over a playing group so passionate to finally do what they've always dreamed of -- play professional football in an AFL competition.
5. Equal work for equal pay
Sport represents the pointy end of the gender pay gap, with major discrepancies between women's and men's earnings from professional sport. Workplace Gender Equality Agency data shows that in the category of sporting clubs and sporting professionals there is a 50 percent gender pay gap, meaning men earn on average twice as much as women.
And while there are commercial realities that mean in practical terms it may take some time for the top end of the female players' salaries to reflect those of the top male players' salaries, playing payers equally ought to be the main goal for the AFL.
Gender equality is increasingly recognised as a business priority among smart Australian employers wishing to remain competitive in their particular industry and the AFL should be no different.