'Til it's done', let’s make this the start of something

Posted August 17, 2023

SGS Economics and Planning Matildas3

“You can’t be what you can’t see” – it has become a kind of mantra for those pushing the boundaries of representation in leadership, STEM, sport and other sectors where women and other groups have historically been sidelined. This sentiment has again taken centre stage in a national dialogue ignited by the Matildas.

The Australian women’s soccer team have captivated the nation in their journey to the Women’s World Cup and as they’ve overcome injuries and goals conceded to reach the semi-final – a first for Australia. An audience of 7.13 million Australians tuned in to the semifinal, many of them young girls.

The Matildas’ breakthrough performance on home soil, coinciding with the Diamonds’ win at their netball World Cup (their 12th such victory) as well as the record-smashing Barbie movie release, signals a moment with the kind of potential to drive systemic reform that doesn’t come around very often. It’s yet unknown what the exact nature of changes will be for women’s sport, with things like pay and funding restructuring, new venues, and better broadcasting agreements on the table. But we can be sure that a phenomenon such as this one will influence the trajectory of cultural and behavioral trends, requiring a response from planners, policy makers, and providers of sports and recreation infrastructure.

An ever-evolving sport and recreation landscape

According to Ausplay data, female Australians are slightly more active than their male counterparts. The national participation rate for 2022 in a sport or physical activity 1+ times per week was 48 per cent for girls aged 0-14 and 82 per cent for women aged 15+, compared with and 47 per cent and 79 per cent for boys and men, respectively. The differences lie in the types of activities the different genders engage in. While men and boys are more strongly represented across most organised sporting activities such as golf, football/soccer, basketball, cricket, and Australian football, women and girls typically participate more in non-organised-sport activities such as hiking and walking, yoga, and recreational dance.

Where female participants do engage in sports, their preferences differ from those of males. Australian football and cricket appear in the top 10 sports for 15+ male participation nationwide but don’t make the list for women. Football/soccer ranks similarly for both men and women 15+, but the women’s top 5 includes netball and tennis – the latter of which only appears in the top 10 sports for men.

However, these patterns are shifting, and have been for some time. A 2016 report from the AFL for Australian rules football found that more women and girls were playing the game than ever before. A similar report from Football Australia in 2021 found that women and girls’ participation in football/soccer activities had grown by 21 per cent from the previous year alone. Historical Ausplay data reinforces the notion that women are taking up positions in organised sport more and more. The table below lists sports with the top 10 changes in female participation for girls and women over the last 6 years.

SGS Economics and Planning Tablefor Matildas
Source: AusPlay, 2023

From 2016-2022, sports that were already popular exhibited an increase in female participation – with swimming increasing the most for women and girls the most over the 6-year period. But two key differences between the two age cohorts point to shifts that have more monumental implications for the future of sport. Firstly, girls are increasing their participation in sports at rates that are often several times that of women. And secondly, they’re taking up different sports.

Australia’s changing demographics are also evident in the trends at play. One sport, in particular, draws the cultural line between Australians who speak English at home from those who speak a language other than English (LOTE) – badminton, ranking in the top 10 sports for both men and women aged 15+.

These movements, alongside a growing population, will correspond with changing needs for infrastructure to accommodate greater participation levels in organised sport overall, and a rebalancing of participation across the different types of sport.

What’s next for infrastructure and asset planning, investment, and programming?

Investments and programs designed to level the playing field are already underway across Australia. Converting pavilions to cater to more female sporting clubs is at the centre of many initiatives, with most states and territories introducing grant funding for providing new and redeveloped change rooms that are female-friendly in the last 5-10 years. But making over organised sporting infrastructure to equally accommodate female participants requires much more than retrofitting buildings that support male-dominated activities. While swimming, netball, and tennis remain among the top organised sports that women and girls participate in, they should enjoy equal investment and priority for community infrastructure as for sports that continue to be male-dominated.

A key barrier to this is outdated standards and practices around benchmarking infrastructure needs which don’t reflect contemporary participation trends for female and culturally diverse groups in sport and recreation. As one example, planning for new communities in Victoria remains reliant on infrastructure provision guidelines developed in 2008. Based on historical participation trends, the guidelines recommend providing a level 1 active open space reserve (with capacity for two AFL/cricket ovals or 3 soccer fields and a pavilion) at a rate of 1 per every 6,000 residents. For netball and tennis, the benchmarks for similar facilities are 16,000 and 30,000, respectively, with a note that these can be located on government school sites, despite the fact that in most cases these are not open to the general public. A more up-to-date and responsive approach is needed that factors in changing trends to future-proof sports grounds and facilities.

But the old adage ‘if you build it they will come’ doesn’t easily ring true with community infrastructure. Place-based initiatives and programs to support the establishment of female sporting clubs (as has traditionally been done with male clubs in new communities) is another important element for success. Recruiting women to leadership positions on the side of the providers and associations is important, as is engagement. Two case studies highlighted by the Australian Women in Sport Advisory Group illustrate this. At the national level, Cricket Australia’s development of a gender strategy that focused on organisational change was followed by a 700 per cent increase in the number of local associations providing an all-girls competition. And in the Victorian community of Traralgon, an audit of barriers women joining the local soccer club identified that sexist attitudes and safety concerns were the predominant obstacles. Once the club undertook additional training, launched safety initiatives, and improved passive surveillance on-site, female participation increased. Many successful programs also target the point in adolescence at which many girls drop out of sport as they navigate the challenges of puberty.

And while space is precious – as our cities become denser, there is more and more competition for land –greater participation across a number of different sports and recreation activities doesn’t always have to necessitate a net increase in space. There’s a lot we can do to make our existing open spaces ‘work harder’ by prioritising upgrades that support more hours of use for more people, such as evening lighting and more durable surfaces. Recent research from the Global Sport Institute of Arizona State University found that while the capital costs of artificial turf may be considerably higher than that of natural grass, the average cost per hour of use for turf is $25.07USD, versus $91.20USD for natural grass, due to the reduced maintenance and improved scheduling possibilities on turf grounds. It also noted that while turf has historically been associated with health concerns related to injuries and heat, innovations in the industry continue to drive improvements to synthetic surfaces that mitigate these issues.

The need to extract greater use from our sporting grounds and facilities does mean that the culture of club dominance of facilities must go – and these are overwhelmingly long-established male clubs. SGS recently spoke with one local government in relation to the process of opening up their pavilions for more shared use. The discussion emphasised the importance of changes to practices around lease and license agreements, and limitations on clubs’ options to contribute their own funds to public facilities.

A lasting legacy for community sport and wellbeing

Above all, this moment is an opportunity to harness the momentum in the wake of the tournament to enhance participation in organised sports through renewed investment in facilities and programs that put the needs and interests of women and culturally diverse groups front and centre. By doing so, we're ensuring that the legacy of the Matildas shapes a future where every young Australian envisions and achieves what was once beyond sight.

The Matilda's celebrating after a win in the FIFA World Cup

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SGS Economics and Planning Liz Webster
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