Players tackle AFL Women’s empowerment narrative

AFL Women’s (AFLW) players are expected to be optimistic and grateful for their substandard work conditions and low pay new research shows.

Dr Adele Pavlidis from the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research conducted in-depth interviews with 13 AFLW players who had played in the 2018 season, focusing on wages and work conditions.

Players rationalised their low pay and work conditions as a necessary ‘sacrifice’ to create a sustainable, profit-generating competition sanctioned by the AFL.

AFLW players also responded with positivity and gratitude while being careful about how they framed the competition’s darker issues.

“These players are sacrificing a lot and risking injury because their bodies don’t have the same opportunities for conditioning as men in the AFL. They also risk more harm to their bodies in other ways, for example Tayla Harris continues to be bullied and harassed online for doing her job,’’ Dr Pavlidis said.

Dr Adele Pavlidis is leading a three year ARC funded project into the sustainability of women’s sport in Australia

She said in all of the interviews there was a sense that players were wary of being too critical of challenges and injustices witihin the league.

“When players spoke out, it was reframed positively as if they may be punished for their comments. This is part of the tension between the AFL permitting women to play and the worth of these women to the industry.

“They may have made it, but it is on them to make the competition a success or it could all be taken away for future generations. That’s a big responsibility to put on women who are often very young.”

AFLW players consider themselves ‘lucky’ to be playing at all

AFLW players also emphasised the role of luck for their success, downplaying sacrifices made as elite athletes juggling other paid employment to make ends meet.

“The AFL treats the work of becoming a professional athlete, like strength conditioning and nutrition, as optional and unpaid. Wages are based on a nine-hour work week which increases to 10 hours during the season.

“Women routinely do more than their contracted hours per week, but take it as a matter of fact. They shared stories of supportive employers, partners and families, emphasising being ‘lucky’ as opposed to kindness and human relationships.”

AFLW players are paid a base wage of just $16,263, with top players earning $29,856 for the current 2020 season.

“Professional sport has been a male-dominated industry from the boardroom right through to the field itself. Bringing in women with different needs and history changes the way things are done in these spaces.

“AFLW players responding to the burden of being ‘the whole package’, with gratitude and positivity, will reverberate throughout the AFL and change it in ways we don’t understand yet.

“I don’t think it is the players who should be grateful to the corporations who let them play, it should be the other way around.”

Published in the journal Emotion, Space and Society, the research is part of a three-year Australian Research Council funded project into the sustainability of women and diverse people in a range of professional sports.