The excitement for this first FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand has been accompanied by frustration expressed about the pace of change toward gender equality in sport. Major sport events, such as the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Olympic and Paralympic Games shine an important spotlight on the problematic values that continue to marginalise women’s voices in the governance and representation of sport. A few days out from the start of the Cup, the Matildas players released a powerful video  calling for improved governance in the domestic A League competition and increased opportunities for women to have a voice in the sport system. They also seek to hold the international body FIFA accountable for perpetuating institutionalised inequality with respect to the enormous disparity in pay for women and men at World Cups. The Matildas are staking a claim for gender equality as the legacy of this FIFA World Cup. They recognise that the gains made in through increased visibility of women on the pitch can be easily lost when the global spotlight turns off as the tournament ends. The #EqualPlayEqualPay chant in support the US team’s battle during the 2019 World Cup is likely to be a resounding refrain for 2023 as more countries push for change.

The cost of gender inequity

Women footballers are speaking out after spending their valuable time pursuing greater equality over many years. Players bear the cost of this gender inequity in terms of the energy, lost income and invisible emotional labour directed towards changing sexist structures and cultures. It is a cost that men have not had to pay due to their institutionalised sport privilege. After competing at six World Cups, the Matildas struck their first collective agreement. However, it was a woeful underinvestment that failed to address inadequate pay and conditions, leading to the 2015 strike and fuelling momentum towards the landmark 2019 deal. As one of Australia’s favourite sport teams, the Matilda’s own struggle for recognition has resonated with fans and the broader public, growing with social media and greater numbers of women sports journalists investigating the issues. Double standards were made visible and the collective power of a renewed Players Association demanded more—no less than the equality expected in most Australian workplaces.

Support and diversity at a grassroots level

With the increased visibility of change at the elite level, there is the also risk of complacency, of assuming that we have arrived at gender equality in Australian football and sport more broadly.  Football is one of Australia’s largest grassroots team sports, and it is expected that the 2023 Women’s World Cup will fuel this this momentum and increase the participation of women and girls in the sport. The question remains about how effective the implementation and investment in FIFA Women’s World Cup legacy plans for Australia and New Zealand will be for changing systemic practices, economic and social value calculations and cultural norms that are embedded in our masculine sport history. There is a need for structures and investment to support participation growth that considers development opportunities for women coaches, referees and leaders at all levels. Gender inequality also needs to be understood beyond a single issue to include a better understanding of the intersection with class, ethnicity, Indigenous culture, disability, sexuality, age and location. Gender identities are also changing as are policy guidelines for transgender and gender diverse participants at the grassroots and high-performance levels in Australia.

Oddly, the Australian legacy plan identifies the need for greater diversity but leaves out reference to sexuality, despite the Matildas advocacy of LGBTQ+ inclusion. Stars such as Sam Kerr and Megan Rapinoe (USA) have contributed to the global conversation about LGBTQ+ inclusion yet FIFA has ignored player calls to approve an identifiable One Love captain’s armband, opting instead for a more generalised ‘inclusion’ category. The elevation of athlete’s voices through this World Cup is bringing attention to a range of gender inequalities within and beyond the sport. We have seen the Brazilian team’s charter plane emblazoned with a powerful image and words drawing attention to Iranian human rights protestors: ‘No women should be forced to cover her head’ and ‘no man should be hanged for saying this’.

“Women’s football is more than a brand or product, it is a social movement that connects with a huge range of causes and issues as a force for change across the globe.”
Uneven change in women’s sport

The World Cup highlights the underlying issue about how the value and visibility of women through sport is changing. For many years in Australia the media coverage of horse and dog racing far exceeded that of women’s sport. The question about the ‘value’ of women’s sport erupted when Sydney’s Daily Telegraph announced the Sportswoman of the Year award in 2012 was racehorse Black Caviar. It was also the year when the women’s Olympic basketball team, the Opals, were flown in economy to London, while the men travelled in first class. The Matildas experienced the same inequity until the Australian Sport Commission flexed its governance muscles in 2016 by requiring a gender-neutral travel policy for senior world championship events. At times the groundbreaking positive shifts for women at the elite level (cricket, football, Olympic team representation, starting the AFLW competition) can obscure the masculine bias and privilege inherent in the sport system and the need to recognise diverse identities. We saw this with the under representation of women in the Paralympics and the pay gap with nondisabled athletes that was only addressed after advocacy at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Change within Australian sport cultures around gender equality is occurring unevenly, which is perhaps unsurprising given the lack of a national gender equity in sport policy framework. The states of Victoria and New South Wales have demonstrated that change processes are possible with the policy will and investment to do things differently.

“In 2022, women made up less than 20% of CEOs across national sporting organisations that receive funding from Sport Australia, and 17% of national sporting organisations still do not have a single woman on their board. In the history of our leading policy organisation, the Australian Sports Commission, there has been one woman CEO—Kate Palmer.”
Go Team
Celebrating achievements—on and off the field

The promotion of the FIFA Women’s World Cup and women’s sport more broadly in Australia has focused on increasing visibility by addressing the idea that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Yet, what is often unseen is the long history of women trailblazers who have worked hard to reveal the gender gaps in participation, funding, leadership and representation at all levels of sport. As the world game’s biggest event comes to Australia and New Zealand this historic moment provides an important platform for global conversations about valuing women’s sporting capabilities on their own terms. For many years the naysayers, trolls and detractors of women’s sport perpetuated bias with disrespectful and often abusive comments, ‘no one wants to watch them’, or, ‘their skills are not as good as the men’. Despite this tired narrative, there has also been positive recognition that the women’s game is refreshing with less ‘diving’ than the men and more inclusive fan cultures.

With over a million tickets sold and expectations of record-breaking global audiences, the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup will be a demonstration of an exciting sporting spectacle, one that is worth investing in. While we enjoy the display of extraordinary skill and the excitement that comes with this World Cup, let’s celebrate what these athletes represent beyond athleticism—social justice, change and hard-won opportunities.


Professor Simone Fullagar is an interdisciplinary sociologist who has published widely on gender equity in sport, mental health, active communities and social well-being. With an interest in social and organisational change her work contributes to thinking differently about inequalities. Simone also has a professional background in community service management for diverse populations. In 2014 she moved from Australia to the University of Bath, UK, to lead the Physical Culture, Sport & Health research group. In July 2019 she returned to Griffith University as Professor of Sport Management to lead the strategic focus on gender equity in sport. She is Chair of the Sport and Gender Equity Research Hub (SAGE). she was the first Australian to receive the Shaw-Mannell International Leisure Research Award for her contribution to feminist scholarship in leisure, sport and health from the University of Waterloo, CA. In 2019, Simone was appointed as a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, UK.

Dr Adele Pavlidis is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology with the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, and previously an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow. Currently her work focuses on sport as a key site of change in Australian society and an important context for changing and challenging attitudes towards women. In particular she is interested in connecting social, cultural and health concepts with sport in the hope of creating more inclusive futures. She has published widely on a range of sociocultural issues in sport and leisure, with a focus on gender and power relations.

5: Gender Equality
UN Sustainable Development Goals 5: Gender Equality