12 Aug, 2015 Last updated: 12 Aug, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion piece first published in the Herald Sun.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter
Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

There is change in the air. For those who have tirelessly campaigned for an end to violence against women, this week, which sees Australia’s first Royal Commission into Family Violence begin its public hearings, will be bittersweet.

But the pessimist in me has to ask, how long will it last? How long will it be before the lead stories become short soundbites, before the renewed debate about equal pay and prize money dissipates until the next big sporting event, and before young sports fans across the country watch their heroes fade from memory?

Women’s sport is languishing behind men’s sport in terms of participation, media coverage, pay and prize money, and fewer women hold key decision making, leadership or media commentator roles in sport.

A new survey VicHealth released this week shows that three in five (62%) Victorians don’t think women’s sport gets enough coverage in the media.

This is significantly higher than the rest of Australia, where 55% of people do not think female sport gets enough media coverage. Unsurprisingly, a majority of women nationwide agree that there’s a lack of coverage of women’s sport, but we also have half of Australian men (49%) agreeing that we’re not seeing or hearing enough reporting of women’s sport on television, radio and in newspapers.

While we’ve seen the Diamonds bouncing back at the World Cup on our screens we know that women’s sport receives much less coverage than men’s sport with only 7% of television sports programming devoted to it.

In a sporting first on Sunday, the Seven Network will live broadcast an AFL women’s exhibition match between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, finally giving our female footballers the recognition they deserve and inspiring thousands of girls across the country to get involved in the sport.

But if we’re serious about really changing the game – on the field and on our screens – we need to increase the number of women in leadership roles in sport. The Australian Sports Commission put a governance target of 40% of state sporting associations’ and national sporting organisations’ boards to be women because research shows that companies with a higher proportion of women in their top management perform better financially.  More women on boards, in senior management and as coaches and officials in sport will also better represent the interests of women and girls and challenge a long-standing culture where women receive a fraction of the pay, sponsorship and prize money of their male counterparts. 

When it comes to women in sport, there’s more at play than making headlines. We’ve got a long way to go before we can say that men and women’s sport is valued equally and where women make up 40% of boards.

The same is true when we talk about opportunities for women to take part in sport, the lack of which is impacting negatively on their health. 

More than two thirds of Australian women are classified as being sedentary or having low levels of exercise and we know that participation in sport and physical activity generally declines as women get older. Regular physical activity is one of the most important factors in promoting good health and mental wellbeing, and preventing chronic disease such as coronary heart disease, strokes and type 2 diabetes.

Women and girls have the right to greater choice and opportunity for participating in physical activity which is why VicHealth is investing $1.8 million to increase the number of women and girls participating in sport.

VicHealth’s Changing the Game: Increasing Female Participation in Sport is designed to get an extra 25,000 women and girls across Victoria physically active over the next two years – whether that’s through a sports club or in a more informal social way. New opportunities have been specifically developed to suit women’s needs and interests and address some of the reasons why women aren’t able to get active such as time, cost and inflexible opportunities for exercise.

Through this program, women and girls will be able to take part in AFL Active, a new group fitness session being created by AFL Victoria together with AFL, tailored to suit all fitness levels; women who feel like they hung up their netball uniforms a lifetime ago can return to the sport through the ‘Rock Up Netball’ program being developed by Netball Victoria; and a new ‘Get Into Cardio’ Tennis program designed specifically for women by Tennis Victoria together with Tennis Australia will be rolled out in non-traditional settings such as parks and workplaces. New programs designed specifically to get women cycling, stand-up paddle-boarding and taking up gymnastics are also being funded under Changing the Game.

Victorian women have long supported their families in making Victoria the sporting centre of Australia.

It’s their time now.

It’s time to change the attitudes that have prevented them from taking part in sport; it’s time that the heroes that little girls look up to and aspire to emulate don’t just surface each time another record is broken; and it’s time to change the conversation so that win or lose, women’s sport gets the coverage it deserves. 

It’s time to change the game.

- Jerril