AFL opportunities for women have a positive influence on players and the wider industry by impacting confidence, encouraging young players to challenge outdated perceptions and providing female role models. (Image source: Collingwood Football Club)

By Tyler Powell

When the first set of Australian Football League rules were written in 1859, the resulting game was very much the domain of men, both as players and as spectators.

At this time in history a woman’s place was very much in the home, with women working hard as wives and mothers: cooking, cleaning and housekeeping.

Little did anyone know that 160 years later, women would also have the opportunity to be playing football themselves, inspiring other young girls and women to do the same.

This movement has helped to breakdown stereotypes and celebrate women for their strength and ability, rather than what they look like or their ability to fall into traditional domestic duties.

It wasn’t until 2016 that the AFL decided to introduce an AFL Women’s competition and the inaugural season took place in 2017, comprising just eight teams.

This did not matter though, as it was the first opportunity for women to play the sport at an elite level, after so many years of playing in local and regional amateur leagues across Australia.

Since the breakthrough of AFLW, the proportion of women playing football has increased by 14 per cent with approximately one in three footballers being young girls or women.

The 2019 AFLW grand final was played in South Australia, where over 53,000 spectators flocked to the Adelaide Oval, setting the highest crowd record for any stand-alone women’s sporting events within Australia since 1920.

The developments of women’s football has not only had a positive impact on players of the game, but also on women working within the sporting industry.

Eighteen-year-old Collingwood Football Club draftee, Bella Smith, said progressing through her years of women’s football has helped her gain confidence and make more connections.

“The connections I’ve made through football are incredible and I’ve definitely gained confidence through my football experiences,” she said.

Miss Smith grew up on the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia where she first started playing football in an Under 16s team comprising mostly boys, for Port Football Club.

She then went on to play women’s football in the South Australian National Football League for two seasons with Norwood Football Club, before being drafted to Collingwood this year.

Miss Smith also represented South Australia in the under 18 cricket side in 2019, providing her with further confidence in another male dominant sport.

Confidence is important for Miss Smith who has had to overcome the perception of women being weak, particularly when playing in a team amongst boys.

“It was an endless battle to be able to play in the first place and to then be told you can no longer play once you get to a certain age was hard,” she said.

Perceptions from society have portrayed women to be ‘weak’, particularly when it comes to the sport of football, and for this reason the sport continues to be male dominated.

Alyson Crozier, Director of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of South Australia, says that such perceptions are ingrained or brought upon us from interactions with other people.

“It’s all about our upbringing in society and different expectations,” Miss Crozier said.

“It’s about the culture that’s created and I think it’s less about changing females to overcome that perception, it’s more about changing that culture within society and I think that’s starting to happen.”

Miss Crozier says these perceptions can be handled by females in different ways, depending on the situation.

“Some females may fit in with these perceptions, accepting that there are gender stereotypes, whereas other females will start to challenge the stereotype in order to break down the perception,” she said.

“It will anger some to try and change the perception, whereas others won’t take offence to it and they’ll just try to fit into that mould.”

Rachael Thomas who plays women’s football for Tea Tree Gully, in South Australia’s north eastern suburbs, holds a strong belief that women are not weak.

“We may not have the body build to that of men, but we are certainly not weak,” Miss Thomas said.

Miss Thomas who has played just one season of women’s football says she would have played from a much younger age, had women’s football been allowed back then.

“I wish women’s football was around when I was younger as I would have played from a much younger age if they allowed it,” she said.

Miss Thomas, who has suffered from mental health issues in the past, says that football has made a positive impact on her mental health.

“I feel a real sense of community within the club and the girls I play with, which keeps me accounted each week,” she said.

Miss Thomas says that when she sees other women playing football, particularly those in AFLW, she sees strong women who inspire her.

Miss Crozier says this creates confidence knowing female role models can play football and other male dominated sports.

“Having female professional athletes in sports like football and cricket provides some great role models for younger females to look up to, and seeing that will give them more confidence in their ability to play such sports,” she said.

Miss Crozier suggests that anyone struggling with their mental health should seek support from a health professional and consider working with a sports psychologist to focus on how sport can positively impact their health and wellbeing.

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Originally published in The Junction.