By Kate O’Halloran
In the lead-up to the announcement of the first-ever women’s Ballon d’Or — 63 years after the men’s award began — Australian nominee Sam Kerr took to Instagram to acknowledge the significance of the occasion:
“For the first time a woman will win football’s highest honour. So even if I don’t win, we win.”
Kerr’s optimism mirrors much public discourse around women’s sport in 2018, particularly in Australia, and it is true that things are changing for the better with some momentum.
A week ago, the Australian women’s cricket team arrived for the first time to a heroes’ welcome in Melbourne on the back of their successful World T20 campaign. It was the fourth time they’d been crowned world champions, but the first time they’d arrived to such a reception or recognition.
This followed the highest-ever viewing figures for women’s cricket after Australia’s T20 match against New Zealand was broadcast after the AFL grand final, bringing the Southern Stars the kind of exposure they would previously only have dreamed of.
In further startling evidence of how far women’s sport has come in terms of capturing the public imagination, research released in November revealed that it is four of Australia’s national women’s teams that people report having the most emotional connection with: The Australian women’s rugby 7s team ranked first, followed by the Matildas (football), Diamonds (netball) and Opals (basketball).
As promising as these shifts are, however, women’s sport is still plagued by great inequity; not just in pay and conditions, but in a culture of deep sexism that prevails.
Winner treated like a sex object
As history will record, Ada Hegerberg had the exalted honour of being the first ever woman to win the Ballon d’Or. Moments after making her way on stage, however, she was asked by French DJ Martin Solveig if she knew how to twerk.
What should have been an occasion to celebrate the achievements of an extraordinary 23-year-old Norwegian striker with more than 250 career goals to her name thus turned into a great insult.
Solveig, like many men and some women before him, disrespected Hegerberg’s phenomenal on-field achievements by instead treating her as a sexual object.
The great irony of this incident is that Hegerberg is all too aware of the gendered inequity that pervades in sport. She refuses to play for her national side, Norway, in the women’s World Cup next year until conditions change meaningfully for women in sport.
Prior to her award, she acknowledged in an interview that while some movement had been made on pay and conditions, it is “respect” for women that remains the biggest barrier to progress.
“It’s all about how we respect women’s football. I don’t think the respect has been there,” she said.
Hegerberg went on to note that she had no intention of reviewing her decision to sit out the biggest tournament on the women’s football calendar, saying that to play in the current climate would be to compromise her “authenticity and my values, as a person, as a footballer.”
Her political stand is to be understood in a context in which FIFA has raised prize money for the Women’s World Cup in 2019 from a total of $15 million to $30 million.
But while on the surface a welcome move, FIFA has also announced that it will increase the men’s prize pool from $400 million in 2018 to $440 million in 2022. The men’s prize money has therefore increased by $40 million compared with $15 million for women, in effect increasing the gender pay gap to $410 million.
This is not to mention that Paris Saint-Germain and Brazil forward Neymar was in 2018 was paid more than the top seven women’s football leagues in the world combined.
Women fight marginalisation on court and pitch
Hegerberg isn’t the only woman to publicly take a stand on sexism in sport this year.
Serena Williams famously did so at the US Open, when she accused chair umpire Carlos Ramos of gender bias, arguing that many men had behaved in similar ways to her yet escaped punishment.
But while Williams received some support at the time, including from legend Billie Jean-King, she was also the target of swift and severe rebuke — perhaps most notably by Herald Sun cartoonist Mark Knight, whose depiction of Williams came under fire for racism as well as sexism.
In so reacting, Knight, like Solveig, unwittingly succeeded in providing a clear example of the discrimination that women — particularly those who experience multiple forms of marginalisation — are fighting against every time they take to the court, or pitch.
These critiques do not change the fact that women’s sport is on the up, with what many advocates hope is irresistible momentum.
AFLW is coming into its third iteration (leaving aside for the moment a fixturing debacle); in rugby league, women played in their own State of Origin and national league (NRLW) for the first time in 2018, and the Matildas — now ranked sixth in the world — continue to draw exceptional crowds on home soil.
While we may laud incremental shifts in recognition, popularity, pay and conditions for women in sport, however, it is the underlying culture of disrespect that must change before true progress will be made.
Kate O’Halloran is a freelance sportswriter and former Victorian cricketer. She holds a PhD in gender studies.