Women's AFL and the gender pay gap

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The gender pay gap is alive and well in Australia and the phenomenal success of the recent women's AFL exhibition match is a text book case in point, writes John Passant.

I FLEW DOWN to Melbourne to go to the recent women’s Aussie rules All Stars game with my daughter. 

There were 6,365 people there to watch this historic contest at Whitten Oval — an oval ill-suited for those of us used to watching men’s top notch football of any variety in some comfort.

This was the last big game before the first ever women’s competition starts in February next year — a competition that with seven games plus finals will run for two months.

It was a good exhibition, full of energy and excitement.

In the words of AFL head Gillion McLachlan, it was

‘ ... a fast, skilful and ferocious brand of football.’

The crowd was ecstatic and joyful. Girls and women, men, boys, everyone cheered on the teams and the players. It was one of the best football atmospheres I have ever experienced. For the many women who had worked for years and years for a national competition, it was a celebration.

It was the most watched Saturday AFL game this year. (And yes, I know there were no other games on that weekend and it was the first time on one of the main TV channels.)

Nevertheless, the figures are impressive. According to Holly Byrnes in news.com.au, viewing peaked nationally at 1.05 million and averaged 746,000. In Melbourne, the average was 387,000 viewers — more than any men’s Saturday game this season.

It looks as if corporate sponsors have suddenly twigged there might be good advertising opportunities in this. The groundswell of support gives hope for all the women and girls who want to watch the game – and, just as importantly – want to play the game.  

Not only that, it should be an important step towards equality for women. Unfortunately, the AFL has dropped the ball on this. According to Eliza Sewell in the Herald Sun, most players will receive $5,000 for 22 weeks’ work. (Pre-season starts in November with the competition running over February and March next year.) 

At $225 a week, this is less than the dole, which at $263.80 a week for a single person without dependents (before a proposed $4.40 cut) is itself more than 30% below the poverty line of about $400 a week.

Some top players will receive $10,000 and the two marquee players per club at the eight clubs will be paid $25,000 each. 

To put that pay in annual terms, most of the women players will be paid the equivalent of a yearly salary of $11,909. The minimum wage in Australia is $34,980 a year. Prorating this minimum wage figure to 22 weeks, instead of $5,000 for 22 weeks, these players at a minimum should be paid $13,800. Similarly, for those on $10,000 – and retaining the pay relativities – their pay on an annual basis would be $27,600. For the marquee players, it would be just under $59,000.

It is not just women footballers who are paid less. It is a systemic failure of capitalism in Australia that the gender pay gap currently stands at 16.2%. It has oscillated over time between 15% and 19%.

September 8 was Equal Pay Day

Marking, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency,

‘... the time from the end of the previous financial year that women must work to earn the same pay as men.’

Rather than even pretending to address this issue, the AFL is making it worse. AFL chief Gillon McLachlan said the wages bill for the 200 female players will be $1.6 million, or an average pay of $8,000. With a total wages bill for the men of $200 million, the average male AFL player earns $300,000 a year. Prorating this $300,000 to 22 weeks for the women, the equivalent figure for the women would be almost $127,000.

It is not as if the AFL doesn’t make a lot of money already.

According to its 2015 report:

‘AFL revenue increased by $33.6 million to $506 million, while operating surplus before grants and distributions was $337.8 million.’ 

Those grants went to the 18 clubs, ten of whom run at a loss. If the AFL can prop up unprofitable clubs, it can fund real pay offers for women players as part of seeding the program and long term plans. Or is it one rule for the unprofitable AFL boys’ clubs and a different rule for the women?

Its inaction shows that, for the AFL, some are more equal than others.

Oh but hang on John, I hear some argue, the women will be part time players. Yes — and they may have to give up their day jobs to take up this opportunity. If so, they are losing out by playing. But again, the AFL is here only replicating wider society.

Women predominate in part time and casual jobs. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women make up 72% of the of part time workforce, despite only making up 46% of all employees; 54% of casuals are women. Women’s workforce participation rate is 54%, compared to 70% for men. The AFL is following and reinforcing this rather than challenging it.

What can be done? The successful Australian soccer team, the Matildas, provide a good example. Last year, these workers took industrial action to be recognised as fully professional and to win a pay increase from a pittance ($21,000) to a slightly lesser pittance ($34,000).

The gender pay gap exists for a whole range of systemic reasons.

This was captured succinctly by John Howard's – the former PM who lost his seat to a woman – misogynististic comments, when he said that there would never be equal representation in Parliament (and equal pay for women) because

"... women play a significantly greater part of fulfilling the caring role."

All he left out is that this "caring role" is societally determined and is basically capitalism getting the next generation of workers cared for and raised on the cheap. Paying women for their "caring work" on top of their jobs would right that. Paying them more at work for their unpaid work at home would do that too. Providing 24-hour child care would too. But, like pay, that would cost money. 

My (male unionist) advice to the 200 women playing in the inaugural AFL season next year is not to get swept up by the hype and to campaign for equality. You will be great sporting role models for all the young girls coming through in the years to come and, if you fight for fairer pay and treatment right now, you will be great role models for all women.

If the male players were to join an equal pay campaign in support of their female counterparts, the AFL would buckle quickly and the world would be at the feet of female as well as male players and would-be players.  

In the words of a great union song:

Don't be too polite girls, don't be too polite, 
Show a little fight girls, show a little fight, 
Don't be fearful of offending, in case you get the sack 
Just recognise your value and we won't look back

Read more by John Passant on his website En PassantYou can also follow John on Twitter @JohnPassant.


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