Towards a Fairer Game: The fight for maternity rights in women’s sport

Features, News

By Kylie Maslen

Photo: Instagram

Angela Pippos writes in her book on sexism in sport, Breaking the Mould, that ‘sport is an important part of the feminist movement.’ However:

Gender inequalities in sport – which are just as (if not more) sweeping as those faced by women in other industries – are sometimes given short shrift by feminists. Women’s sport rarely gets a place on feminist news sites, and it has historically been considered too frivolous or (ironically) too masculine to be worth fighting for.

Since 2015, women’s sport in Australia has increasingly grown from amateur to professional. Leagues across sporting codes have commercialised, and as a result renegotiated salaries and conditions with their athletes. Maternity leave and childcare have been high-profile elements to the negotiation of these deals, and have highlighted the gaps between lawful obligations and the realities women face in the workplace both on and off the field.

Two commonalities appear across women’s sport and the fight for better maternity leave policies. The first is the power of collective bargaining. In 2015 the Australian women’s soccer team, The Matildas, fought for, and won, better conditions by their entire national squad going on strike. This established a key precedent and greatly informed the deal for players of the W-League in 2017. According to the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984, an employer cannot treat an employee ‘less favourably’ than others because of family responsibilities or breastfeeding. While the players pushed for childcare support, the Football Federation of Australia argued that ‘childcare is an employee’s responsibility’, ignoring the reality that the Matildas’ jobs require them to travel regularly, and that covering these costs out of their own pockets would be extremely prohibitive to players who were earning base salaries of $21,000 per year.

For the first time in history, less than half of all working Australians have a permanent full-time job.

The second trend in negotiations is the pull of big names. Netball, despite being a “woman’s sport”, had previously failed to care for pregnant players or those wishing to return to the court as mothers. Elise Kent was playing for the Melbourne Vixens when it was announced two weeks before the start of the 2014 tournament that she was pregnant. She was replaced with another player for the season, but came out of contract before the birth of her daughter and was not re-signed. Sadly in the case of fixed-term contracts such as Kent’s, there is no right to return to the same or a similar job as per permanent employees. In the broader workforce, for the first time in history, less than half of all working Australians have a permanent full-time job. This means that millions of Australians are facing potentially similar fates to Kent. So while the Fair Work Act of 2009 legislates the right of permanent employees to return to the same or a similar job to that of which they left, that leaves more than half of the workforce unprotected.

Since Kent, big-name netball players such as Bec Bulley, Renee Ingles and Laura Geitz have all had children, and all successfully returned to elite competition, setting new examples that could not be ignored. When the new Super Netball competition was announced in May 2016, a landmark deal was struck for athletes. In a groundbreaking parental care policy that included travel arrangements for both infant and support person, players were also entitled to private health contributions of up to $1500 (since increased to $1635 to offset price increases) as well as ‘100% income protection on all earnings for up to two years in the event of injury or pregnancy.’

According to a national review of pregnancy-related discrimination by the Australian Human Rights Commission, one-third of Australian mothers report having experienced discrimination on their return to work. A pattern we are currently seeing in international tennis mirrors the discrimination regularly seen in the Australian workforce of demotion or women being assigned ‘light duties’ rather than being re-assigned the same role at the same level that they held prior to leave.

One-third of Australian mothers report having experienced discrimination on their return to work.

While players such as Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport had successfully come back to the sport after having children, despite being highly-ranked at the time, it has taken the star-power of Serena Williams to really break open the discussion of what it means to return to tennis after maternity leave. Williams left the WTA tour for maternity leave ranked number one worldwide, but due to not playing during this time returned at number 453. While tennis players are able to access a ‘special ranking rule’ to guarantee that they can qualify for tournaments for two years, because their ranking number is not protected they effectively do not return to the same job.

As The Gist explains, ‘[r]ankings are incredibly important in tennis, as it’s the best vs the worst ranked players facing off at the start of the tournament.’ Before Williams went on leave she would have only encountered other top-ranked players towards the tail end of a tournament. But when she plays at a low ranking she must play them in the opening rounds and therefore has a far less likely chance of succeeding. This ruling is an effective demotion, affecting the ability to earn income not just through the sport itself but also through endorsements and sponsorships.

When the AFLW competition began in February 2017, it challenged many clubs who had previously only held male teams. A lack of appropriate facilities is an issue across Australian workplaces: employers are legally obligated to ‘take reasonable measures’ to accommodate breastfeeding including the need to express milk, however one in five (22 per cent) of women in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s findings reported discrimination related to breastfeeding or expressing milk.

Arguably the AFLW’s most recognisable star, Daisy Pearce, gave birth to twins earlier this month. While Pearce is the first active AFLW player to take maternity leave, there are existing players who had given birth to children before playing AFLW who are able to access the AFL’s pregnancy and parental management travel policy – announced in November 2017 – to allow players who are breastfeeding to travel to interstate games with their baby and a partner or support person at the club’s cost. With Pearce set to test the league’s return-to-work abilities for the 2020 season, pressure is on the AFL to provide one of its biggest names – and at times outspoken opponents – with an accommodating and supportive workplace that sets a precedent for younger players.

A lack of appropriate facilities is an issue across Australian workplaces.

In the last five years we have seen an extraordinary movement by Australian athletes to forge better working conditions for sportswomen both with and without children. In doing so they are giving voice to the fight for better maternity leave and parental care policies in all Australian workplaces, where reports show that many employees are failing to meet lawful obligations.

We need childcare to be more equitable, we need job stability for women wanting to have children while in casual or non-permanent jobs, and we need to acknowledge the pressures that adversely affect mothers such as travel and working out-of-hours.

In a competitive job market, let’s look to the examples set by women athletes to hold employers accountable and push for better conditions for women returning to work. Through collective bargaining and high-profile figures campaigning to enact much-needed change for women across Australia, from its superstars and CEOs to its grassroots and casual workers, equitable maternity leave conditions and parental care policies are a team sport.


Kylie Maslen is a writer from Adelaide. Her writing is focused on sense of place and feminism, covering topics including cultural criticism, reproductive health, and her love of Australian Rules football. kyliemaslen.com

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