When Allyson Flynn and Zoe Skyrianos heard that Lewes Football Club had made a commitment to paying their women’s team the same as their men’s team, they wondered whether their footy club could do the same.
In 2017, Lewes FC, a soccer club in England, became the first professional or semi-professional football club to make such a commitment.
“That’s what Zoe and I used as the foundation to say, ‘look, it’s being done in another sport. We think you can do it in footy’,” Flynn said.
While Flynn and Skyrianos weren’t aware of any Aussie Rules clubs in Australia that had committed to equal pay, they were confident that Ainslie Football Club, in Canberra’s inner-north, could be the first.
“I thought there was this great opportunity for Ainslie to be a leader in this space,” Flynn said.
At the end of 2021, Flynn and Skyrianos approached the Ainslie board to ask them for equal pay.
‘It’s bloody exciting’
In March 2022, Ainslie announced their intention to introduce equal funding for the men’s and women’s programs in 2023.
“We recognise that gender equality is a challenge in many sports and we’re hoping that by leading by example, we’ll shape opportunities for women in sport more generally,” Ainslie president Lee Phillips said.
Ainslie believe that they are the first Aussie Rules club in Australia to commit to equal funding.
For club leaders, choosing to take Flynn and Skyrianos’s pitch forward was an easy decision.
“The announcement in some respects was the easy part because when Allyson Flynn and Zoe Skyrianos presented to the board, it was almost automatic that we would accept that,” board member Len Hatch said.
“It’s a little bit daunting about how are we going to address the gap but it’s bloody exciting.”
First steps to equality
Since the announcement in March, Ainslie have already started making progress on their commitment.
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This year’s changes so far include paying the women’s Division 1 team, bringing in a women’s wellbeing coach, ensuring a physio is present at every women’s match and training session and reorganising the change rooms so that the women’s team have their own space.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time, particularly amongst the women’s group, consulting, getting information so that we have a really good feel about what inequality looks like,” Hatch said.
Hatch is the chair of a new working group established to figure out how to bring Flynn and Skyrianos’s vision to reality. The working group is made up of people from all parts of the club, including representatives for the senior players and junior players.
“We want this to take root throughout the organisation,” Hatch said.
Ainslie’s commitment to equal investment does not require any cuts to the men’s program. Rather, as interest in women’s and girls’ footy is growing, the club is finding that interest from sponsors is growing as well and so they are exploring options to increase their funding.
“It’s not about cutting the same pie differently. It’s actually about making a bigger pie,” Flynn said.
‘You’re forging it for the girls now’
Britt Tully, the head coach of the Ainslie women’s program and inaugural AFLW player for the GWS Giants, said she was excited to see progress towards equal pay.
“When I started in AFLW, it was really low pay. Not much was going our way but it’s the same, you’re forging it for the girls now who are coming up going ‘actually, I think this can be my career’,” Tully said.
One of Ainslie’s goals for next year is equal pay for both the men’s and women’s coaches.
“It’s pretty exciting to think that the coach might get paid here at the same level as the men’s because that can be a career that someone goes into, that can be a pathway to AFLW or AFL or whatever they want to do,” Tully said.
Chyloe Kurdas, an AFLW commentator and inclusion and diversity specialist, said that Ainslie’s commitment was a great move for gender equality in sport.
“It’s a great thing that Ainslie’s doing to make sure that as girls grow up in the system that they have what they need and that a girl has the same access to things as her brother,” Kurdas said.
“This is not just about standing up for women and girls, but it’s standing up and saying ‘what sort of community and society do we want to live in and play in?'”
It’s not just about the money
In addition to equal pay, Flynn knows that there are opportunities for positive changes to be made towards gender equality that don’t cost anything.
“For me, it’s the whole ethos and attitude towards it. It’s not just about making sure that the dollars line up,” Flynn said.
When Flynn first started playing for Ainslie in 2017, the women’s team didn’t get to train on their home oval at all. Now, Ainslie has modified their training schedule so the women’s team have the ground to themselves for a night instead of training after the men’s team.
“That’s a massive win because we used to come from across the road [at another oval], walk over at 7 and then train and share the gym and share all the facilities which [we were] happy to do,” Tully said.
“But I guess we’re getting past the point of happy to do it and wanting equality on both sides.”
Kurdas agreed that achieving gender equality in sport was not just about money, but also about leadership and commitment from the club.
“If there was a unit of measurement for thinking capacity, the same amount of thinking capacity would be spent on the female program as it would on the male program,” Kurdas said.
“It doesn’t cost money to ask girls and women what they want to achieve and what they want to get to.
“I think as a coach and as a board, you’ve got a responsibility to cater to all the needs of all of your athletes.”
‘AFL Canberra needs to catch up’
There are some changes that Ainslie can’t make due to restrictions from AFL Canberra.
The club can’t pay their men’s and women’s teams equally due to a $60,000 gap in the salary cap rules.The maximum salary cap for the men’s competition is $80,000, while the maximum salary cap for the women’s competition is only $20,000.
Ainslie are currently paying up to the maximum for both salary caps.
“I would increase the salary cap if they can because I know girls will go play at different states purely because there’s more money there,” Tully said.
“We need to make sure we’re a feeder to the AFLW some way or another. So you’ve got to have good players playing here, otherwise they’re just going to go off to Sydney, Melbourne, South Australia.
“AFL Canberra needs to catch up and come in line with what other comps are doing throughout Australia.”
Kurdas agrees that the salary cap has it’s issues.
“Removing that cap or that limitation might actually increase the level of creativity, open up sponsorship opportunities, create more opportunities to bring more money into the economy of the women’s game,” Kurdas said.
“I think it’s quite regressive and a really limiting position to have.”
In the meantime, Ainslie are focused on maximising the impact that their commitment will have on the long-term prospects of women and girls in AFL.
And according to Hatch, this is a long way from being just about this year’s Division 1 players.
“This is about a nine-year-old [girl] starting to play footy next year and seeing where that can lead to both within Ainslie but then broader into the national competition,” he said.
ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.
Julia Faragher is an artist and writer living in Canberra and was previously an intern with ABC Sport.