Kicking goals for gender equality

The huge improvement between the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup in China and the current one taking place in Australia and New Zealand can be put down to collective bargaining, Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Co-Chief Executive Kate Gill said.

Speaking to IEU journalist Sue Osborne on the morning after Australia’s win against Canada, the former Matilda was over the moon not only about her team’s result, but the huge crowds and high profile media coverage being garnered by the women’s event.

“It’s a massive, massive difference. In China there was no real media coverage. There were different conditions around how the players were treated. There is a welcome and distinct difference compared to what the players have now,” Gill said.

“We in the women’s game always knew the potential was there. The US has always been a leader in the way it has professionalised the game both domestically and on an international scale.

“In Australia it’s been down to collective bargaining and the ability for the players to determine how they should be treated.

“We’re moving from this notion of gratitude, to being a worker, with labour rights. These rights need to be protected and you need to be able to negotiate and improve conditions. Collective bargaining has played a huge role in getting the Matildas to where they are now.”

Gill grew up in Newcastle and attended Hunter Valley Grammar School. She started playing football as a four-year-old with the New Lambton Falcons, thanks to the influence of her grandfather, who loved the game.

She said she was attracted to Hunter Valley Grammar School because it had “lots of grass, I fell in love with the playing field”. Teachers at the school supported her throughout her career and several still stay in touch withher now.

Playing with the boys

She loved the game and played with the boys until the age of 16.

“I was reluctant to join the women’s side of the game because I had no female role models, I didn’t know who the Matildas were.

“I thought I’d be playing in the men’s league my whole life and was aspiring to play for Everton in the [English] Premier League.”

Nowadays, of course, Everton does field a professional women’s team, so Gill’s childhood dream could have become a reality.

But back in the early 2000s, she played with the Women’s National Soccer League, with the Newcastle Jets in the W League (now A League Women) before moving to play with Swedish teams in 2009.

From 2004-2015 she was a striker for the Matildas, playing in the 2007 World Cup, turning out 86 times for the national side, and scoring 40 goals for the Matildas, but sadly ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament just before the 2011 World Cup.

She was always a member of the PFA, and when her playing career ended, moving full-time into union activism seemed like a natural next step.

“Once I stopped playing, I had about six months where I just wanted to break away from football, and then turned my attention to how I could improve football in this country.

“I was a delegate for the Matildas and then I joined our executive committee. I always really believed in the power of the union and the power of the collective.

“I approached the PFA and ask if they would consider a role for me organising female players. My attention was on the domestic game and the W League.

“We were losing a lot of our talent from that competition purely because they couldn’t afford to play in it anymore. They were getting injured, they didn’t have medical protection to allow them to keep playing or if they wanted to start a family.

“My challenge was how can we make sure that we can keep our players in the game by improving the conditions they’re entitled to?

“I thought the best way to influence and create change was through the union and giving the players a legitimate voice, so they had dignity and respect from their career.

“We had to make the players see themselves as workers and take Football Federation Australia, the competition administrator at that time, on that journey as well.”

The PFA covers the Matildas, the Socceroos, A League Men and Women and Australian players overseas. Gill is Co-Chief Executive with former A League player Beau Busch, and they equally represent all genders.

“It’s important we are both seen working for either gender.”

Global perspective

Gill said the success of the 2023 World Cup had the power to change the lot of women players globally. The PFA has been involved in a lot of international activism.

“In 2019, prior to the equal pay chant that rang around the stadiums in France, we had looked at fighting FIFA and positioning a legal case against them based on the discrimination that they’ve shown for the female players in relation to the prize money for the FIFA Women’s World Cup,” Gill said.

“We started that movement because we could see just how impactful that could be, and while the prize money has increased, I find it quite ironic that they’re [FIFA] championing equality when they’re paying the women 25% of what they pay the men.”

Equality at the 2027 Women’s World Cup (venue yet to be announced) is the PFA goal.

“FIFA say a lot without doing much, so it’s up to the PFA, and FIFPRO [Fédération Internationale des Associations de Footballeurs Professionnels, the global players’ union] to challenge them. If we can get to a position where we are collectively bargaining the rights of players in these tournaments, then that’s when things will really start to change.”

In 2019, the PFA was nominated for an award by the Human Rights Commission for its work supporting the release of Bahraini refugee Hakeem al-Araibi who was detained in Thailand at the behest of the Bahraini authorities, who accused him of vandalising a police station, even though he was playing football at the time of the crime.

PFA Champion Brendan Schwab, life member Craig Foster, former Chief Executive John Didulica and current Chair Francis Awaritefe were high profile voices speaking out on behalf of al-Araibi, who was eventually released and is now an Australian citizen.

The PFA also supports the Afghan women’s team, living in exile in Australia, and not recognised by FIFA. They have had to sit on the sidelines watching this 2023 World Cup. See p15 for more information.

The PFA has helped find them a home with Melbourne Victory and allowed them to play in the Melbourne competition, provided them with training.

“It’s disappointing that FIFA won’t recognise them as a national team, so there’s still a lot of work to do for them. We lobbied government to write to FIFA to reinstate the Afghan women’s team.

“FIFA has a lot of members who they try and keep happy and it’s extremely political and about shopping for votes. The current President just wants to remain in power.”

Even teams such as England, Canada, Nigeria and Columbia are still in pay disputes with their presiding authorities as the 2023 World Cup unfolds. Despite the massive commercial success and popularity of the event, there is still a long way to go in women’s football.

“It’s sad to see the sacrifices that all these players must make. They do it around the Women’s World Cup because it gives them a platform and exposure, but it comes with a consequence.”

Gill was hoping for a Matildas win against Denmark in their next match at the time of her interview, and said if they could make it to the quarter-finals, it would be “massive” for the Matildas and women’s sport in Australia.