Who’s Left Holding the Baby?
By Anna Carroll
We must address the normal experience of women being pregnant and caring for children in the abnormal environment of sport.
If we don’t, we not only fail our elite female athletes, but we will botch our real chance at increasing national female participation in sport and physical activity.
It is an issue that has high-participation and high-performance women’s sport tripping over itself to get right and is again being addressed by netball.
Our chance to review our policy at Netball Queensland comes after the recent commentary surrounding Basketball Australia’s new parental policy, which gained attention after the organisation ruled out paying for flights, accommodation and childcare for players’ children. The policy caused Canberra basketballer Abby Bishop to quit her dream of representing Australia at the world championships so she could look after a child.
Pregnancy and caring for children is a normal female and family experience.
Despite this, we struggle to get the balance right in terms of support, fairness, and participation for parents in normal everyday workplaces. Parental leave, childcare, barriers to workforce participation, and the work-motherhood juggle are perennial hot-button issues.
More than a quarter of a million Australians, mostly women, say they’d like to be in paid work but are choosing to stay at home and look after their children. Most of them say the availability of childcare and the cost of it are why they drop out of work.
Obviously there is no easy answer to balancing work and parenthood.
Now apply the same challenge to the high performance sport arena that is anything but a normal workplace.
The job is physical. Hours are irregular. Travel and extra duties are mandatory. Team success and harmony is placed above the individual. Nothing less than 100 percent commitment is required.
At Netball Queensland we’ve adopted the Netball Australia pregnancy policy for our Mission Queensland Firebirds athletes.
Under the current policy, we are committed to providing an environment where women, including mothers, can participate at the highest level.
There are currently no baby Birds, but we respect and support the rights of any pregnant athlete who, in consultation with medical experts, chooses to continue to participate in the program. We take our lead from the Melbourne Vixens who supported Sharelle McMahon through her pregnancy and return to elite netball.
It’s been more than a decade since the landmark discrimination case in which athlete Trudy Gardner challenged and beat netball’s attempt to ban pregnant women from playing.
Today, there are greater numbers of women competing in sport, pregnancy has become a far more visible experience, many women are choosing to remain physically active throughout their pregnancies, and there is increasing number of pregnant athletes both at the amateur or professional level.
Our understanding and ability to respond to pregnancy has evolved considerably since the Gardner case, with a focus on supporting players. But the policy is always fit for review.
The issue doesn’t end with pregnancy. Women, including netballers, are mothers.
What is required by netball is a higher order understanding of what we can do to support all women in our unique environment.
As a predominantly female sport, we must consider at a deeper level how we can provide parental support for our players, our coaches, referees, and members. Keeping contemporary is particularly appropriate in light of how the Federal Government’s paid parental leave scheme may affect our athletes.
It is possible for our players to be elite athletes and mums. New Zealand’s Anna Harrison is returning to the ANZ Championship after the birth of her son, and Liana Leota was back training just four weeks after giving birth to her third child.
But our policy must not just be for our elite athletes. It must be about how we can remove barriers to participation for all mums.
Report after report into increasing female participation in sport suggests a key is making it possible for mums to play.
One of the most recent reports, the Confederation of Australian Sport’s December 2013 findings for the Australian Government on “Retaining The Membership Of Women In Sport”, found ?provision of childcare facilities would ?facilitate greater women’s participation in sport.
The Queensland Government’s own report released late last year called “Start Playing, Stay Playing: A Plan to Increase and Enhance Sport and Active Recreation Opportunities for Women and Girls”, found a lack of childcare options was a major barrier to participation.
As the leading female sport, we need to think outside the box to offer opportunities and remove the barriers around this very normal experience.
Anna Carroll is the CEO of Netball Queensland