The late Ruth Bader-Ginsburg – the famous Supreme Court justice and fierce advocate of gender equality – once said that “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

It has required several gradual – but purposeful – steps to embed fundamental rights and protections into our collective bargaining agreements within the W-League and the National Teams to achieve change for Australia’s female footballers.

At every step, the players’ experience has been central to progress and, at times, change has been painfully slow.

From the W-League’s formation through to 2015, there were seven seasons without a CBA and therefore no consideration was given to a maternity policy for hundreds of female players. Similarly, it wasn’t until 2017 that the Matildas had an in-principle agreement that provided any degree of flexibility for mothers.

Following Heather Garriock’s call-up to the Matildas for a tour of the United States in 2013, Football Federation Australia (now Football Australia) allowed the national team midfielder to take a full-time carer with her on the tour for her 11-month-old daughter, Kaizen.

Garriock was subsequently advised that she would be required to pay all travel, accommodation and miscellaneous costs associated with providing the carer; expenses that were double that of the remuneration received for representing her country. 

Garriock – with little other choice available – decided to take her Kaizen with her on tour, with her mother travelling as carer. The PFA supported her by covering all associated costs. Out of principle, steps were taken by the PFA to escalate the matter, with the organisation filing a grievance at the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

“The battle to return to the workforce is a significant one for all mums and football has the capacity to be a leader on this issue,” Garriock said in 2016.

“Australian netballers are afforded a policy which sees the governing body covering flight and accommodation costs for carers and infants. Football following this lead would ensure that the outstanding progress made by the Matildas was not undermined by being unable to call upon their best players. I am thankful for the support of the PFA and my fellow players and will continue to advocate for change on behalf of the nation’s female athletes.”

This experience was also shared by Melissa Barbieri, who expressed concern over the lack of support when her national team contract was not renewed after giving birth to her daughter Holly in 2013. Barbieri had to auction many of her most sentimental items to help raise funds in order to launch her comeback in the W-League for Adelaide United. 

The 2016, the PFA W-League Working Conditions Report indicated that 85% of players would leave the game early if certain standards and protections were not in place, of which a parental policy was one. It was a clear indication from the athletes themselves that in the absence of substantive parental policies, the game would continue to stunt careers and deprive the game of some of its greatest talent.

Female athletes face unique circumstances. This was recognised through successive collective bargaining agreements in 2018 and in 2019 (which incorporated the ground-breaking gender equality deal between Australia’s National Teams), and our elite professionals in the W-League and Matildas finally had maternity and parental protections in place. 

The fundamental objective of these policies was to balance two critical rights; firstly, to provide support to players through their parental journey, be that pregnancy, fostering or adoption. The second is protecting the longevity of their career as a footballer; which is achieved primarily through mandating a sustainable high-performance resource to re-integrate players back into elite football and safeguarding their contractual rights. We cannot respect the right of a footballer to become a mother if we can’t support them to again become a footballer.

This approach mirrors what for so long has been the gold standard for acknowledging and protecting athletes as parents; the US Women’s National Football Team 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement. In many ways ahead of its time, this CBA provided athletes and mothers with contract security, career support while on tour and a grace period for returning parents to get back to peak fitness. 

The announcement in November 2020 from FIFA and FIFPro of new employment rules to protect the maternity rights of female footballers across the world was another positive (albeit overdue) step. It will construct a safety net to ensure that female players are protected physically and financially before, during and after childbirth.

Today, Matildas players, due to the work of those before them in fighting for and bargaining for positive change, have greater in-principle protections.  While enduring change can take time, the implementation of progressive and holistic policies that support women as professionals need to evolve rapidly here in Australia. We need policies that delve into the toll that elite sport can take on the female body, including the impact that it can have on fertility, foetal nutrition and breastfeeding. 

More research needs to be conducted to explore mid-sporting career pregnancy, the impact of decisions by women to delay starting a family, and the resources required to allow athletes to return to elite condition post-pregnancy.

Advances in maternity policies also need to be complemented by progress on parental leave provisions that take into account same-sex couples and male footballers who may not be the bearer of children but will have direct caring responsibilities that need to be considered and accounted for. 

The players have taken the steps to ensure real, enduring change is possible.

Now is the time to consolidate that progress and deliver a world-leading policy.

Kathryn Gill

PFA Co-Chief Executive