Lydia Williams has been uniquely positioned to witness the exponential growth of women’s football in Australia and overseas.

The Matildas goalkeeper has featured in five consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cups, with progress at each tournament reflecting the transition of women’s football from a largely amateur pursuit to a global professional industry. 

During that time, Williams was a leading voice for progress and was central to the historic Matildas strike in 2015 – a moment she believes was the catalyst for the rapid professionalisation of women’s football – and sport – in Australia.

Williams continues to play a significant role as a player representative in securing world-leading collective bargaining agreements and last year was appointed the PFA’s Vice President.

Related: In My Words: Lydia Williams on the 2015 Matildas strike

Those CBAs have radically improved conditions and delivered gender equal standards and pay for female footballers to their male counterparts across the past decade.

Related: New National Teams CBA to drive continued growth of Australian football

While there is still a significant gap to close on the men’s game, and extensive challenges and historic barriers to overcome, Williams was well placed to provide her personal insights and experience within football at a sports industry event in Melbourne last week.

The ‘Roar Room Conference’ was organised by the World Players’ Association (WPA) and focused on the topic of gender equality in sport. Over 80 staff from Australia and New Zealand’s player association movement came together to hear from industry experts and athletes to discuss the progress and future challenges for female sport.

Williams joined AFL Players delegate and Olympian Chloe Dalton and former cricketer and AFLW player Jess Duffin on a panel titled ‘reflections on the past, present and future of women’s professional sport’. 

Moderated by former Opal and Olympian, Jenni Screen, discussion ranged from the professionalisation of women’s sport, through to the challenges to further progress to achieve gender parity, as well as insights into women’s health initiatives for contemporary athletes.

“When I first started with the Matildas, we had to wash our own clothes and we were paid a small daily wage,” Williams told the conference, held at Deakin’s Downtown campus in Melbourne’s CBD.

After driving progress through player-driven action, Matildas now enjoy a gender equal CBA with the Socceroos.

Related: The PFA Post: Women’s football’s big moment is a story of player-driven progress

“A lot of the girls in the [current] team have gone through transition into professionalism.”

“The most significant [moment] for me was in 2015, post the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. We went into that competition with contracts, but they were basically minimum wage. 

“We finished that tournament without a CBA as it expired during the tournament. We were left with the offer of a lump sum to go and play the United States in America to “get us by”. 

“There was no safety net or a plan for what was next. What happens after? What happens if someone is injured? Are we still negotiating? It was a tough time for the girls.

“We sat down with our players’ association (the PFA) and we had so many conversations together and we decided to go on strike. 

“I think that’s a moment that really changed women’s football.”

Nearly a decade on from industrial action, the Matildas and Socceroos have a new four-year CBA that delivers world-class standards and equal match payments. Williams was central to player discussions and negotiations throughout.

“For me it was about how best can I serve the team and create a world leading footballing player representation [model],” Williams said.

“When you see the other countries like America, Germany, England, Spain, they have such a big powerful backing from their federations.

“But I think what we have done amazingly in Australia is through our players’ association: how we collaborate with each other collectively as a group. We always have a clear outlook and understanding of what we want to achieve and they really are our driving force for what we want.

“For me to be still part of the national team and working so closely with our players’ association, it’s directly from the players’ mouth. There’s no changing information or anything getting skewed. It’s ‘this is what we want and what we want to fight for and how can we get there’.”

Dalton, Duffin and Williams all highlighted a similar trajectory within their sports, with women’s cricket, rugby and AFL all enjoying a period of growth in the past 8-9 years. The trio indicated the need to close the gender pay gap in women’s domestic sport, with more investment from governing bodies, leagues and clubs, and a focus on supporting athletes through pregnancy, fertility and women’s health issues to ensure career longevity.

For Williams, the key to ensuring the ongoing success of women’s football is creating a pipeline of Matildas who are poised to replace the current ‘golden generation’ well into the future.

“I think we need more players. We want to have a pipeline of more players being produced and being world champions. The focus should be on how can we produce those players.

“That’s investment in grassroots in Australia and starting the building blocks here to create the next Sam Kerr.”