The Daily Telegraph 23 September 2022
Sarah ‘Fanny' Durack learned to swim at Sydney's Coogee Baths. When she was a teenager, her main rival was Wilhelmina ‘Mina' Wylie, the daughter of the man who ran Wylie's Baths, also in Coogee.
When the organisers of the 1912 Stockholm Olympics announced that women's swimming would be on the program, they had to pay their own way to Sweden.
In the first-ever women's Olympic swimming event, the 100m freestyle, Durack won gold and Wylie took silver. If Australia had sent two more women swimmers, they could surely have won the 4x100m relay.
Sport isn't perfect but it does offer lessons for narrowing the gender pay gap. Last year, Australia sent a majority-female squad to the Tokyo Olympics. That stands in contrast to those who run Australian firms.
Only six per cent of Australia's largest 300 companies have a female chief executive. Fewer big companies are run by women than by men named John.
The Australian parliament remains male-dominated. On our streets, just three per cent of public sculptures honour real Australian women, fewer than the number that depict animals.
What can sport teach us about achieving gender parity?
One lesson comes from pay equity. When tennis player Billie Jean King won the US Open in 1972, her prize was $10,000, while the men's competition winner received $25,000. King refused to play the following year unless the prizes were equalised.
The US Open yielded, but it took until 2007 for Wimbledon to provide equal prizes to men and women.
While pay gaps remain large in traditionally male sports such as football and cricket, Australian hockey treats men and women equally.
As former Hockey Australia chief executive Cam Vale summed up: “We treat our athletes as athletes.
Whether you're a Kookaburra or a Hockeyroo, when it comes to the basic terms and principles in how we remunerate our athletes, it's exactly the same.” In the overall labour market, women also earn less than men: on average 14 per cent less for full-timers. That's like women working without pay for the first seven weeks of the year.
And it hasn't changed much in recent times: from 2001 to 2021, the gender pay gap narrowed by just one percentage point.
The gender pay gap has persisted despite the fact that women score higher than men on most exams and are more likely to complete high school and attend university.
While gender inequity is entrenched, it is not intractable.
Right now, most high-status occupations demand a full-time commitment - there aren't many part-time neurosurgeons, judges or sharemarket traders.
This means that these kinds of jobs are effectively off-limits to someone whose family commitments prevent them working full-time.
Creating more flexibility would disproportionately help women, who are more likely to take time to care for children or look after ageing parents. But it wouldn't hurt men, even those without caring responsibilities.
A more flexible workplace also advantages employees who take time off for a sabbatical, to travel overseas or to get better at their favourite sport. Transparency also serves women well. Asking for a raise is a whole lot easier when you know what others are earning.
In a male-dominated organisation, women may suffer from a lack of such knowledge and so be unable to press their case for fair remuneration.
Insiders prefer secrecy, while outsiders benefit from transparency.
A few years ago, it was revealed that Claire Foy, who played Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, earned less than her co-star Matt Smith, who played Prince Philip.
If the deal had been transparent, it's unlikely that the boys' club would have been able to underpay the actress. The gender pay gap is big at any single point in time but it's even larger over a whole career. Take a 25year-old man and a 25-year-old woman. If they each remain childless, the man can expect to earn five per cent more over a lifetime.
In the world of sport, the oldfashioned view was that pregnancy was a career-ending event. But in recent decades, sports scientists have worked with female athletes to allow them to combine a successful athletic career with having a child.
World champion Paula Radcliffe ran twice a day through the first five months of her pregnancy, and was back running two weeks after giving birth. Less than a year later, she won the New York Marathon.
Tennis player Serena Williams, cross-country skier Kikkan Randall and golfer Catriona Matthew are among the many women who have returned to the top of their sport after having a child.
Coaches and sports administrators are getting better at supporting mothers who are elite athletes. There's a clear lesson in that for how firms treat employees.
This is an edited extract from Fair Game: Lessons from Sport for a Fairer Society and a Stronger Economy.
First published in The Daily Telegraph on 23 September, 2022