By Kel Rowe
The world of women in sport is expanding at an exponential rate, but there are still significant gaps in data and knowledge to support this growth.
That’s why Dr Alex Parker is out to change the game.
She’s the Executive Director at the Institute for Health & Sport at Victoria University and is leading a national survey exploring the mental health and well-being of women athletes in Australia.
Parker, who is also a practicing clinical psychologist, will use the national survey to gather data to support the development of strategies and policy that enhance the safety and mental wellbeing of women in sport.
‘We’ve seen that there is an improved awareness and understanding of the importance of balancing well-being and performance for athletes. In the last ten years elite sports have taken on the view that the two are not mutually exclusive — taking a holistic approach to managing athlete mental health is absolutely critical,’ says Dr Parker.
Whilst little research was available, Parker and her team considered a handful of large-scale surveys and smaller studies prior to developing their national survey. All painted a clear picture — there is a gender-based difference that is important to be addressed.
‘We started by looking at literature available in Australia and internationally, to understand the challenges unique to women in sport,’ says Dr Parker.
‘Knowing that women’s bodies actually perform and function different from men … there needs to be a different approach to the way that their physical and mental health is managed’
Initial investigations (including an earlier survey conducted within three professional sporting codes) revealed that along with common stressors faced by women in elite sport — menstruation, parenting and pregnancy, lack of leadership opportunities and wage disparity — many reported that they had experienced sexual harassment, sexualisation, objectification from media, depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
‘You can see how all these things connect, and then in that highly stressful elite sports environment, how it creates some unique risks, so we wanted to see if this experience was representative across Australia,’ says Dr Parker.
The survey is currently being promoted across multiple platforms and accessible to any women athletes who are remunerated at a semi-professional or elite level. The findings will be collated and used to make recommendations to national sports bodies; offering advice around changes in policy and practice that they can make to improve the experience for women in elite sport.
‘The data collected will tap into the broader social context and will help us to understand any changes that need to be made to better the experience for women athletes. We know that there is a top down and bottom-up effect — that what happens in elite sport influences community sport, and vice versa. Creating a better environment for women in elite sport will trickle down and influence what is happening in community sport,’ says Dr Parker.
In recent times, fellow VU academic Clare Hanlon has successfully used survey data to change national uniform policies in sport — ensuring that women and girls have access to more uniform options. Locally it has meant that women no longer are required to wear the infamous ‘white away shorts’ in competition; a long-held barrier to increased participation.
‘I’m hoping this research has a similar effect, at VU we try to be as pragmatic as possible in what information we need to solve a problem and make a change,’ says Dr Parker. ‘The 0sports uniform one is a classic example — Clare Hanlon’s research in that area started with a straightforward study asking girls and women their views, and it has just taken off from there.’
TAKE THE NATIONAL SURVEY
If you are a semi-professional or professional woman athlete in Australia you are invited to take part in this survey. Scan the QR code for access.