AFLM name change debate shows again how men are considered ‘the norm’

Kate Seear, Associate Professor in Law, Monash University

A shorter version of this was first run in The Guardian on 12th February 2020

“How long until AFL headquarters formally commits to renaming the men’s competition AFLM?” This was the question I put to Nicole Livingstone, the head of women’s football, and Steve Hocking, head of football operations at the AFL, on my ABC radio program, The Outer Sanctum, ABC last weekend.

The debate on social media – over both the question and the answer – was swift and polarised. It took a further three days for it to make its way into the mainstream media. When it did, the conversation exploded.

Predictably, many condemned the suggestion that the men’s competition should be renamed. Some argued that we shouldn’t mess with over 150 years of tradition, seemingly forgetting that before the AFL was the AFL, it was the VFL, and before that, the VFA. Others argued – without further elucidation – that this was yet another case of “political correctness gone mad”. A tired slogan all too often advanced without any attempt to explain it, the argument is supposed to be self-evident. What is the point, though? Are we being told that any attempt to question the words we use and the meanings they make is an illness of mind, a kind of “sickness”, a pathology?

I can’t help but see an irony, in any event, in that those who accuse others of being overly sensitive about the strictures of language would cling so dearly to it once it is opened up to critique and challenge.

Other critics noted that the men’s competition is the “norm”, meaning that there is no need to distinguish it from the women’s. To do so would be an insult to the men’s game, since we already know that “AFL” is synonymous with men.

Proponents of the “M” are of course well aware of its normative status. This is precisely the problem they want us to reflect on.

Mark Robinson, writing for News Corp, called the debate “silly”. Without detailing any of the arguments in favour of a change, Robinson asked “Why are we even having this debate?”, before answering himself: “AFLW is the women’s. AFL is men’s. End of discussion”. Robinson went on to say that “It’s OK for the AFL to champion causes but it does pick and choose”. Without irony, Robinson then picked and chose a cause of his own, suggesting that while the “scourge” of gambling was an important issue worth addressing, the AFLM debate was not.

Let me explain, then, why so many footy fans have chosen this as their issue. Given Robinson and others may be unaware of the context, let me explain why we are having this debate.

First and foremost – as the debate itself reminds us – language matters. Language does not simply reflect society but shapes it. These issues have been the subject of academic analysis by experts in semiotics and linguistics for decades.

For example, language can produce and reproduce hierarchies, especially through what the Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida called ‘binary logic’. He argued that binary pairs – such as mind/body, reason/emotion, objectivity/subjectivity, order/chaos and masculine/feminine – dominated Western language and thought. Each word in the pair derives its meaning from the other, meaning that language is relational.

These pairs also happen to be hierarchical: mind is valued over body, reason over emotion, objectivity over subjectivity, and masculine over feminine. The pairs are also connected, with women historically associated with the subordinated ‘other’ of each binary pair (emotion, body, chaos, subjectivity).

This is just one example of the way that language reflects and reinforces meanings, shapes systems of thought and social norms, including the things we come to value and devalue. Our values and norms are shaped by the repetition of these words and the relations between them. This is what the philosopher Judith Butler meant when she once described the “reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains”.

There are other ways that language has shaped and constrained how we come to think of women. This is best summed up in the classic observation by feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, who said that:

“In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity.”

Our language has long been dominated by words that position men as the default or norm. Words such as ‘mankind’ and ‘manmade’ are used to denote humanity as a whole. They reinforce the notion that this is a world by, for and of men. Many of us who sit outside these norms feel our absence acutely, and frequently, in ways that those who occupy the dominant status may never notice, be aware of, or appreciate. To us, it matters.

Laws and other canonical documents often referenced only men, raising questions about whether women (and others, such as non-white men) existed in the eyes of the law at all. In some cases, the absence of references to women meant that they had no rights in law, and could not benefit from them. For those ‘others’, language really mattered, in a very tangible way.

These tendencies in language – to privilege men and erase or omit women – are pervasive, widespread, and continue to linger today. And one need not be excluded from legal rights to care about these omissions and erasures or to feel that our lives might be made just a bit better if our language was more deliberately inclusive.

Of course, the addition of an M reinforces a binary of its own (men/women) which many might consider itself problematic. This is an important observation, and one that could be addressed by the AFL if it were to consider a gender-neutral approach to the naming of the elite competitions. For now, however, we are stuck with AFLW and a binary approach to sport. And so as long as this persists, we have a problem. It is – crucially – also a problem of the AFL’s own making. It chose to differentiate between the two elite level competitions in such a way.

The debate over AFLM cannot be separated from these histories and the injustices that language helps to perpetuate. It matters that the sport’s governing body (the “AFL”) is wholly synonymous with the men’s competition (the “AFL”) so that the men’s competition remains the default, or norm. What message does this send to women, men, boys and girls about the value placed on both women and women’s sport? It signals that we are lesser. This is repeated in every other aspect of the sport’s governance: from inequalities in pay and resourcing, the shortened season, the difficult conditions under which many athletes compete, and the long fight to even get a women’s competition in the first place.

The subordinate status of AFLW is produced not just by historic inequities, differences in resourcing and pay inequities but by the continued positioning of women’s sport as an afterthought: a symbolic and literal ‘other’ to the men’s. If this week’s debate is anything to go by, many people think this is ‘just a fact’ and prefer it to stay this way. But that is a backward-looking view; one which clings to old linguistic and structural patterns. It is a view that must change if the game is to grow, and if gender equality – in sport and society – is to ever become a reality.

When leading sports commentators dismiss the “M” debate as silly and meaningless, then, they demonstrate an ignorance of language’s constitutive power, the historic privileging of men as the norm and the force and significance of linguistic repetition.

It would be a small gesture to add an “M”. It won’t fix everything, but I’m not sure that anyone is claiming it will. For many of us, it would be a profound and meaningful step. One that will harm no-one, but mean a great deal to those of us so often on the outside. This includes future generations of girls, who do not yet know they are the ‘other’. Let us hope they never need to.


Kate Seear, Associate Professor in Law, Monash University

A shorter version of this article was originally published in The Guardian. Read the shorter article.

Domestic violence will spike in the bushfire aftermath, and governments can no longer ignore it

Rowena Maguire, Queensland University of Technology, Danielle Bozin, Queensland University of Technology and Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 18 November 2019

Over the past two weeks, bushfires have raged across New South Wales and Queensland. While the narrative appears focused on potential causes and political point-scoring, what’s lost in this discussion is the role of post-disaster recovery, and specifically how it relates to gender.

Disasters have gendered impacts. Generally, disasters disproportionately affect women and girls, with women and children 14 times more likely to die in a natural disaster on a global scale.

In the Australian bushfire context, research shows women are more likely than men to want to evacuate, and men are more likely than women to want to remain and “fight the fire”. This means men are three times more likely to die in bushfires compared with women.

But the gendered impacts of bushfires also affect the aftermath. There’s a growing awareness in Australia among researchers and those working in women’s support services that natural disasters amplify conditions leading to incidents of domestic violence.

Yet climate, disaster and environmental law and policy is “gender blind” – they don’t mention or recognise gender as an issue.

Gender violence after disasters

People struggle to cope long after a disaster has settled from significant levels of family disruption, including displacement, social isolation, psychological trauma and financial despair.

The current bushfires have destroyed many houses and led to widespread trauma, which means longer term repercussions, such as the financial ramifications of loss of property and halted economic activity, will build.

These impacts carry with them an emotional toll that can place pressure on household dynamics and bring families to breaking point. If history tells us anything, this will include an increase in gender-based violence.

Following Hurricane Katrina, a study found a 98% increase in violence against women as measured from before and after the disaster.

A study conducted following the 2004 Whakatane flood in New Zealand found police callouts doubled and the workload for domestic violence agencies tripled in the aftermath of the flood.

Similarly, the Women’s Health Goulburn North East organisation (a specialist women’s health service) reported in the wake of the Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria in 2009 an increase in the incidence of domestic violence against women during post-disaster recovery.

What’s more, women already living in an abuse relationship may experience greater severity post-disaster, because they may be separated from support systems like family and friends that offered some protection. These women may be forced to rely on the perpetrator for survival, or access to services.

Addressing gender in climate law

Climate law remains largely gender blind in Australia. In 2017, following years of lobbying, women’s groups were successful in getting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to adopt “gender action plans”.

These plans promote two key concepts: gender balance and gender responsive policy.

Gender balance is defined as being achieved when there are approximately equal numbers of men and women participating in international environmental negotiations.

Gender responsive policy requires governments to identity, understand and implement initiatives aimed at addressing gender gaps in the environmental sector.

The creation of these UN gender action plans means governments, including the Australian government, should start identifying and responding to the gendered impacts of climate change. But the Australian government has yet to bring these recommendations to its climate policies.

Australia doesn’t adopt UN recommendations

The key organising international text on disaster management is the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a 15-year non-binding UN agreement, which requires countries to apply a gender sensitive approach in preparing and responding to disasters.

But Australian disaster policies don’t do this. For example, Queensland’s State Disaster Management Plan is effective in terms of physically responding to a disaster, but the policy remains gender blind. It does not adequately consider the effects of sudden or slow onset disasters at the household level.

Not only does the Australian government need to adopt a gender sensitive approach in disaster policy and planning, but also it should better fund groups at the front line responding to gendered violence following a disaster.

This includes groups providing legal support like Womens Legal Services and Legal Aid and should extend to groups providing accomodation, counselling and other support for women impacted by gender violence.


The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.


Rowena Maguire, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Institute for Future Environments, Queensland University of Technology

, Lecturer in Law, Queensland University of Technology

, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article.