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‘It’s assumed you don’t know what you’re talking about’: Men are still surprised that these women know about sport

Brisbane Lions player Lauren Arnell smiles as she holds a football at training in Brisbane.

Entering a profession that’s been dominated by the opposite gender for decades can be challenging and unnerving at first.

Having to go above and beyond to prove you’re capable of doing the job is an unfortunate reality for many people, even in 2020 — and for women the field of sport is no exception.

These three ground-breaking commentators have found their voice in what has traditionally been a man’s world — and their experiences offer lessons that can help us in all fields of life.

Rise above assumptions

Alison Mitchell was the first woman to become a regular commentator on BBC’s Test Match Special, from 2007. She was the first woman to call men’s cricket ball by ball on ABC Radio in 2014. In 2018 she joined Channel Seven’s cricket commentary team.

In the early stages of her career as a commentator, she had to counter a presumption that men know about sport in a way that women don’t.

“It’s assumed that you don’t know what you’re talking about,” the UK broadcaster

“I would get lots of emails from men, surprised at what I knew, and pleasantly surprised that a woman could talk so knowledgeably about cricket,” she says.

“And you could take that as being really condescending, but I would just tuck those emails away and think, ‘OK, that’s another person whose view I’ve changed about what women can know about sport.'”

The lesson? Know and value your own expertise.

You are not an imposter

Lauren Arnell grew up watching and playing AFL, and knows how to dissect the sport with precision from both on and off the field.

But when the time came to commentate on her first game, she experienced a level of apprehension.

Brisbane Lions player Lauren Arnell smiles as she holds a football at training in Brisbane.
Arnell was the inaugural captain of the Carlton AFLW team, subsequently playing for the Brisbane Lions. She is also a part of ABC Radio’s Grandstand commentary team for the AFL men’s competition.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

“It wasn’t something I thought I could do until it actually happened, to be quite honest with you,” she says.

For weeks and weeks to come, she questioned whether she could do it. Was she the right fit?

“Obviously as a female voice, is that what people want to listen to? But also, is what I’m saying valid?”

Now, in her fourth season of commentating, she finally feels “quite comfortable”.

The lesson? You don’t have to feel 100 per cent ready. Jump in the deep end, and you might surprise yourself with how well you can swim.

Diversity matters. So does your opinion

Portrait of a striking middle aged woman with blonde hair, red lipstick, wearing a navy jumpsuit against a blue backdrop. Portrait of a striking middle aged woman with blonde hair, red lipstick, wearing a navy jumpsuit against a blue backdrop.
Bridie O’Donnell is a cycling commentator and a medical doctor.(Supplied)

Former road cyclist Bridie O’Donnell has also felt the need to prove that women can understand and communicate sport at the same level as men.

“It feels crazy just saying these words,” says O’Donnell, who represented Australia at the 2008, 2009 and 2010 UCI Road World Championships.

But she says women bring a “diverse opinion or perspective” to men’s events — be it cricket, cycling or football — and the impact of that is only positive.

And that diversity of thought is relevant far beyond the boundaries of sport.

Earlier this year O’Donnell became the first woman to commentate for the Tour de France for SBS TV.

She loved being able to draw on her road cycling expertise.

“When you know so much about the sport and you’ve experienced what it’s like to be exhausted or to crash or to win a race or to not win, you can bring that lived experience and insight,” she says.

That resonates with Mitchell, who says her presence on the airwaves helps people feel included in a space traditionally dominated by men.

“Last summer in Australia a family stopped me, and a father was there with his young daughter and he just said, ‘Thank you for what you do on the ABC because when my daughter hears your voice, she then feels that cricket is for her as well,'” she says.

“That for me encapsulated why mixed commentary teams can have an impact, because you’re speaking to a broader audience, and that is what it’s got to be about, isn’t it? It’s bringing more and more people in.”

The lesson? You have a diverse range of life experiences to draw on that give you a unique way of looking at the world, and that’s a good thing it can help others feel like they belong.

Some days will suck. Don’t give up

Despite there being plenty of highlights throughout their commentating careers, Arnell, Mitchell and O’Donnell have also experienced the odd low-light too.

“I think the start is just a sense of being completely disregarded, spoken over, or saying something that you think is insightful and literally 10 seconds later having a male broadcaster repeat exactly what you just said,” O’Donnell says.

“That’s not something single to broadcasting, we see that in boardrooms, and that famous cartoon that Gillian Triggs talks about which is, ‘That’s a wonderful idea, Gillian, perhaps one of the men would like to have it.’

“Then I started to think, well, why am I here? If you’re just actually going to steal my ideas live on air, what value is that? And that doesn’t make for good broadcasting, and neither does speaking over other people or interrupting them. So that’s a negative experience.”

Speaking up for your valuesSpeaking up for your values
O’Donnell encourages speaking up in the workplace.(Supplied)

Mitchell says she’s only had one really negative moment, when she sat down in a commentary box to call one of her first ever international games.

A male peer sat down next to her and said: “Hello legs.”

“I felt very glad actually for the support of the producer who I was working with then because he absolutely just said, ‘Right, I don’t think he will be working with us again,'” she says.

“It was just a moment. The massage of my shoulders on the way out of the box also wasn’t terribly welcome.”

from Sporty:

Arnell, who’s also done some television, feels uncomfortable about the expectations of her appearance when reporting on-air.

“I think having to present yourself in a certain way, being female, being expected to look a certain way, have your hair and your makeup a certain way, that is certainly something that has never been enjoyable for me,” she says.

“I’m a pretty laid-back person, particularly if I’m just going to watch a game of football, I’m not really overly interested in dressing up.

“So arriving at a football game to work on air on television has been challenging for me in the past, and certainly the experience for me, the types of reactions from the crowd if I’m walking around the boundary line with full hair and make-up, boots and a long coat is very different to if I was arriving at a game and sitting in the outer and watching it.”

The lesson? Breaking down barriers isn’t easy. Some people will make your life hard, just because of your gender. But every day won’t be bad. All three commentators say the positives far outweigh the negatives.

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