In the second of three Q&As with keynote speakers from the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit this week, Suzanne McFadden chats with Chyloe Kurdas, who’s broken down barriers for females in the AFL and golf – sometimes under stealth.
From the age of five, Chyloe Kurdas realised she wouldn’t get to be a professional AFL player. Instead, it became her goal to ensure other girls would get the chance.
She eventually got to play her beloved footie, turning out for Melbourne University for a decade. But she found her true calling off the oval, as AFL Victoria’s female football development manager – building high-performance programmes for girls – and achieving her dream of creating a national women’s competition, the AFLW, in 2016.
Kurdas then took her passion for making cultural change and gender equity in sport to golf. She’s now the national female participation manager for Golf Australia, charged with leading Vision 2025, the sport’s long-term strategy to enhance the engagement of women and girls.
She’s kept her links to football, as a TV expert commentator on the game.
SM: At the age of five, as a girl wanting to play AFL, you first realised there were barriers for females in sport. What stopped you giving up your dream to play footie?
CK: I did give it away for a long time. It was the 80s, and girls could play with boys until they were 12, but it was rare. I didn’t want to ask my parents if I could play because I thought it would attract more of the bullying I got for being such an androgynous little kid. So I found karate which was a godsend. It’s very philosophical and a lot of that I still use today. I did that for 14 years, and it probably saved my life in many ways, many times.
I played footie with the boys in primary school lunchtime, but I gave up when I went to high school, because you go from being a kid to being a girl. Even though I was really good at footie, I still wasn’t good enough to cut it at high school as a teenager. I thought there wasn’t going to be a path for me. But I’m very glad I got there in the end.
SM: So when did you start playing in earnest?
CK: I was 20 when I found a women’s league, but I spent the first year watching a friend who was playing. I didn’t play a single game, because I was waiting for an invitation to play. As a girl playing football, you were always told to wait your turn. Having doors closed on you creates a learned passiveness around the agency we bring to our lives, which is why I do a lot of work now to change that.
SM: You were one of the first women to play on the MCG, on Mother’s Day in 2004, and you’ve called it one of the best days of your life. Why was it so special to you?
CK: The MCG is an amazing piece of grass; it’s Melbourne’s heart. But to think that something that’s so revered, so sacred, hadn’t had women footballers play on it until then was quite disgusting.
What was also really special was that we were reclaiming a space back from the men and boys; something that they had dominated and hadn’t shared, that we would have rightfully had access to. There was this thinking that we weren’t good enough to be put on this special thing, that we might tarnish it. And so it was really empowering to finally play on it. And afterwards, the guys realised that we didn’t tarnish it at all.
SM: What was the most surprising barrier you faced trying to get a national competition like the AFLW off the ground?
CK: The biggest surprise was getting employed by an organisation to do something that senior key decision-makers didn’t necessarily believe in. The resistance was internal, from people who were my colleagues. There was one of me employed in each state, responsible for female development in the game – some incredible women around the country all facing the same challenges.
Internally the things we were working towards, the access to the game we were trying to bring to women and girls, was never easy. We were trying to convince people why we were trying to do it, when they were saying: ‘But if there’s no national competition, why run a talent programme?’ A lack of vision and innovation is a little demoralising, and along with the thinking ‘Is the women’s game really worth investing in?’, it was pretty exhausting. So I just did a lot of stuff under the cover of darkness, because no one really paid female football a lot of attention.
SM: You’re now at Golf Australia. How transferable were your skills from football to golf?
CK: Not at all from a playing perspective! But from a job perspective, very transferable. It’s about how you reshape and reframe systems, structures and cultures to create the senior key decision-makers’ buy-in, so they’re the ones who craft a new future for your sport.
In golf, there’s much more authorisation internally; they understand it. I think that’s partly because the angst of letting women on the greens happened about 150 years ago, and we’ve all moved past that. And the best Australian golfer ever is Karrie Webb.
The issue is around a sports culture that’s very gendered and very classist in lots of ways – and that’s globally. Our job now is to help evolve those things, so we take the great things from our past and honour heritage and traditions, but do so in a way that doesn’t close doors on people. That means not closing doors on women in the boardroom, making sure women have an easy path to access leaderships roles in our clubs, and making sure we deliver golf that works to the needs of women and girls. Our lives are a little different from men and boys. The top two things women say makes golf prohibitive to them is time and money.
SM: So do you play golf?
CK: Yes, I do have a hit, actually. Before I joined Golf Australia I had 18 months off between roles, so in that time I bought some clubs because I finally had time to play. I just hack around my public nine-hole course.
* Chyloe Kurdas will speak on participation on the second day of the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit, delivered by Women in Sport Aotearoa and the Shift Foundation.