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Sport, Health & Wellbeing

Want to do a PhD about cyberhate against female athletes?

Remember when AFLW Carlton forward Tayla Harris got predator trolled simply for doing her job?

In case your memory needs jogging, back in 2019, a photograph taken by AFL Media senior photographer Michael Willson – depicting Harris’ powerful kicking style – became subject to floods of vile online commentary.

At the time, Tayla correctly identified the harassment as “sexual abuse on social media“.

In other words, she was sustaining an injury in an unsafe workplace. And this made what happened an occupational health and safety issue – not just for her, but potentially for every athlete.

Cyberhate in Australia is no small matter. The nationally representative polling I commissioned from the Australia Institute in 2018 found the upper cost of cyberhate and online harassment to the Australian economy to be $3.7 billion. That figure only counts lost income and medical expenses — so the real cost is far greater.

The same polling also showed women were more likely to report receiving threats of sexual assault, violence or death; incitement of others to stalk or threaten them in real life; unwanted sexual messages and publication of their personal details.

Research around the world also repeatedly finds people of colour are attacked more.

It further illustrates that being both a woman and a POC [person of colour] makes you extra vulnerable on the Internet.

As I discuss in my best-selling book, Troll Hunting, we know women in the public eye – people including but not limited to: journalists, politicians and sportspeople – are frequently subject to extreme and ongoing cyberhate that leads to real-life harm. In the most egregious cases, they may be killed.

Once I started investigating and reporting on cyberhate in the Australian press back in 2015, Aussie women in sport started telling me their own stories of being hunted online.

These women were not just elite athletes like Tayla, but also female umpires, sports journalists and administrators.

Heather Reid was the CEO of Capital Football in the ACT. She gave up her career because of extreme and sustained cyberhate, and her organisation did very little to support her.

Although Heather had her day in court and won, her life was impacted in ways the justice system could never repair.

She moved away from Canberra – a city she loved – with her partner. Heather also suffered extreme, ongoing health impacts as a result of stress associated with the vitriolic and homophobic online hatred against her.

Back in 2015, she told me: “This is my workplace and nobody should have to put up with abuse or harassment at work.”

One last example: Freelance sports journalist and academic Kate O’Halloran has been the target of trolls on numerous occasions. At one stage, the predator trolling was so severe, Kate found herself afraid to leave the house.

Like Heather, she cops abuse that not only targets her gender, but her sexuality.

Myself and my colleagues at the University of Canberra concur with Tayla, Heather and Kate; we do not believe your gender – or sexuality – should make you unsafe at work (or destroy your career). See the box below for details.

What we would like to know is: What’s the scale of this abuse against female athletes, non-binary folks and those working in the sports industry? What forms does gendered abuse take online? What real life harm – for example job losses or physical assaults – does this cyberhate cause?

Most importantly, how can we stop it?

Associate Professor Dr Catherine Ordway lectures in sports integrity and ethics at the University of Canberra. (She’ll also be your primary supervisor if you successfully win the scholarship to investigate cyberhate against female and non-binary athletes. I’m also on the advisory panel!)

Catherine says: “Cyber violence against women and girls has now being recognised as, not only a work, health and safety issue, but a broader human rights issue.  Sport was designed by and for men.

“The deepest level of toxic, misogynist attacks are reserved for women who ‘dare’ to play, watch and work in sport – particularly if they are non-white, non-binary, and/or non-conformist in the cis-heteronormative mould of femininity.”

For anyone interested in enrolling in a full-time PhD from February 2023, the University of Canberra is offering a scholarship to research ‘Online trolling and e-safety: Women athletes and women working in the sports industry’ together with Sport Integrity Australia.

The Information session on the Women in Sports Industry partnership scholarships, will be held in-person and online.

Where: Clive Price Suite (1C50) at the University of Canberra

When: 27 September, 5.30–7pm AEST

What: Meet our industry partners and researchers, hear about our research in Women in Sport, and discuss your career goals

Register your attendance by emailing UCSportStrategy@canberra.edu.au

Use the email address in the box above to register your interest. You know you want to! (And it’s important you do.) Or email your queries to us at 5050Foundation@canberra.edu.au.

This article was first published on BroadAgenda on 14 September 2022. Photos: provided.

Words by Ginger Gorman, the Editor of BroadAgenda. Ginger is a fearless and multi-award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Her book Troll Hunting came out in 2019, and she is the gender editor at HerCanberra.

Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.

BroadAgenda is Australia’s leading research-based gender equality media platform, published by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation.

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