Performance


Gemma McCaw on levelling the playing field.

29 March 2021

The New Zealand hockey great reflects on progress in women’s sport over the past decade and the work that still needs to be done.

Performance


Gemma McCaw on levelling the playing field.

29 March 2021

The New Zealand hockey great reflects on progress in women’s sport over the past decade and the work that still needs to be done.

Gemma McCaw speaking at an event.

NZ hockey star Gemma McCaw on the progress we’ve made towards gender equality in sport and how we can shape a better future. Image: Supplied.

When Gemma McCaw first dreamed of playing hockey for New Zealand, she was looking for a pathway to the Olympics, rather than a full-time job.

As a young girl, she’d watched her idol, Black Sticks striker Mandy Smith, carve up the field at the Sydney 2000 Olympics; later, they met in person when the acclaimed Kiwi visited her school. “I came home and said: 'I want to be like that one day,’” recalls Gemma, a Mercedes-Benz Friend of the Brand. “She was my hockey hero.”

Upon joining the national team in 2008, aged 18, Gemma realised her playing career wasn’t going to pay the bills. “You had to work or study as well,” she explains. “But I was grateful, because I ended up with a degree, which made the transition out of sport easier.”

Gemma McCaw speaking at an event.

Gemma recalls being inspired by Black Sticks striker Mandy Smith, carving up the field at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Image: Supplied.

Today, there is a bit more money on the table and hockey is one of a growing number of sporting codes where, in Australia and New Zealand’s national teams at least, men and women enjoy pay parity. Though it’s a win for gender equality, Gemma has seen less emphasis on preparing young athletes for life after sport as a result. “If you have that sole focus of being a professional sports player and you get an injury or miss out on selection, you've put everything into that one outcome,” she says. “I think in terms of your health and wellbeing, having other things outside of your sport is really important.”

Now retired from hockey, the three-time Olympian is the co-founder of Performance Wellbeing, where she shares her skills and knowledge in the field of health and wellness. From this vantage point, she believes one of the best ways to nurture the next generation of female athletes is to teach girls to see sport as a vehicle for health and happiness; to get them hooked for life. “For me, it's about creating positive experiences, because you hear about young girls who are put off because they didn't feel good enough in those early days,” Gemma says.

Positive early engagement with sport will hopefully drive more girls towards elite competition, where tennis is currently setting the benchmark for gender equality; all four grand slams offer equal prize money for men and women, with the latter attracting large viewing figures and lucrative endorsement deals. Gemma hopes it won’t be long before less prolific codes, such as hockey and soccer, follow suit. To achieve this, she suggests female athletes should be given greater visibility in the media and their games more commercial backing. “We sometimes don't get international women's hockey on TV – all of our national sports should be televised, that’s just a given.”

Gemma would also like to see more upskilling opportunities for female athletes, to prepare them for executive roles within traditionally male-dominated sporting boards and committees, once their playing careers finish or they’ve taken time out to raise a family. “You still have a good voice, no matter who you are,” she says. “I think we need a whole representation of people, men and women, to get different outlooks.”

Implementing such changes might take time, but Gemma says the progress during her 12-year playing career has been encouraging, with women far more visible in sport now than at any point in history. “It's a slow burn, but we definitely have to keep shaking things up,” she says.

In line with the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, #ChooseToChallenge, Gemma is eager to see both men and women continue to push the boundaries for gender equality in sport, though thinks it’s the latter who have the greatest power to incite change, particularly when they stand united. "The best thing we can do, as women, is support each other when we go to challenge the norm or do something that no one has done before,” she says. "The inequalities that we face, we've just got to keep binding together, working hard and coming up with ideas – using all the skills and experiences we have to shape a better future for girls and women."

By Beth Wallace