There has been a lot of talk of late about sexism, the role of women in sport and their place in society in general. Things are slowly changing, but gender inequality is still way too obvious even in a developed and economically thriving country such as Australia.
I’ve had some passionate and stimulating conversations with my male and female friends, training partners, colleagues and family. I have listened to countless stances and opinions. It has taken me a little while to realise where I sit in all this and exactly why I’ve had to educate myself a little more about the topic.
You see apart from the obvious pay gaps in sports, I have never REALLY felt the effect of sexism. I have NEVER felt that I can’t achieve something or that I am somehow worth less than any other human being on earth. Sure, I’ve encountered more than my fair share of little snark comments from a lot of ignorant people, but those have never deeply affected me on a personal level.
So I’ve had to ask myself, why is that I never felt like I can achieve less being a woman?
Let’s go back to the beginning.
I grew up in Poland and later immigrated to Australia, so it must be assumed I’ve lived a privileged life so far. I am not, nor was I ever rich in what we relate to in our 1st World society, but I was born into a family who gave me a home, food, water, access to education, fostered my interests and most of all provided me with opportunities. The truth is I’ve had a better start in life than 90% of other human beings.
As a young kid I was brought up to believe I can achieve anything I want. In fact excellence was expected of me. It was up to me to choose an activity, but if I chose to commit to it, it had to be 100%.
When I chose gymnastics and trained 32 hours a week by the time I was 8 years old, my parents allowed me to do what I so dearly loved as long as my marks at school didn’t drop. I simply continued to improve at school and at gymnastics and very quickly learnt how to manage my time, so that I could strive for success in all areas of my life.
During my time as a gymnast I was surrounded by strong women who ruled the gymnastics world. Many were definitely NOT my role models, but they did teach me how to be tough yet feminine, strong yet soft, and that to be the best I had to become utterly passionate about my ‘work’.
Gymnastics in Eastern Europe was popular and it was not uncommon to see my idols on TV and to meet them in real life. I travelled to many competitions around Europe, mingled and competed against girls from different cultures. I formed tight bonds with my female training partners, who always had my back. We SUPPORTED each other and COMPETED against each other at the same time.
Whilst competing, I lost A LOT. In fact I pretty much never won as a young gymnast. And so I grew resilient and I learnt to enjoy the journey and the grind more than the destination.
From the age of 7, I knew that an incredible amount of hard work, patience and total immersion in whatever I chose to do, equaled results.
I grew up with my brother who is two years older than me. Like all other siblings we loved each other but naturally argued a lot. Through our bickering I learnt how to stand up for myself verbally and physically until I could hold my own with the older kids. My brother simply expected that I keep up with the boys when running or racing on our bikes. However when I didn’t, not one person made fun of me or made me feel inferior. Other days I would happily play dolls with the girls, which also felt like the most natural thing to do. I watched my little sister grow up graduate with two degrees and travel the world by herself with her own money from the age of 15. My family never had limits to what was possible.
I was often told that I was capable, intelligent, strong and tough. That’s right, note the full stop at the end of that sentence. Not once in my childhood was I told I was capable, intelligent, strong and tough FOR A GIRL. Not once was I told I could do anything EVEN THOUGH I was a girl. That never even entered my mind. In my mind, I have always been and always will be just another human being – not a woman, not white, not small, not straight, not anything that will put me in into any other label or a category.
So when I graduated high school and started track cycling, it was a slight shock to the system on how it was to be a woman in a male dominated sport. The blatant ignorance and even dislike of women’s cycling was striking. Yet, it never deterred me from following my dreams. Among many wonderful men in the sport I also looked up (and still do) to incredible women such as Anna Meares. I shared many kilometres, lactic acid vomits and laughs on hard, long rides with training partners such as Apryl Eppinger, who has always had my back.
While I excelled at sports my friends of both sexes finished their university degrees and got ‘real jobs’. Some in finance, some as lawyers or doctors, others in retail or hospitality. It has never mattered what my friends did for a living, but what did matter was that there was no limit to what we thought we COULD do.
As I went through my 5 years of university, I’ve had a number of wise, intelligent and nurturing lecturers and tutors. Both men and women. All pioneers in their fields. Gender never came into play when it came to physiotherapy and science.
I’ve held jobs as a head physiotherapist at two different football clubs over the last five years. I’ve felt that my professional opinions were always valued and heard. I’ve managed to stay myself and never felt the need to become more ‘blokey’. I thank the men and women whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with for always allowing me to be myself.
I started jiu jitsu just over 5 years ago and was the only female in my club for a while, as is the case with many women in the sport. BJJ as a smaller woman is hard. It’s a grind and things don’t work for a VERY long time due to size and strength differences. It is so easy to get discouraged, however I have found that it was the support and kindness especially from my MALE training partners and coaches that made me stick at it.
It is only now that we have ladies training and competing together and organisations such as Australian Girls In Gi make it all possible. I couldn’t be happier to have so many talented female training partners and I value them more than I ever thought possible. Having someone closer to my weight, flexibility and strength makes for an amazing rolling partner. I am really enjoying encouraging my girls and other females in the sport. Someone else’s success will never take away anything from my own, so I will support the shit out of other women, just as many have done for me.
I am aware that I have been very fortunate to have great mentors in BJJ from the beginning. My previous coach Thiago Stefanutti entrusted me to run his classes when he was sick or away. My business partners Simon Carson and Lachlan Giles not only agreed on me coaching the female team at Absolute South Yarra, but have also given me the responsibility to teach a regular jiu jitsu class once a week. I used to feel inadequate and actually APOLOGISE to people who came to my class, until one of my training partners pointed this out to me. One day not that long ago it all hit me – I know some stuff, I’ve won some things, I have a little bit of experience and I am qualified for the role. If I wasn’t, I simply wouldn’t have the job.
Lachie who is my partner and my coach, always expects the best of me and my jiu jitsu. I don’t think he will ever stop telling me that I am just as capable to train as any other elite grappler. If I complain about my lack of strength or size, he points out that the Miyos don’t actually use power to take the back. To him, gender has never stopped anyone from being able to learn and improve.
In all, I think I am extremely fortunate to have had such good people in my life to learn from. I also think I may be completely ignorant to little acts of sexism that I experience in every day life. I either ignore them as I don’t believe them to be true, or I stand up for myself. Some would say that would make me naive, but the truth is I CHOOSE not to take things personally. As a result I live in a reality where I value my self-worth and consider myself to be an equal member of society in my professional and personal life.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could start with educating young girls, boys and youth who will one day grow into adults and parents? Wouldn’t it be amazing if each person felt like a valued member of their family, friendship group or society? Wouldn’t it be nice if both men and women agreed that equal opportunities and pay was just a part of life, and not something to fight for.
If we made each other feel heard, important or intelligent, just like I felt when I was a small girl, perhaps change would have a rippling effect and infiltrate the very core of our culture.
Disclaimer: This is simply my story and my own experience. I acknowledge that things may be very different in other cultures, professions and sports. I am not arguing that sexism exists, just that we can start changing it once and for all.