Sherrin cracks AFL's glass ceiling as first female development coach appointed

June 02, 2014
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The glass ceiling took another hit today, this time with the forceful kick of a Sherrin and muddy footy boot.

Females in sport and those who support them are celebrating after former Victorian Football League (VFL) assistant coach Peta Searle landed a gig as a development coach at AFL team St Kilda – the highest rank a woman has ever reached in the league.

“I’ve been lost for words. Probably a little bit overwhelmed,” said Searle to Fairfax Media in an interview confirming her new role. 

This is not the first time Peta has made AFL history, with her appointment as a VFL assistant coach at the AFL team Port Melbourne the first time this title was ever given to a woman. Yet in April this year, a lack of opportunities to progress in her football career prompted the single mother of two to leave her VFL gig – for which she was paid $5000 a year – for a more generously awarded position as a primary school teacher.

In the wake of the media attention her story attracted, Peta scored a meeting with a panel of Saints coaches and club CEO Matt Finnis. It was a final phone call from senior coach Alan Richardson, who offered her an 18 month contract as a development coach, that left her speechless.

“For this situation to have turned around – it’s happening and it’s real – I’ve gone from being grumpy Peta to you can’t wipe the smile off my face,” she said.

Peta’s admission to the small club of women in high positions at the AFL, including AFL commissioners Linda Dessau and Sam Mostyn, and Richmond president Peggy O’Neal, aligns with the vision of outgoing AFL chief Andrew Demetriou.

Demetriou said at the beginning of this season that the AFL is “miles away” from where it needs to be in regards to gender equality. “We have women on the commission, we have a woman as a club president. I look forward to the next step – a CEO at club level and more women on the AFL executive,” he said.

His comments arrived amid ongoing criticism that Australian football leagues, including the AFL and the NRL, are yet to embrace women as players, presenters, administrators and fans of a traditionally male-dominated sport.

“I can recognise the NRL’s attempts to be more inclusive of its female fans with the annual Women in League Round…but I can’t help but feel that the whole thing is a little bit, well, patronising,” wrote Danika Wilkinson for Hijacked last month.

“Why not just accept female fans as a part of the game every round? According to the NRL, 45 per cent of fans are female and five clubs have more female fans than male. This would make women a norm, not a novelty,” she wrote.

Peta will join the Saints mid-season under the club’s head of development Simon McPhee. 

Kristen Daly

Image: WikiMedia Commons image of St Kilda training