Dr Victoria Rawlings sitting on a football field, a yellow football next to her

Game plan: How a former AFL umpire and researcher is keeping sport and schools inclusive

24 August 2023
Levelling the playing field for teens
With a career ranging from professional Australian Rules football umpire to Senior Lecturer researching bullying in schools, Dr Rawlings' game-changing insights are helping institutions to become more inclusive.
Dr Victoria Rawlings kneeling on a football field at night, holding a red football

Many of us have a lightbulb moment when it comes to finding our vocation, but for Dr Victoria Rawlings (BEd (Hons) ’07, PhD (Education) ’13), the road has been more circuitous than linear. Partly this is because her career is so multifaceted. She is an academic, specialising in bullying behaviour; she’s worked with the Australian Football League to make the game more inclusive of women and girls; she was one of the country’s top female umpires for a time; and then there was stint as a high school physical education teacher.

“Sport has always been part of my identity,” Dr Rawlings says, “which is funny, as my parents aren’t sporty – and being English-born, they don’t have historical ties with Australian sport.”

At 11, Dr Rawlings began fencing – an unusual choice, she says now, thinking back – and went on to represent Australia in the Youth Olympic Games. At high school she added rowing, and cricket and soccer followed later in life. But it was in her first year of university that Dr Rawlings found the game she truly loved: Australian Rules football.

“I was so bad at it, and kept breaking bones. I wanted to be involved but thought, this will kill me. So, I became an umpire.”

It was a complete game changer for me. It was the most fun and social game that I had encountered.” But while she loved the sport, it did not love her back. “I was so bad at it, and kept breaking bones. I wanted to be involved but thought, this will kill me. So, I became an umpire.”

This is underselling it somewhat. Working with her coach, Dr Rawlings improved her fitness and skills to such a level that she became one of the country’s leading female umpires. She had just returned to Australia after a two-year research position in the United Kingdom when she was called on to umpire for the first season of the AFL Womens. This allowed her to contribute to the game that had brought her so much joy, and it would eventually bring her two worlds together.

In May this year, Dr Rawlings released her research report, Girls and women in Australian football umpiring: Understanding registration, participation and retention, outlining the need for change throughout the Australian Rules football community. Her research contributed to the AFL’s action plan to foster the development of women and girls throughout every level of the game and to also ensure that unacceptable behaviour is dealt with appropriately.

Dr Rawlings hung up her boots a few years ago, but remains a fan of the game and eager for it to modernise.

“Before I came to university, I really hadn’t found any queer people to interact with,” she says. “Playing AFL at the Uni gave me that. Not everyone was queer, of course, but a lot were, and it was a lovely, inclusive place to be.” Being part of a team, Dr Rawlings found camaraderie and support like never before. It is something she is keen to see replicated in sporting communities everywhere.

For the Sydney-born-and-raised lecturer, sport and schools are two sides of the same coin. She says both institutions have the benefits and drawbacks of their heritage and history. Both have been welcoming to her, but she says that from her perspective as a young queer woman, she has been able to see ways in which they need to be changed and modernised.

“I had a really tough time at school myself – not due to the school or my friends, who were supportive – but I had difficulties coming to terms with my sexuality, simply due to the environment and the times,” Dr Rawlings says. “As an undergraduate at the University of Sydney, I became interested in school environments, youth cultures, sexuality and inclusivity. I was intrigued by what makes students happy – or not so happy.”

Supported by a Thomas and Mary Ethel Ewing Doctoral Scholarship, which was founded by a bequest in 1964, she explored the connection between gender, sexuality and bullying in her PhD thesis. Now a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Social Work, Dr Rawlings is continuing her partnership with school communities, with the support of an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award.

Dr Victoria Rawlings standing on a football field, a yellow football in her hands

Broadly, she says, her goal is to make “institutions be more open to everyone, not just a few.”

Dr Rawlings’ bullying research has seen her travel to several high schools across New South Wales and Victoria, where she embeds herself with students. It is, she says, illuminating.

“What I commonly find is that kids feel like they are being talked at, rather than to,” she says. “When it comes to challenging topics, like bullying, we need to include rather than judge. These kids know they need to be part of the solution. They don’t want to be part of the problem. But it is complex.”

Part of Dr Rawlings’ research has been exploring the ways language and communication impact behaviour – a neat intersection of theory affecting the real world. “When you know the theory, you make better decisions,” she says.

“For instance, at one of the schools I was working at, there was an event advertised on Facebook which promoted violence towards girls.

“Boys were emboldened by the event to kick girls in the head – something that started tentatively around lunchtime, then escalated,” Dr Rawlings recalls “On the way home, a girl was waiting for the bus when boys kicked her, and continued to beat her when she was lying on the ground. Students later told me, ‘Well, that’s what boys are like,’ and, ‘She kind of deserved it.’ Or, ‘It was just a joke.’”

For Dr Rawlings, who is “obsessed” with language, it was a clarion call for change. “This told us so much about how this devastating event came to be. The way people spoke about that event showed that there were expectations around how boys behave, that girls have to ‘do’ their gender and sexuality in a certain way to avoid violence, and that there is pressure to laugh this off. If they had said, ‘This is unacceptable, we won’t stand for this,’ they would have been socially outcast. Even teachers said, ‘It’s not bullying, it’s only happened once.’ There is so much to unpack there – but also so much hope to change things.”

In a country of over 25 million people, it doesn’t sound like a lot to change the behaviour of one classroom, but it is real-world, demonstrable change that has impacts on other behaviour, other conversations. We will see the impact.

When it comes to progress, Dr Rawlings is upbeat.

“I talk to students who say, ‘I don’t know how I’ve survived this place.’ But as we go into the schools and start those conversations, things really do change.”

It is not seismic, she says – or not yet anyway. But day by day, conversations are opening up and being modified. Dr Rawlings has noticed a gap between how teens want to be and how they are – and this, she says, is the sweet spot. Figuring out how to capitalise on this desire to change will be her key to success, even if it is a slow process.

“In a country of over 25 million people, it doesn’t sound like a lot to change the behaviour of one classroom, but it is real-world, demonstrable change that has impacts on other behaviour, other conversations. We will see the impact.”

Written by Lauren Sams for Sydney Alumni Magazine. Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim

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