Bridie O’Donnell: from elite cyclist to the Office for Women in Sport

In November 2017, Dr Bridie O’Donnell was appointed as the inaugural Director of the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation (OWSR) which aims to improve gender equality in sport.

The Office, an Australian first, has two overall goals. First, to fund programs to encourage school-aged girls and women to get active; currently, three in five Victorian women don't get enough physical activity, and over half say they worry about being judged while they exercise. Second, to help solve the under-representation of women in leadership roles in sport, such as CEOs, board members, coaches, referees and umpires.

Bridie’s well-placed to tackle those goals as she Bridie O'Donnell on a bicycleintimately knows the challenges facing women in sport. As well as being a seven-time national rowing champion and completing the Ironman Hawaii World Triathlon Championships in 2006, she took up full-time cycling at the age of 33 in 2007, going on to represent Australia in the women’s road cycling team in the 2008, ’09 and ’10  World Championships and racing with professional cycling teams in both Europe and the United States. While racing in Italy, she was sleeping in a bunk bed and earning $20 a day – a far cry from her medical specialist days!

By taking up cycling later in life, Bridie put her career as a doctor at Epworth Healthcheck and the Epworth Breast Service on hold to chase her dream of representing her country and racing among the world's best, at times shutting down the voices that told her she was "too fat, too old, too slow".

Sweet victory awaited. Silencing her critics, at the age of 41, Bridie set a world record (the UCI Hour Record) at the Adelaide Super-Drome in 2016 with a distance of 46.882 kilometres, exceeding the previous world record by 609 metres.

But she hasn't given up her medical career entirely. The 45-year-old trailblazer is a medical expert frequently appearing on Channel Ten's The Project.  

She doesn't forget the wage disparity of men and women in cycling when she was on the road, however. "I had taken time out of my medical career to race professionally," she says, "and I could see the parallel pathways of elite male cyclists and what the opportunities might be if this sport was accelerated, marketed and remunerated for women in the same way."

Bridie O'Donnell speaking at Change our GameSo, when the chance to even out the playing field for sport for women and girls in Victoria came in the form of Director, OWSR, Bridie went for it. "You don’t often see women as leaders in sport: for me, it was an extraordinary opportunity and I couldn’t let it go by." 

It’s a historic time to be in the role, too, thanks to the rising profile of women in professional sport that has resulted in record numbers of women and girls signing on to play at grassroots clubs. Inspired by the success of the AFLW League, there are now more than 1000 women’s and girls’ football teams, while female participation in cricket has also reached record figures, growing to 88,000 women and girls playing cricket in Victoria.

As Bridie explains: "Given the success of the AFLW, the rise of the Matildas, the Rugby Women’s 7s and the continuing strength of women in sports such as basketball, cricket and netball, the Victorian Government wants to get as many women playing sport as possible, while simultaneously making sure conditions and infrastructure for that to happen are adequate."

Roadblocks do exist, though. OWSR was created to implement the nine recommendations presented in late 2015 from a Victorian Government Inquiry into Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation, which revealed women are under-represented in leadership roles in the sport and active recreation sector.

How the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation (OWSR) is levelling the playing field

To counteract the inquiry findings, OWSR aims to promote equity across all sport and active recreation (which includes everything from walking to Pilates to camping) in participation, competition, leadership, coaching, executive and board positions.

Examples include working with the Sport and Recreation Victoria Community Infrastructure and Place team who allocate grants of up to $500,000 towards female sports facilities. The extent, variety and accessibility of facilities at clubs play a key factor in encouraging female involvement.  Another example is helping to oversee a new mandate, introduced on 1 July, where all sport and active recreation organisations funded by Sport and Recreation Victoria and the Victorian Government must comply with a 40 per cent women on boards quota.

At a professional level, OWSR provides $2000 to $10,000 scholarships to assist women working and volunteering in sport and recreation to access training and education, placing them in the best position to thrive in leadership roles. Now in its second year, the scholarship program has already funded professional learning for more than 100 women across the state, such as a women’s participation officer at Golf Victoria, a senior executive at Tennis Victoria and a project leader at Handball Victoria.

"We aim to support and encourage women in leadership roles, ensuring they’re not subject to unfair or unfavourable treatment because of their gender, sexuality, appearance, age or any other personal characteristics protected by anti-discrimination law: it’s vital that Australian sport remains an important place to support diversity and inclusion and has no tolerance for discrimination," says Bridie.

OWSR also offers $5,000 community activation grants to help community sport and recreation organisations stage events that promote gender equality like the Women on Water regatta, an event with all-female officials and competitors; and $25,000 grants to help researchers at Victorian universities support and advance research related to women and girls in sport and active recreation, both in understanding barriers to participation, and addressing safety.

As for maintaining her own fitness and mental wellbeing, Bridie runs and still rides her bike – but now just for work commutes. It’s all about committing each day to staying active, she says, even though there may be times when you want to just stay on the couch. She tellingly adds: "Elite athletes don’t feel motivated every day, they just do it anyway."

Visit the website for the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation.