Crop Tops and Cricket Bats
Gender inequality means many different things to many different people. To Helen O'Connor, it meant the end of her childhood strengths and the beginnings of insecurities and uphill battles that have persisted throughout her adult life.
Her take on the issue is republished below from Narrative Imperative, a collection of more than 200 stories by New Zealanders about what the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals mean to them.
Growing up, I was a serious tomboy. No matter who I was with, or what I was doing – you could always find me with a pair of dirty dogs, a neatly trimmed bowl-cut, a smear of zinc across my snoz, and a full Canterbury kit to cover my rotund midsection. I was essentially living the middle-aged white man dream.
Life was good.
And for "one-day-I’m-going-to-be-an-All-Black" Helen, life was never so good as during the summer holidays. Phwoooooar, what a time to be alive. Boys headin’ out early to haul in the cray pots? Jump on board. Fellas heading down to the beach for a quick game of backyard cricket? Throw on your stubbies – it’s gonna be an absolute blinder.
At eight, nine, ten – my experience of the world was a great one. I may have been a little different to my sisters, but it didn’t matter. I was good at catching stuff, throwing stuff, tying knots in stuff, and yelling at the ref. My male cousins didn’t just let me play with them, they actually wanted me to play. I was good. I was one of them.
But – like many other kids who didn’t strongly align with a particular gender – I eventually grew up, grew out my bowl-cut, and grew a little more self-conscious.
As the boys carried on throwing, catching, tying and yelling – I was being left behind. I was looking around and seeing not many, if any, girls my age whacking on a pair of wrap-arounds and calling first turn to bat. Somehow, summer had become less about scoring runs and more about feeling fat in my togs while burning myself to a crisp. As my boobs were gaining a life of their own, a little part of me was dying.
The more ‘girly’ I became, the less likely I was to be included on boat trips or asked to throw a ball around outside. As I swapped my Canterburies for messy-buns and halter necks, I became far less likely to be picked for a team. Expectations around my intelligence, sense of humour, and general easy-going-ness appeared to lower in direct correlation with my necklines.
I was being told that as a girl, I could do anything. My parents were saying it, the posters in the staffroom were saying it, even the dad on Full House was saying it. I was hearing and seeing these words – but I wasn’t really experiencing them in real life. I still longed to spear tackle someone headfirst into a sand dune, but the world around me was telling me not to, because I’d probably be really bad at it. It began to feel like I was only being invited to play because someone’s mum had told them they had to include everyone. Even the girls.
On occasions when I did join in, I heard things like; “Hit it nicely to Helen – not too hard.” “Boys bowl from this line, girls from this line.” “Helen can be on your team, we’ve already got a girl.”
A year earlier, I’d been picking the teams. Now, they pitied me? What the hell had happened?
I started to show less and less confidence, because people expected me to be less and less talented. I was expected to let males explain how to hold the bat – like I hadn’t been doing it for years – and no one was saying, “Tell them to back off – you’ve got this.” Instead, the world was telling me to smile and nod and gratefully adjust my grip, and to giggle if I ever dropped a catch. And the more I giggled, the more catches I dropped.
I quickly realised that as soon as I did what was expected of me – drop the ball, get bowled out, or give up and go inside – they could all get on with the real game. The fun version. So, I did. I gave up and I went inside.
As I continued further along life’s womanly path, I began to hear all sorts of other wild statements. Girls aren’t as funny as boys. Girls are boring. Girls are slow. Girls are weak. Girls like cleaning up and salad and bitching about each other. Girls don’t like swear words (whaaaaat?!). The girls won’t want to play/join in/watch this, so don’t bother asking.
It makes me wonder how funny and interesting and confident and co-ordinated us girls could be, if we grew up surrounded by different expectations.
I’m in no way saying girls aren’t funny or interesting or sporty, because I know we are. My belief in the incredible talents of women is truly unshakeable. It’s just that in my experience, being funny or interesting or good at hauling in big kingis has been treated as the wildly surprising exception, not the rule. This is what I find to be the most annoying thing of all. Men aren’t programmed to be funnier than us. They CERTAINLY aren’t programmed to be more interesting, and I don’t think they are programmed to be better at sports, although I can’t provide any facts about this. I would Google ‘are men naturally better at sports?’, but I’m scared how angry I’d get after finding myself six weeks deep in the comments section of a Stuff article.
From experience, I know how hard it is to perform at something when you’re being scrutinised or expected to fail. It’s a hard reality to face as a ten-year-old in the backyard, and it’s even harder as an adult in the workplace. Often it seems that as females, we’re not allowed to be bad, average or even good at stuff – we have to either be amazing or not do it at all, but boys who are shit at cricket still get asked to play.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to land Helen-of-1999’s dream job. The Cricket World Cup was coming to town, and I was going to be right in the thick of it. Not as The Black Caps opening batter (yet), but as the manager of the VIP Lounges in every stadium across New Zealand. I was managing the big-dogs, while also managing to watch 98% of every game. Sure, the job would involve a lot of schmoozing, but it would also involve making important decisions based around exactly what was happening on the ground below. To nail it, I had to be watching, calculating and reacting. I had to know what I was doing.
On my first day, I was given a radio and instructed to ask the guys if I needed help. I was painstakingly carried through the basic rules (two batters, Helen – one down either end of that rectangle there) and alerted to which male guests I should avoid speaking to as they wouldn’t be comfortable engaging with a women. Oh – and to “smile, speak softly, and change into a higher pair of heels please” for my upcoming twelve hour shift. Over the course of the two months that followed, I soon realised it was easier to just nod earnestly and act grateful when having the difference between a four and a six explained to me by yet another (often) middle-to-old-aged man.
The more I listened, smiled and adjusted, the harder it became to trust my own judgement.
And yes, I could have spoken up. I could have stopped every well-meaning man in his tracks and told him I was fine, actually, because I’d been watching cricket all my life. I could have told them about how at age nine, I’d spent the entire weekend at a cricket camp following the Black Caps around, nagging them for more bowling advice. I could have told them. But I didn’t. Because justifying your own knowledge and skillset 30-or-so times a day is actually really tiring. And boring. And infuriating. I found it easier to just go along with their exceptionally low expectations.
These experiences - alongside many, many others - have enabled me to realise that I want to live in a world where women’s minds and funny-bones and catching abilities are tried on an equal playing field to men’s. Without question or consciousness of thought.
I want expectations to be raised.
I want to be part of the cricket team again. But not the one with the boys, I want to be part of a new one. A team made up of people who aren’t waiting to roll their eyes at each other when I drop the ball or tell me to move a little closer when I bowl – but rather, a team who expect me to play like me. Not as a tomboy. Not as a pitied ring-in. Not as a girl.
I want to live in a world where we all feel confident enough to say, “Thank you for the batting advice middle-aged male neighbour – but you can back off now. We’re ok. We know what we’re doing.”
We’ve got this.
Narrative Imperative believes at the heart of every UN Sustainable Development Goal there is a human story. Follow this link to their website to read those stories and find more detailed info about the SDGs, the competition, the E-Book, how to vote, and what else you can do to support this incredibly, unquestionably important cause.