Natalie Galea by Harry Hayes for the AOC

Dr. Natalie Galea – Fighting from the Judo mats to gender equality and human rights

Olympian, academic, activist and trailblazer, Dr. Natalie Galea, has always been a fighter.

From the mats of Judo, where at Atlanta 1996, she fought through both her knees needing surgery, including a reconstruction, to today, fighting for human rights and gender equality to ensure that sport, and the world in general, is a safer and more inclusive place for all.

From very early on, gender inequality and the lack of opportunities for women in sport presented itself as a barrier for a young Galea. She may not have realised it at the time, but it would set her on a path to changing the future for women and girls.

A die-hard rugby league fan, Galea wanted nothing more than to run and tackle like the men she saw on tv, but due to her gender, she was unable to.

“As a child, I always wanted to play rugby league,” Galea said.

“But of course, back then, I wasn’t able to, because I was a girl. The only options were things like netball, but that wasn’t for me. I was drawn to sports that involved contact.”

Although frustrated, a young Galea wasn’t going to give up on playing sport at an elite level.

Not too long after, she became inspired by Australia’s first Olympic Champion Heptathlete, Glynis Nunn, Galea’s Olympic dream was born.

“The seed was planted when I was pretty young,” the Ph.D. graduate said. “As soon as I saw Glynis Nunn win a gold medal, I knew I wanted to be an Olympian.”

A lover of contact sport, Judo was the path she chose to pursue her Olympic dream.

“I started Judo when I was 11 and was always a very tenacious and driven person, which I channeled into my fighting,” she said.

“I was never the most technically competent fighter, I wasn’t exceptional by any means, but I had a lot of tenacity and that was what got me to the Olympic Games.”

After taking a hiatus when she was 16 due to a knee reconstruction, at 21, Galea received a call up from an old coach telling her that if she wanted to try and make the Australian Olympic Team for Atlanta 1996, she had a good chance.

She jumped at the opportunity and got straight back into training even though she was still carrying a torn anterior cruciate ligament in one knee and a torn meniscus in the other.

Galea chose to forego the surgeries, fearing she would not make the recovery in time for the Games.

She made the Australian Olympic Team for Atlanta 1996, fighting in the -72kg category.

She competed through her injuries and progressed to the second round before being eliminated.

At the time, it was a tough blow for Galea, but the worst of Atlanta 1996 was yet to come.

On July 27, 1996, a terrorist bombed four locations in Centennial Olympic Park, where Galea was gathered with other Olympians.
Two people were killed, and 111 others were injured during the attack.

“We’d just said goodbye to our Canadian training partners who had met us at the AT&T Centre, then the bomb went off,” she explained.

“It was the same year as the Port Arthur massacre, so I honestly thought that there was someone running around with a machine gun, it was really scary.

“There were a few of us there from the Judo team, and one of my teammates, Tina, and I crawled along the floor to the toilets. It was like something out of a movie.

“The American security guard ran out of the toilets, still doing up his pants saying, ‘Are you ladies alright?’.

“There was glass shattered everywhere,” she continued.

“The security guards tried to get us to run past the glass to get onto a bus that was waiting to take us to safety, but I told them I wasn’t doing that fearing a shooter on the run, so they lifted me up and carried me onto the bus which sped off back to the Olympic Village.

“When we arrived the security system wasn’t working and the boxers were in the communication room began to man the phone lines which were going crazy, then we woke up the Deputy Chef de Mission, to explain what had happened.

“It was terrible and took a bit of time to recover from.”

The tough Judoka returned to Sydney and got back into her training, hoping to make the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

Unfortunately, she missed out on selection after being beaten by Catherine Arlove and in 2001, called time on her Judo career.

Natalie Galea by Harry Hayes for the AOC
Natalie Galea by Harry Hayes for the AOC

“I was devastated not to make Sydney 2000,” Galea said. “But after that, my knees and my specialist told me that it was time to move on.”

Although she gave up one fight, she began another.

“I’d already completed an arts degree in politics and Indonesian language and decided to do a construction degree,” she said.

“I was 25 at the time and had a lot of debt from playing my sport and the injuries involved.

“I figured there was good money in construction, so initially, I pursued it for all the wrong reasons.

“It took me seven years to complete the course, as I also worked in the construction industry, and did so for 15 years,” she explained.

Galea travelled the world as a construction project manager, working on construction sites in Australia, the Middle East and North Africa but became disheartened with the lack of visibility and opportunity for progression, for women in the industry.

“When I was working and living in Dubai, I was reflecting to my hairdresser about how much I was struggling in my career as a woman,” Galea said.

“I was one of very few women in the meetings and it was hard being the only person in the room who looked like me.

“I felt like I was working just as hard, but not getting anywhere and there was a lot of sexism and aggression in the industry which was tricky to navigate.

“I realised I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

As fate would have it, Galea’s hairdresser had a niece who was a feminist academic at the University of Sydney.

This woman, UNSW’s Scientia Professor, Louise Chappell, would go on to become Galea’s supervisor, as she undertook a PhD studying gender equality in construction and received an Australian Research Council Industry Linkage Grant to do so.

Her studies explored the reasons why, despite gender equality policies being in place, women’s positions in the industry were tracking backward.

“Separate from this research, my Ph.D. examined what perpetuates male dominance and powerfulness in the construction sector,” she said.

“One of the things I observed in my interviews with senior male leaders after tracing how career progression occurred for them, was that whilst everybody worked exceedingly hard in construction, there was a pattern of men having strategic alliances or being sponsored by a senior man, or in some cases, multiple senior men.

“Then they were picked in that senior man’s team and moved with him from project to project or taken from company to company.
“They were given a spotlight and were guided in terms of what the informal rules around career progression were.

“They were told what the critical trades to work on were, given a leg up to pursue opportunities and develop skills that were revered and respected in the sector, while also being given the platform to demonstrate these skills,” Galea continued.

“When I interviewed women of senior roles in the construction sector, they could also pinpoint critical times in their careers, when they had been sponsored by a senior man.

“They said these moments stepped them into a slipstream of legitimacy where their capabilities and capacities weren’t second-guessed like they often are in male-dominated sectors.”

Natalie Galea by Harry Hayes for the AOC
Natalie Galea by Harry Hayes for the AOC

Her findings led to her co-founding a sponsorship program for women called Cultivate Sponsorship, where a woman is paired with a senior leader, who is often male, who nurtures and builds that woman’s profile within the organisation, while raising awareness of gender equality within senior and often male-led ranks.

Galea’s current academic research focus is examining the intervention of a five-day working week as opposed to six and sometimes seven in construction and the impact that long hours have on the wellbeing of both construction workers and their families.

“The cost of six-to-seven day working hours on people is enormous,” Galea explained.

“The construction industry has the second-highest suicide rates of any industry.

“In Australia, a construction worker takes their own life every second day, and a young construction worker is six times more likely to kill themselves than die from a workplace accident,” she continued.

“As a result, the things that are impacting the wellbeing of male workers, is having the same effect of pushing women out of the sector, these include long work hours, rigid project delivery practices and the expectation of total availability from workers.”

NSW Health Infrastructure and construction company, Roberts Co, engaged Galea to study the impact of working hours on both construction workers and their next of kin.

“Construction has been given significant government funding in recent years, yet, it’s the most male-dominated sector and one of the things that we’re seeing, is that construction work, impacts not just the workers in construction, but also their intimate partners particularly those with children,” she said.

“When we interview partners of construction workers, who are most often women, they told us that the construction work itself impacts their economic security.

“They’re unable to go for a promotion, as it might require them to take on more responsibility and work hours. They can’t take on extra working hours, because someone has to be the parent, someone has to be responsible to pick a child up from school or daycare. Construction workers do not have that flexibility,” Galea continued.

“That was the interesting thing about our research, we found that to increase the number of women, you actually have to challenge and change the working conditions of men.”

Galea has also been able to channel her passion for equality into her first love, sport, and protecting and safeguarding athletes from abuse.

“I received funding from the University of New South Wales and I’m working with Yale University and the University of Bath focusing on safeguarding elite sports and understanding athlete’s knowledge of their human rights, and experiences of athlete abuse,” Galea explained.

“We’re in the process of completing an international survey, and the findings are really interesting in terms of an athlete’s understanding of their human rights.

“I would say that athletes often interpret their human rights to be around the fairness of sports, so whether there’s an unfair advantage from doping, or if there’s a fair and equitable selection system,” she continued.

“We have found that athletes may not recognise their right to freedom of expression, their rights to commercialise their own image or their right to compete in sport, free from discrimination and violence.

“In terms of athlete abuse, there’s a real nuance to the thresholds of what athletes see as abuse.

“For us stamp out abuse, it’s really important to understand it, both from an athlete’s perspective, but also within sporting institutions and amongst athlete entourage.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in this area and I think there’s a real lack of concrete action, enforcement and sanctioning,” she said.

Natalie Galea by Harry Hayes for the AOC
Natalie Galea by Harry Hayes for the AOC

“Toolkits and education seminars merely operate to guide institutional behaviour, but there needs to be increased leadership, like we’ve seen with doping, and there really needs to be an ownership by institutions of the prevalence of athlete abuse incurred while playing sport, and that can be anything from mental through to sexual abuse.

“Obviously, like many, I was interested in understanding and breaking down what was happening to the US Olympic gymnasts, but subsequently, now I’m in this space, I see the prevalence of abuse, and what was going on for the US gymnasts, is not a one-off case,” Galea continued.

“We’ve recently had the Afghan woman’s football team airlifted out of their country because the president of Afghanistan football was sexually abusing and raping them. He was threatening them at gunpoint and it was the same for the women’s football team in Haiti.

“Then there is this other institutional athlete abuse, where there’s been a real silence around it.

“I know from my survey work, that in sport, we overlook abuse and see it as part of a means to an end,” she continued.

“There is a big power differential in sport. Athletes are at the bottom of institutional sporting power, despite athletes being the product, the main event and the worker delivering the event.

“I think readjusting this power dynamic is critically important to giving athletes a greater say in their rights and representation, particularly within the Olympic movement.

“Instead of focusing on measuring the prevalence of athlete abuse, which has been documented extensively, our research team wanted to understand whether athletes even understand their human rights, especially around pressure and violence.

“I would say that gender is a factor with differences in reporting from male and female athletes, along with the context of what part of the world athletes are from and the type of sport they play.

“I often think that as Australians and Australian athletes, we think that human rights are something that somebody else has been denied, someone in a developing country, but even within Australia there are real complexities around human rights, particularly discrimination and recognition of our Indigenous First Nations people.”

Galea took her learnings and published them in a magazine called the Human Rights Defender.

Natalie Galea by Harry Hayes for the AOC
Natalie Galea by Harry Hayes for the AOC

“The other part of my work this year has been as Co-Editor on the Human Rights Defender magazine, because currently there is much discussion focused on the different facets around athlete’s human rights within the global context,” she said.

“That was an incredible opportunity to speak to and look at all the different areas in which the human rights of athletes are challenged within the current Olympic movement.

“From my perspective, it really was to raise awareness and have a discussion around these issues, because it’s not just about Rule 50 or Rule 40 or the right to freedom of speech or your commercial image, there are many other human rights issues at play.

“I think it’s very hard for athletes who are competing, given the power differential between sporting institutions and competition players and also just the mindset of competing athletes because they are rightly so, focused on the competition,” she continued.

“But I think it’s really important for athletes and athlete alumni to be cognizant and think deeply about how athletes’ human rights are challenged within the current Olympic movement, and also sports generally. Take for example, the treatment of Caster Semenya and other intersex athletes.

“In the magazine, we didn’t shy away from these issues. We looked at how the Olympic movement could adopt a human rights approach and what that might look like, in particular, respecting international human rights.

“We also looked at the right to play safe sport, sexual abuse and the importance of concrete mechanisms and channels for remedy redress for athletes, because quite frankly, currently, the Court of Arbitration for Sport does not have the human rights expertise to address these issues.

“It is based on a commercial arbitration system, so it’s not set up for that,” Galea said.

“We also looked at the politicization of the Olympic Games by host cities and the different ways athletes might individually approach things like giving back and also just creating a better world.”

Galea went on to explain just how important it is for Olympians to use their platforms for good, using the example of the imprisonment of Hakeem al-Araibi as an example of their collective power.

“I hadn’t had much to do in the human rights space previously, and never considered myself an activist, but it was the plight of Hakeem al-Araibi that pulled me in,” she said.

“Also, knowing that he was one of many. Hakeem al-Araibi is not an isolated case and there are still around 120 athletes in prison in Bahrain, who have been there since 2012, so it’s been a learning experience for me, to be an advocate to speak up.

“I think it was amazing that when asked, Olympians stood up and signed a letter to Scott Morrison, to create action and save Hakeem al-Araibi.

“That was incredible because, despite the fact we had all these other professional sports associations, it was the Olympians who outnumbered all of them and spoke up.

“We have a profile and we’ve been incredibly privileged as athletes to be able to pursue a dream, and we’ve proven that we can use our profile and our amazing international networks for good.”

Originally published for

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