In our seventh Visible Women interview, where we profile women across all areas of their leadership journey, we meet Dr. Indigo Willing, an OAM* awardee based in Meanjin on the land of the Jagera and Turrbal Peoples in Australia. Indigo is a sociologist whose research focuses on gender equality in skateboarding — something that she only tried for the first time at age 41.
Five years later, Indigo continues to be an avid skateboarder, as well as an award-winning researcher and lecturer. She is also co-founder of We Skate QLD (formerly Girls Skate Brisbane) and Consent is Rad, an organisation that aims to educate about consent within the skateboarding subculture.
Her research combines insights from the humanities and social sciences, including the sociology of youth cultures and subcultures, multi-generational participation in lifestyle sports, studies of gender and violence prevention, and video and visual research.
Here, we discuss how Indigo has overcome gender stereotypes within the sport and how she hopes to inspire the next generation of female skaters, researchers and advocates.
Tell us more about yourself and how you blend skateboarding and research
I started skateboarding at 41 years old as a mum, having just completed my Ph.D. To my surprise, I've been able to both flourish as a skateboarder and also bring over my sociological training and dedication to equity, diversity and inclusion to skating.
My community and collaborative work involved starting one of the first women's, then gender-inclusive, skateboarding groups in Australia to creating an award-winning campaign around consent and sexual violence prevention in skating. The skaters I collaborate with are remarkable change-makers varying in age, skate skills, gender, sexuality and cultural backgrounds. I love that skating is a bridge across what makes us different and helps us see what values and goals we all can share.
Alongside the skating community, I have received an outpouring of support from non-skaters who appreciate the value of play and joy in our lives by simply doing something we love at any age. Women who are middle-aged, or even after their mid-30s, are often pushed aside in society. They are stereotyped as conservative, passive and not willing to take risks or inspire anyone in sports or subcultures to get involved. But that's something skateboarding allows me and others to shred.
Since starting on this path, I've had the opportunity to meet and learn with many great change-makers, including Indigenous, Black, Queer, women and non-binary skaters. I highlight their work in papers published in multiple peer-reviewed journals and also published a co-authored book called 'Skateboarding, Power and Change' (with Anthony Pappalardo), which delves into how cultural, social, and political change is facilitated through skateboarding.
As well as skating, I focus on Vietnamese adoptee and Asian diaspora communities and have received a Medal in the Order of Australia (OAM) for volunteer work as well as multiple fellowships, grants and awards for anti-racism projects. I returned the OAM* in 2021 in support of gender diversity and First Nations Peoples when the highest award was given to a prominent Australian in sport with non-inclusive views. It may not have changed the award going to them, but it allows me to talk about the importance of diversity in sport and nurturing cultures of care, recognition and respect.
What are the main challenges for women in skateboarding, and how can they be overcome?
When I started skateboarding, I noticed that racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, sexism, and colonialism are all issues in the sport and elsewhere. This includes everything from having to ignore comments about our bodies and how we look on social media to structural issues like the lack of opportunities to participate and have roles in the skate industry.
Key issues spanned things like equal pay in skate competitions to being represented in magazines, teams and sponsorships. The everyday language in skate media that used derogatory terms and imagery on skateboard graphics that sexually objectified women and even made jokes about rape and domestic violence was also often a sign that change was needed. Some were satirical. But satire is only good if it stands for something or has wit and meaning.
All that was happening was that men were 'punching down' (a term for making fun of people with less power) and reducing serious harms in society into lazily put-together items. Now, things are turning around. The companies are producing much cooler magazines and more creative products where more people are included. That's good for communities and businesses. It's a win-win.
As the sport shifted from its subcultural origins to becoming globalised and formalised through its inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, there was also a need to address these issues through research and advocacy. As a sociologist and community worker, I have been fortunate to research with national sports organisations and universities on policy development and initiatives to improve gender equity, diversity and inclusion.
At present, challenging gender stereotypes and barriers towards women and non-binary individuals in skateboarding is my absolute passion and one of my main areas of research expertise. I want to continue to push open boundaries and defy stereotypes.
What is your ultimate ambition, and how do you plan to get there?
My hope is to keep inspiring women to skate or do whatever it is they have always dreamed of doing in a positive and creative environment that pushes out stereotypes and builds up confidence, care and community.
It has not always been easy for me to feel like I belong or to see where I might fit in this world. I am a lifelong misfit in many ways, but that's also my strength. I have had to be open-minded and have an open heart to survive as well. I have seen a lot of openness and a lot of unnecessary ignorance and gatekeeping from very early on in my life, from leaving my country of birth as a Vietnamese war orphan to being raised in another country with a new family from a different race and ethnicity.
I think the kindness of strangers, as well as the ignorance of others who felt they could judge a book by its cover and use stereotypes without even knowing my upbringing, is probably at the heart of what drives all my work. It is a lifelong quest to encourage us all to always understand one another rather than judge each other and to share things as if we were all family while not forgetting the importance of our ancestors and where we came from as much as where we are now and may be going.
As a researcher, I hope to keep using what C W Mills called a 'sociological imagination', which involves looking at the struggles people face not as private troubles but as public issues, and follow the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, remembering people can face multiple barriers. For instance, if someone is excluded, rather than blaming individuals and labelling them as 'victims' and 'oppressors', we need to be more nuanced and think about what role society plays and that changes need to be multi-layered to achieve equity and balance.
This is not to say that individual choices and thinking do not matter. In a co-authored paper that I worked on once led by Dr Stephanie Plage on encounters with difference, we emphasised the value of 'sharing' over 'giving'. The former involves being mindful and seeing things through a collective and collaborative lens, while the latter still allows people to be possessive and often patronising or have a saviour mentality.
With a sharing mindset, we work hard to share what we can to nourish, care for and uplift as many people with us as we possibly can. My ultimate ambition is to try to keep remembering and encouraging us all to share rather than give what we have to people with less power in society.
What is the one thing you would like to see change that will move us towards gender equity?
In the world of skateboarding, which was historically male-dominated, bringing diverse individuals together has been transformative. But a lot of change-making efforts have been needed along the way, which are interesting both inside and outside of what is both a subculture but also now a high-performing Olympic sport.
Previously, there existed a misguided attitude that girls were inferior. That 'girls can't skate'. Now, this is turning around rapidly, and the next stage is to ensure no one of any gender ever feels they don't have a place doing what they love.
I also want to make sure that no one feels they can't change the behaviours that create barriers for others. The future relies on us all building connections rather than cancelling out each other in haste. We all have the ability to grow together, and it is through community over cliques and principles over popularity that we will progress.
What one piece of advice would you give women who want to follow in your footsteps?
There have been so many wonderful people who have shared wisdom and advice with me that I am not sure it is easy to distil things into just one takeaway! So let me just answer with what I hope is an enriching, autonomous and re-assuring activity for all.
Let's think of our lives as a book being written. When we turn things around and conceive our daily lives and experiences as pages of a chapter in a book still being written, we know we have time to grow, prosper and shine, as well as change the narrative when it takes some dips and detours too. We can be honest about how our lives are as much about trial and error as the milestones and magic we might find and create along the way. Most importantly, we have the gift of reflection as we head forward into new pages.
More about Indigo
My passion for learning more about people and society and what helps us be united, from adoption to skateboarding studies, has led me to travel the world. I'm a former Rockefeller Fellow, UMASS, Boston, recipient of a Yale University SEAS conference travel grant, and Australian Academy of the Humanities Travelling Fellow scholarship recipient to Sweden, for instance. My work is currently supported at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research at Griffith University. In 2024, I'll begin a James Social Science Fellowship at the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC) at The University of Sydney, focussing on skateboarding and society. I will also join the Hunt-Sime Institute of Sexuality Studies (HISS) faculty there in 2024.