Margaret Aka is among the pioneers of women’s football in Papua New Guinea.
As a player she was one of the first to play “semi-professionally” outside of her native Papua New Guinea and now as a coach, she continues to break barriers as the first female recipient of an OFC B Licence and the first to coach a men’s team in the National Soccer League.
But Aka never set out to break down barriers.
Her love of football has taken her along this path and, while she’s received knock-backs along the way, said it’s her passion for the beautiful game which has kept her going.
“I love the game and I thought playing was the best part because you get to share emotions with other people, especially spectators and supporters through winning or losing.
“That said, despite the many challenges I’ve faced over the years I have come to see myself as an agent of change,” Aka said.
Having made the transition into coaching Aka is very much focused on how she can contribute to shaping the future of Papua New Guinea football, and in particular, the women’s game.
“I would like to help kids and young people realise their full potential whether it be football or for social and personal development. I have always had the belief that kids and young people are the future, helping them now will change the future.”
Aka’s playing and early coaching careers were male-dominated experiences.
“When I was playing back then, I was coached by male coaches as football was always male-dominated. Every team was always coached by males.
“I never saw a female coach. If females were involved, they were either players or team managers, but not as coaches.
“Since taking up coaching in 2013 I have witnessed more women attending coaching courses and coaching at club and regional levels. It is amazing to see fellow women thriving in football.”
While there has been a sea change, Aka said starting out was hard.
“It was initially challenging to be a woman coach in a male-dominated sport and society and I have mixed thoughts of success or failure. However, the fear of failure keeps me working hard all the time.
“Attending the B Licence was an intimidating experience. I was in a room full of men and every time I raised my hand to ask a question, there was always mumbling from male participants. I guess some were thinking that by asking, it meant I didn’t know, and they are entitled to their opinions. But asking questions is one way of learning, and getting that assurance from facilitators was important for my learning and confirmation of my ideas and opinions.”
Another negative experience Aka recalled was when attending a C Licence coaching course in Port Moresby where she was asked to present a training session.
“Whilst I was setting up a male colleague jumped in and cut me off. I didn’t present that day,” she said.
“These two incidents were turning points for me. They encouraged me to keep working hard to be where I am today, now earning more respect from male colleagues and the general public.”
Personal experience has played a large part in helping Aka develop the kind of thick-skin currently required by Pacific women chasing their football dream.
“I do receive barbs here and there and I cannot control that. But what I can control is being a solution rather than being a problem. Negative feedback is another method of self-assessment and analysis.
“I do appreciate them as challenges and a motivating factor to improve and become bigger, better and stronger in what I do.
“The fear of failure keeps me working hard all the time. Having values helps me overcome many challenges. Being respectful and honest, valuing other people and recognising their needs also makes it easy to work with them.
“I personally believe that every human being is as important as anyone. I believe in fairness and equality, regardless of one’s status. I live by these principles and it does help a lot in translating what I do in coaching.
“People can have their own opinions, but the biggest challenge for me personally is to contribute meaningfully, to influence change, and I am content with that.”
It can be said that some women go into coaching to change the experience they had, to offer a different approach to young women and girls which wasn’t available to them.
Aka is one of those women. But she has also found herself wanting to do more, and to achieve more, which is how she came to be the first female coach of a PNG National Soccer League team.
“I am more than happy doing what I love doing. Coaching this team was about helping these young men have an opportunity in football and helping them realise their full potential. Earning their trust and respect, their confidence in what I do, helps develop a good working relationship and I am always happy to contribute in a little way to influence change.”
Aka’s advice for women coming into football, no matter the role, is to be yourself.
“I’d like to see more girls and women involved in football activities and have equal opportunities to boys and men.
“It all depends how you value yourself in pursing the dreams you have. Never pretend to be what you are not.”