By Jennifer Witham
PETA Searle and Nicole Graves know all about the challenges associated with being a woman and working in football.
But they believe the number of women now associated with the game have helped break down gender-based barriers and have contributed to their respective coaching careers.
Both are former players, and are now the two highest qualified female coaches in the country, having reached level three accreditation.
Searle is the first woman to hold a coaching role in the VFL - she is the defence assistant to Port Melbourne coach Gary Ayres - and Graves volunteers as an assistant coach of amateur side Mt Lawley in Western Australia.
Searle, who is a school teacher, has played football for more than 15 years and coached the Darebin Falcons to five successive premierships in the VWFL.
Last year, she was an assistant coach at the Western Jets in the TAC Cup.
She believes the avenue for women to be considered for AFL coaching roles is wide open, given how she and Graves have progressed through the ranks.
"I've done a little bit of work with AFL clubs [Geelong and Melbourne] this year, and being in those situations, you realise a footy club is a footy club, and you talk about the same things and deal with the same issues," Searle told AFL.com.au this week, ahead of the AFL's Women's Round.
"I certainly think in the development area there could be an opportunity and a place there.
"The support people want to give you - they want to see you grow from a VFL and TAC [Cup] perspective, and now from the AFL perspective ... people really want to develop you.
"It's really refreshing."
Searle and Graves know each other well, despite holding posts on opposite sides of the country.
They lived together in the Melbourne suburb of Blackburn about 15 years ago, and played together for Parkside.
Graves acknowledged it hadn't always been easy as they forged their way through the game but believed serious ground had been made.
"We've worked pretty hard for some of our firsts, for a long time. We've been involved in the game for a long time," she said.
"People think women's footy and men's footy are going to be these two different things but they're just not.
"We're really lucky there's such a legitimacy of women in the game now, we're able to be asked into these coaching roles and not seek them out.
"It seems the barriers have been broken down and we're able to take on these positions."
The women will coach opposing sides made up from the Women's High Performance Academy in an exhibition match at Visy Park on Saturday at 10am.
The 50 participants of the academy - who are coaches, players, an umpire and managers - met Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley on Tuesday at the Pies' recovery session during their seven-day camp.
"It's fantastic. One of the great things about AFL is how inclusive it is; racial, religious and gender," Buckley said.
"Women's week is a fantastic thing to celebrate.
"I don't think we should wait until this week. It happens under the surface often.
"We've got some great women at Collingwood that are the glue and make things tick, and it's great to have a standalone round to celebrate that."