In the rising world of women’s football, Jess Burger shares her story from her ground-level beginnings of volunteering her efforts, to ascending into the role of the General Manager of Women’s Football at the Collingwood Football Club. Making an incredible mark thus far in her career, Jess embodies the true nature of a leader within the industry. Her story is proof of the power of connection, seizing every opportunity, and leading with humility.

As the General Manager of Women’s Football, Jess’ role is exhilarating and fulfilling, but the road to working alongside the most influential people in Collingwood’s AFLW program has been a journey nine years in the making. During Jess’ Bachelor of Exercise Sport Science and Business (Sports Management) studies at Deakin University, she undertook a business placement in the Melbourne City Football Club’s commercial team and was later accepted as an exchange student to the esteemed Oxford Brookes University in England, in which she stayed for the remainder of her fourth year.

When Jess came back to Melbourne, she still had one internship credit left to complete in her final year, causing her to, “panic search late one night to find an opportunity and I ended up seeing that Collingwood had a performance analytics internship available.” The Club was eager to recruit more females to its football department as “the stereotypically roles such as dietitians and physiotherapists were largely filled by females.” Jess undertook the three-month internship and later offered to continue in a voluntary position for the remainder of the year. “I felt I was in the right time and place because in 2017 the AFL women’s team came in, which required an additional resource.”

Jess was elevated to a full-time position as an analysist for the Club’s AFL men’s program and became a catalyst within the AFLW program. She said, “it was such a skeleton program and because of that, I had to become a generalist. I spent time with our sport scientists, property managers, operations team and I tried to absorb everything I could. That first year was such a steep learning curb but also exciting.” From there, the men’s roles became more specific regarding their analytics team and in 2018 the Club’s AFLW Operations and List Manager went on leave before the Sign and Trade Period, creating an opportunity for Jess. “Being the AFLW opposition coach, had the niche knowledge of the players across the league. Despite the gap in negotiation and salary cap experience, I was able to provide information and influence the sign and trade period alongside the Men’s Football managers at the Club. After that two-week period, my role extended to becoming the list manager, while also continuing as an analyst.”  

In 2020, the Hub was created, resulting in Jess traveling to Sydney for what she thought was a three-day trip, that turned into a 110-day stint. “There was a travel party of 72 with only three females, but it was such a special period and I feel fortunate to have been a part of that because I was able to form strong relationships which I still have today.” After finally arriving back home, the General Manager of the Club’s women’s programs afforded Jess opportunities to gain exposure to some key management and operational experiences due to the limitations in resources. However, following the departure of the General Manager of the Club’s Women’s programs, Jess shared, “it became obvious that there needed to be two heads managing those individual programs. Hayden Skipworth, who has been a strong mentor to me, encouraged me to advocate for myself and put my hand up for the job. And that’s exactly what I did.”

Having now been promoted to the General Manager of Women’s Football this year, Jess describes herself as being an accumulator of all hats. She said, “it’s a fairly exciting job because there’s a lot going on and I love it because I’ve got so many relationships that I can call for touch points and interact with.” Now being appointed onto the executive team, “it allows me to create deeper connection across the Club, represent the AFLW program and give it the space and light within the Club that it deserves.”

Amidst her series of promotions, a forefront question was what a typical day looked like for Jess. She generously laughed sharing, “a typical day doesn’t look like a typical day. Sometimes it can look like sitting in back-to-back meetings all day or rolling balls and flinging pool noodles at players out on the field.” Working in both the men’s and women’s programs, when asked what she has learnt from the two leagues she shares, “you never stop learning, and I don’t believe anyone has mastered everything. I’ve learnt that you can’t sit still, or the other 17 teams are going to surpass you, especially with AFLW being in its infancy within the sporting landscape. What you think you’re rolling out one year is great, but you need to be five years ahead.”

Another enticing question was if there were any significant moments that shaped her career journey. After taking a moment, Jess responded: “I don’t think I can pin-point any moments because I think it was the people around me that impacted me the most. Having strong mentors and people who have paved the way and advocated for me have been more pivotal than any single moment.” When asked if she could pin-point any career milestones, two came to mind instantly, “Being a part of the first women’s game was a special moment. When I hear players talk about it, we share the exact same vibrancy about it. I have vivid memories of what I could see, touch, hear and feel from that day. I don’t have too many core memories being that strong. I also want to say the men’s 2018 Grand Final loss against the West Coast Eagles. I felt very fortunate to be able to get to a Grand Final, but to understand the heartbreak made 2023 even more special. There was a genuine and intangible feeling about it because it’s like we knew something special was happening without being able to tell why or what that feeling was. It was just different.”

Having worked in the Club’s men’s program from the beginning of her career, Jess explained whilst she is fortunate for the support and enormously positive experiences she has had, this unfortunately isn’t the case for all. “It’s not abnormal for me to be the only female in the room, which doesn’t faze me, but early on it would frustrate me when people singled out the differences.” She reflects on how in her early years at the Club she accepted that some of her male colleagues “didn’t know what they didn’t know” despite having good intentions. However, she is now more conscious to be a leader in educating and promoting an inclusive environment. “I guess that’s the hard part because there are differences between males and females, but we need to be respectful and celebrate what they are.” When asked why she thinks there is still a significant underrepresentation of women in football, Jess believes its due to the historical gap. “The fact that women haven’t historically been in the elite football environment and are now expected to be experts in the field, it’s tough. And because we don’t have women in the environment to the level they need to be, we don’t have the opportunity to close that information gap. I’ve been fortunate to be a sponge for the past nine years, but it doesn’t come naturally to do that.”

From this, she shared the importance of advocacy and lived experience and what it means to her. “It means supporting those around me. I think women can be their own worst enemy sometimes. It’s easy to say to a footballer, ‘they can’t mark’ or ‘they can’t be a good goal kicker’, so I think we need to shift that and look at what we can do.”

When asked if she could share an experience where she felt empowered, Jess said an afternoon in the AFL pilot development program. “The AFL invited five females to do a course relating to ‘Women in Football’. While we were doing the work, the five of us started talking about larger industry issues. We ended up working through our lunch break on a project and pitching the concept to Laura Kane and the idea was implemented. By us joining forces and being collaborative, we felt empowered because not only did we collaborate the innovate together, but our idea got the endorsement from the AFL.”

To finish the heartfelt chat, Jess shared how she would like to make impact in the industry. “I want to continue to get that balance by growing and impacting our high-performance environment and push the league and the industry to support the women to get there as well. I want to be able to say that the Collingwood Football Club have been a leader and driver in what elite women football looks like. We are trying to make up 150 years of the industry, but we can look at as a lesson from the past to do things better. If we didn’t, we would be fools.”

The Club’s Women in Black and White Group will continue to profile the women and non-binary people of the Club each month in 2024.