Women have been subject to degradation, misrepresentation, discrimination and injustices of every other kind throughout history. While we love to believe we currently live in a world of equality, sadly the truth is that we are very far off. Obviously, conditions have improved in the last century, in so far as women won the right to vote, or to keep their own jobs after marriage: rights that should never have been taken away from them. But sexism is still very much prevalent in our society, particularly in the global sports community. A new report conducted by Women in Sport has revealed that 40% of women experience gender discrimination in the sport industry. For each step forward in one arena, there is another where the rules are just as archaic as ever. One of the most alarming aspects, for myself at least, is that we cannot put these incidences of stereotyping and discrimination down to the “Old Earth” ways of thinking. These mistakes are being made by our generation as well. We are failing to foster a safe space for everyone to compete and perform. “Go away and have a baby” was what one top cyclist, aged only 25, was allegedly told by her coach. “Lady players should get down on their knees and thank God Federer and Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport,” said by a CEO of a top-level tennis tournament. “Our Lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today,” was tweeted regarding the English women’s third-place finish at the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
Serena Williams’ outburst against a tennis umpire last month brought attention back the question of sexism in sport, particularly in tennis, where it is clear there are still some gender double standards. The point has been made repeatedly about the double standard; that Serena was punished for calling the umpire a thief, yet male tennis players have openly admitted to shouting worse abuse at umpires and getting off scot-free. There are numerous cases which reflect this problem in tennis and sport, that there seems to be a need for this male-dominated control of the women. Williams was criticised by the French Open organisers for wearing a form-fitting catsuit in last year’s tournament, her first appearance since the birth of her child. Williams took the high road following the decision and received praise for her attitude after the French Open decided to ban this type of attire and bring in a dress code. This situation is similar to when Alize Cornet was punished for momentarily removing her top to adjust it. But once again we’ve seen time and time again that the male players do this, and nothing is said! Nadal and Djokovic regularly remove their shirts, and nobody bats an eye, it is misogyny of the highest level. Tennis is clearly in need of a regulatory reform and a serious review of how hospitable it is for women.
Soccer poses another issue: FIFA says football is the most popular sport among women, with some 30 million playing it worldwide. Yet, only 23% of FIFA member countries have staff dedicated to women’s football and the gender pay gap is more entrenched in football than in politics, business, medicine and space exploration. The fact that commercial revenues are much lower for women’s games is not the sole issue. Even for national teams, where it is up to the state to decide how to remunerate the players, women earn less than men. 35% of national team players don’t receive any compensation for representing their country, according to a recent survey by World’s Players Union FIFPro. Many countries, such as Italy, do not recognise women footballers as professionals. A great majority of women need to have a second job in order to sustain their professional football careers. Another issue that strikes a chord with me has been the depiction of women in crowds at the World Cup over the summer. During the last few big tournaments, more and more of the cameramen have been cutting to images of beautiful women in the crowd, drawing cheers from the crowd. This summer’s tournament was one of the worst for this, and while it might be harmless for some, it brings up another argument. An argument that I believe Grainne Kelly of the Irish Independent nails on the head: “Look at the hypocrisy of it. It’s perfectly fine for drunken, sun-burnt bloated and messy male fans to be filmed. Shots of them wailing, dancing, laughing or indeed red-faced with anger and foaming at the mouth abound. Ask yourself though, how many shots of women behaving in the same way populate the footage? Why is it okay for men to be messy and to behave with reckless abandon in a sloppy way, but not the female fans? Where are the messy ladies shouting and roaring? Or, more importantly, where are the lingering shots of the “hot” male fans in the crowd?”
Another comparison that should be made is with regards to broadcasting and exposure of women’s teams in sports such as rugby, soccer, golf, and American football. History tells us that male sports receive a large majority of the coverage across all media streams. In fact, up until a few years ago, up to 95% of coverage was exclusively on men’s teams. In 1999, women’s sports coverage reached an all-time high when it was recorded at 8.7%. It maintained its higher percentages until it reached an all-time low in 2009, decreasing to 1.6 percent. In the last couple of years, women’s coverage has begun to increase. A review in France reported that coverage grew from 7% in 2012 to between 16-20% in 2016.
Although the necessary steps are beginning to be taken to promote equality between the genders in broadcasting, there are also issues with the manner in which women’s sport is represented too. One of the most common critiques of female representation in sport is that it is too sexualised, especially compared to how men’s sport is marketed. Using the Rio Olympics in 2016 as a case study, Andy Billings, a sports professor at the University of Alabama identified that by the halfway stage of the games, 60% of the coverage was on women. However, importantly, he acknowledged that the majority of this coverage was on sports that sexualized women or where the women were in swimsuits and tight clothing. For example, the US women’s gymnastics team received 3 hours more coverage than the men’s team. Of course, part of the explanation could have been that the women’s team were heavily tipped to win the event, as opposed to the men’s team who weren’t. Another example is the rise in popularity of beach volleyball. During the Olympics, women’s beach volleyball received 2 hours and 45 minutes of coverage on NBC, while the men’s event warranted just 35 seconds of screen time. The sad truth is that these women’s talents are being undermined and some of the coverage of these events is down to the perception that women are still being judged more on their appearance rather than their abilities. Scholarly studies also show that when women athletes were given the option to pick a photo of a picture that would increase respect for their sport, they picked an on-the-court competency picture. However, when women athletes were told to pick a picture that would increase interest in their sport, 47% picked a picture that sexualized the women athlete; a reality that male sports stars would never have to face.
There’s no point denying it; sex sells. But does the agenda of franchises and authoritative boards to sell and market their sport have to undermine those devoted to playing and promoting the sport to those around them? One of the worst examples of this is the female version of the NFL in America. Formed in 2009, the Legends Football League is a women’s tackle American Football League. The games are played in the spring and summer in professional men’s arenas and stadiums including those of the NFL. It should be a huge win for professional female sport that this is the first time women have been able to play the sport competitively on a national level and, given that American football caters for players of all shapes and sizes, it should promote positive body image for young children watching. But the League has suffered from some shocking administrative decisions. Up until 2013, the players were made to wear clothes that resembled lingerie, in fact the league was originally named the Lingerie Football League. It’s slogan supported this sexualization and targeting towards a male audience: True Fantasy Football. The name doesn’t suggest the league should be about the sport and the incredible achievements of these women, just about what they look like while doing it. Even the team names somehow manage to do nothing but pander to the stereotype of female athletes as objects of male sexual gratification; names like Chicago Bliss, Las Vegas Sin and LA Temptation. If the New England Patriots changed their name to the New England Charm, they wouldn’t be taken seriously. In 2013, the league finally adopted measures to steer the sport in a positive and more appropriate direction; the name was changed, the uniforms were updated to offer more padding and resemble the men’s uniforms a tad more (they still look like glorified lingerie), and the slogan was changed to ‘Women of the Gridiron’.
You may agree with me or you may bemoan that I’m taking it too seriously and missing the fun, but the fact remains that the gap between the way male and female athletes are treated is still wide open. Yes there have been improvements and yes, the opportunities have probably never been so open for women in sport, but I refuse to accept the claims by federations like FIFA that they promote equality and are investing heavily in women’s opportunities and repeatedly pats itself on the back for doing almost next to nothing to remove objectify from the organisation. We’re headed in the right direction for sure, but until we have one completely discrimination free product that is identical across the board, from pay and conditions all the way down to uniforms and regulations, the women will always be playing catch up. Ask yourself, how many times do we see the male athletes complaining of sexism and objectivity, only for it to be quashed by women in charge? Never.