Serena Williams at Roland Garros (Credit: Yann Caradec)

This Girl Can, Right?

In Columnists, Opinion, Sports by Niamh Bridson HubbardLeave a Comment

In 2017, after a tennis tournament in Italy conducted their draw using female models removing clothes, what is the state of gender equality in sports?

Gender equality in sports has always been a contested issue. The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, said, in 1896, “no matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.” Moreover, he opined that women’s sport was an “unaesthetic sight,” and that female competition at the Games would be “impractical, uninteresting and improper.” It took until London 2012 for women to be included in all events in the program and for all participating countries to field at least one female athlete. Similarly, women were considered “too fragile” to compete in long distance running events; the female form was deemed physically incapable of coping with the demands of the longer events. In 1967, Katherine Switzer made history by registering for the Boston Marathon under a pseudonym and then running through officials’ attempts to drag her off the course to the finish. Only five years later would women be able to enter the Boston Marathon.

It is right to acknowledge that the physiological differences between men and women result in differing levels of performance. Particularly in individual, record-based, sports like running or swimming, male performances are going to be faster. Usain Bolt’s 9.58s 100m World Record will likely never be challenged by a woman, perhaps not even by a man. Nevertheless, such differences do not constitute a rationale for limiting participation. More important than inter-gender competition is the within gender competition; level playing fields create exciting sporting contests. Even now, at a grassroots level, some sports are considered to be only for men, and this designation discourages a representative participation level. Significantly fewer girls are involved in contact sports such as rugby and basketball, creating a bias at a young age which follows through to the elite level. With fewer women playing particular sports, competition is diminished and the level of the game does not progress so rapidly.

Debates over rates of pay for sports people have received a great deal of media coverage. In a 2017 ranking of the 100 highest paid athletes, there was just one woman: Serena Williams. As Beatrice Frey, a Sport Partnership Manager and UN Women puts it: within the same country, performing the same discipline at the same level, a man can be a billionaire whilst a woman receives less than the minimum wage. In football, for instance, the discrepancy is incredible: in the same year that the England men’s captain, Wayne Rooney, took home £300,000 per week, his female counterpart, Steph Houghton, earned £1,200 per week. Prize money also remains a source of great debate. As recently as 1973, no sport awarded equal prize money to male and female competitors. A recent BBC Sport investigation found that 83% of sports have equalised prize money; Wimbledon took until 2007 to award its male and female competitors the same prize money. Even Wimbledon’s decision was met with some disquiet: the line that women spend less time on court owing to playing matches over the three sets, rather than five, was routinely trotted out as justification for different prize money for men and women.

Alex Morgan (in red) and Steph Houghton (in white) are two of women's football's highest paid stars. (Credit: Joshjdss)

Alex Morgan (in red) and Steph Houghton (in white) are two of women’s football’s highest paid stars. (Credit: Joshjdss)

The media’s coverage of men’s and women’s sport has also been a site of contestation. Women’s sport makes up just 7% of all coverage. This can be seen as negative in terms of failing to raise the public profile of women’s sport, but also suggests a perceived lack of return on the part of media companies. The four weeks of the Olympics and Paralympics do bring a more equal representation of sport along gender lines and the equality of the event is reflected the coverage; male and female achievements are recognised and celebrated equally. The commercial nature of the media is perhaps the biggest barrier to achieving a more equal coverage. With the largest audiences being drawn in by male football and rugby, broadcasting companies are going to invest more in providing detailed coverage of these sports.

It is easy to look on gender equality in sport pessimistically but, over recent years, real strides have been made towards increasing equality. Since the 1970s, there has been a massive shift in the perception of female sports. There are more opportunities, there is less discrimination. Across the board there is greater public appreciation for female athletic performance. Specifically, targeted campaigns such as Sport England’s “This Girl Can” are working effectively to increase the number of women involved in sport. The scheme looks to encourage women to engage in physical activity by sharing inspirational stories of both grassroots and international athletes in an attempt to help women “overcome the fear of judgement” that is restricting participation. Whilst the number of women participating in sport in Britain is still lower than men – 7.01 million to 8.73 million – the rate at which women are taking up sport is increasing more rapidly.

Yes, some beliefs about female participation in sport remain negative. For the most part, however, participation at a grassroots level, as well as performance at an elite level, is becoming equal across genders.

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