The Gender Division in Sport: Hurdles to Equality

The Gender Division in Sport: Hurdles to Equality

It is hard to dispute the power of sport, which can influence the lives of so many, as a tool for good. However, there remains a constant battle for gender equality in the industry. Women seek to destroy the barriers that prevent them from being active and allow those who are active to be treated with the levels of respect and admiration that they wholeheartedly deserve.

 In a range of sporting domains, the financial gulf between male and female sports is vast, with this most evident in football. However, the lack of economic backing within women’s football itself has somewhat brought into repute the credibility of the sport and further highlighted the longstanding disparities between the men’s and women’s games, with the direction of women’s football now somewhat uncertain as a new season commences. The recent formation of a women’s team at Manchester United - undoubtedly one of the largest franchises in global sport - is surely a step in the right direction in ensuring the status of women’s football continues to increase and young female athletes have positive role models to emulate. However, this highlights the growing impact of financial firepower in the women’s game. It could be argued that it is greatly unfair for a team such as Manchester United, with no history or influence in the struggles that women’s football has faced in gaining parity with the men’s game, to outmuscle their counterparts financially, and thus languish them to lower divisions.

 In stark contrast to the vast sums of money clubs such as Manchester United and Manchester City have pumped into their women’s teams in recent times, Yorkshire side Doncaster Rovers Belles – the holders of 6 FA Cups in a 49-year history which contributed greatly to establishing women’s football as we know it -  were unable to meet the financial demands of a semi-professional structure and were relegated to the third tier, despite having won the second tier title just three months prior. This begs the question as to whether the FA’s restructuring of the female game - despite all its best intentions – only serves to highlight the deep-rooted inequalities between the male and female game. Implying that the hard work and determination of female players to be successful - who it is important to add often work full-time jobs alongside a gruelling training schedule - is less important than financial power in securing a place within the highest echelons of the footballing pyramid. Such radical restructuring is almost impossible to imagine in the men’s game, and in the eyes of many further discredits the status women’s football in England, which so many have worked so hard to advance since the FA lifted their 50-year ban in 1971. Time will tell whether these changes will have a positive impact on the future of the women’s game, however it has certainly served to highlight that there is a long way to go before the men’s and women’s games are treated with equal levels of respect and credibility by the footballing authorities.

 On a more positive note, Lewes FC last year became the first club to pay their men and women equally, a step which many hope will pave the way for others to do the same. Whilst the vast difference in the commercialisation of men’s and women’s football means this is currently a rather unrealistic prospect at the very highest level, one would hope this paves the way towards promoting the women’s game and ensuring opportunities for aspiring female athletes to have a prosperous career through the sport.

 Despite increases in female participation in recent years, there remains a stark contrast in the media coverage between male and female sports, which only serves to perpetuate the inferior status of women’s sport. Women’s sport makes up just 7% of media coverage in the UK, so it is unsurprising that there are less women taking part. This lack of coverage diminishes the status of women’s sport as a whole, reinforcing the ideology of sport as a masculine domain, resulting in fewer female role models. If female athletes aren’t visible in the mainstream media, how can we expect young females to feel empowered to view themselves as athletes? In many ways, there is a vicious cycle within women’s sport which prevents it from advancing – the media doesn’t cover women’s sport because there is a lack of demand, while this lack of demand could be equally attributed to this lack of coverage. With the media so focused on a small range of male sports, sparking public interest in female sports will always be difficult. The dominance of Premier League football is clear to see, with both the front and back pages often plastered with every detail of player’s lives, while women’s sport is restricted to the small print. While male athletes are often household names, consider David Beckham or Jonny Wilkinson for example, how many people could name the stars of the England women’s rugby team, despite their huge success in winning the 2014 World Cup? It could be suggested that this imbalance is intrinsic throughout sport, with women also greatly under-represented among coaches and governing bodies.  

 Without women in the highest positions in sport, change is difficult to envisage unless the power structures within are changed. It may be naïve to suggest, however, that simply including more coverage of women’s sport will automatically raise the profile of women’s sport and encourage people to take interest. Therefore, many feel that more needs to be done through governing bodies and those in positions of power to change perceptions of women’s sport and encourage participation at a grassroots level in order to continue developing the female athletes of tomorrow and empower women in the sporting world. One would hope that as the status of women’s sport continues to improve, there will be an increase in exposure, however there is a long way to go until female athletes have the respect they deserve from the mainstream media and are treated with the same esteem as their male peers.

 A further issue faced by women in sport which cannot be understated is their sexualisation within mainstream media and beyond, alongside issues with femininity and body image. Why is it that male athletes are revered solely for their performances, while the appearance of female athletes is often brought into question, despite having no relevance to their athletic ability? A 2014 survey conducted by BT Sport found that 67 percent of the female athletes questioned felt that both the media and the general public valued the looks of a sportswoman over their sporting accomplishments. For female athletes, there is almost a conflict of interest in which they want to be at the top of their game in a performance sense, yet live in fear that the physique this requires causes people to view them as unattractive and against societal beauty norms. While male athletes are admired for their muscular physiques, female athletes are often labelled as butch and unfeminine. It is these attitudes which prevent many females from being physically active – it is quite distressing that women are unable to feel strong and powerful in their bodies, feeling that they must conform to society’s perceptions of what is ‘normal’, under constant scrutiny from the media and the rest of society. Shockingly, FIFA President Sepp Blatter once stated that we should “let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts,” also suggesting that female players could use a lighter ball. These irresponsible suggestions from someone in a position of power which diminish the status of women’s sport and sexualise female athletes who have dedicated their lives to their sport only highlights the hegemonic power structures in sport which place women at the very bottom. It is surely time female athletes are treated as just that – athletes. If those at the top are unwilling to respect this, how can we expect any change in the attitudes of society?

 In what many considered a positive step for the sport, Formula 1 announced they would no longer be using ‘grid girls’ from the start of the 2018 World Championship season, with their managing director of commercial operations stating that this custom was “at odds with modern day societal norms.” It is encouraging to see that some sports are now considering how they value and portray women, potentially paving the way for sports with similar practices such as boxing and cycling to reconsider customs and move towards a more modern outlook. One can only hope that all sports will continue to progress towards being a more inclusive environment for all.

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