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How the sports world is still stacked against top women

The Conversation
29 Jan 2022, 04:40 GMT+10

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) recently awarded full-time professional contracts to 12 women players. However, the value of the contracts has not been revealed and the 12 contracts are not enough to make up a full rugby union team, let alone a squad.

These contracts are still unusual and top sportswomen continue to face more funding issues than men at the same level. Contracts offered to top women athletes are often short term, covering the weeks of a sporting competition, or part-time, and, until recently, lacking maternity leave. Women's teams frequently face poor pitches, lower wages/prize money, and inferior conditions compared to men.

Sport has been (and largely still is) governed by male, hypermasculine former athletes. One theory arguesthat these managers of sport make decisions that benefit themselves and (white, heterosexual, middle/upper-class) males. As a result, women's sport has, at many times, been misunderstood and treated poorly.

History of discrimination

Women's sport is getting more backing, but this comes against a long history of discrimination. Last year's Women's FA Cup Final took place 100 years after the Football Association banned women's football in Football League grounds. This ban fed into historic hostility towards women playing sport.

Read more: Women's sport is on the way up - but more needs to be done to secure its future

That has not gone away completely. The International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) stoked controversy with its views shortly after women's boxing was accepted as an Olympic sport. AIBA suggested that women boxers should wear skirts when they competed to help them stand out from the men's competitions.

While 22-year-old Ema Klinec from Slovenia, the current World Champion, is one to watch for the women's ski jumping at the Winter Olympics this year, women were excluded from this sport for years. As recently as 2008, the International Olympic Committee cited the "technical merit" of women's ski jumping as justification for its exclusion. Another reason was also the misguided belief by the governing body that ski jumping would damage women's reproductive health. Following international pressure and unsuccessful court cases, it was finally accepted in 2011 and appeared for the first time at Sochi 2014.

This type of view has heavily influenced the way women's sport is treated and its funding and resourcing.

Equal pay

Just over 50 years ago, Billie Jean King and eight other professional tennis players launched their own tennis tour to ensure that they were paid and treated on a par with men's tennis players. Yet it was not until 2006 that the last Grand Slam tennis tournament, Wimbledon, agreed to pay equal prize money to men and women. The men's World Number 1 tennis player, Novak Djokovic argued in 2016 that men should earn more than women players.

Even when women's teams have successes, they are frequently paid significantly less than men. The US Women's national soccer team filed a wage discrimination act (and later a gender discrimination lawsuit) against the governing body of their sport. Despite winning World Cups and generating more income than the men's team, they were paid a quarter of what the men's team earned prior to their legal action.

There are signs that change is coming. The Welsh national football association has recently pledged to introduce equal pay for its men's and women's teams by 2026. They have joined a growing number of national associations to have equal pay agreements for their men's and women's teams.

Read more: Women in sport are winning the fight for equal pay - slowly

In cricket, The Hundred was the first professional tournament that put women's and men's teams on an equal footing, with women's matches played on the same grounds as the men's. Attendances for the women's matches was higher than for previous tournaments.

Increased attendance show that when women's sport is marketed suitably, spectators see greater value in it and are more likely to attend.

At the Winter Olympics, the inclusion of sports such as mixed team ski jumping and women's monobob mean that there are not only more events for women but also greater opportunities for sponsorship. At the 2020 Tokyo Games, sponsorship of women athletes grew. Sponsors increasingly see value in backing women athletes.

The FA and Professional Footballers' Association have finally agreed to include maternity and long-term sickness cover in the contract of women footballers. At the same time, the Women's World Cup and European Championship are likely to be recognised as two of the protected sports events made available to free-to-air broadcasters.

Progress has been made in women's sport but until the attitudes of those running sport change, top sportswomen will continue to face more obstacles than men.

Author: Keith Parry - Deputy Head Of Department in Department of Sport & Event Management, Bournemouth University The Conversation

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