Balance for Better: Women in Sport

Today is International Women’s Day, where the theme is ‘Balance for Better’. It provides an opportunity to talk about the progress we have made in working to achieve gender balance, as well as a chance to reflect on the challenges that still lie ahead. Our Researcher, Sophia, explores the gender balance in sport, highlighting problems in the way women’s sport is reported in the media, and what we can do to tackle them.

Where are we at?

First, we should note that great progress has been made in the world of women’s sport globally. Representation in high positions has improved. The number of women on International Olympic Committee (IOC) Commissions has been increased to almost 43% of the total membership since 2013.[1] A growing support for women’s sport is also reflected in our population. According to the Women’s Sports Trust, 59% of people in the UK have an active interest in women’s sport – a potential market of 24 million people.[2] Women's sport is on the rise compared with years gone by.

This is starting to be reflected in the media. Alex Scott made history as the first female pundit in the Sky studio on Super Sunday last year, where she reported on premier league fixtures alongside Graeme Souness and Jamie Carragher. While she had been a pitchside analyst in the past, having a woman in the studio was unheard of. She said of her success as a female pundit: “I want people – boys and girls – to be sat at home watching me alongside the likes of Rio Ferdinand or Frank Lampard, thinking that it’s normal, that we all know what we’re talking about, and that they’re not judging me at home just because I’m a female.”[3] You and I both, Alex. But it remains that women are still not playing and talking about sport on an equal footing to men.

Drip drip drip

One problem is the way we speak about women’s sport. Often it’s a subtle drip drip drip that influences our perceptions and can have a significant impact. For instance, men’s sport is largely considered the default ‘sport’, with pundits most often referring to “football” and then “women’s football”. I’m no expert but women’s football is just as much ‘football’ as men’s football. They both play by the same rules and require the same commitment.[4] Then there are the not-so-subtle commentators. Simon Kelner, the former editor of the Independent, said that women talking about Football World Cup games “is like getting a netball player to discuss major league basketball”. Not helpful. Jason Cundy also attracted widespread criticism for his comments on hearing Vicki Sparks commentate on the World Cup last year, complaining it was “a tough listen. I prefer to hear a male voice. For 90 minutes listening to a high-pitched tone isn't what I want to hear.”

Aesthetics or athletics?

Perhaps the worst and most enduring practice of commentators is the focusing on appearance over ability. Why are we talking about the length of Heather Watson’s skirt, rather than the possibility she might win the UK women’s first gold medal in tennis since 1908? Why does commentary focus so disproportionately on women’s appearance and personal lives in sport rather than the quality of their performance? The double standards and sexual undertones in the way women’s sports are reported is a dis-service to the sport being played, as well as the individuals playing.


But maybe the current narrative around women’s sport is just a symptom of a wider problem of culture? For many women the ‘lad-culture’ of football is very off-putting and makes it seem like it’s not ‘meant for them’. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. It’s reinforced very early on in the playground that netball is for girls and football is for boys. In fact, by the age of 10, 95% of boys will be playing football, compared to only 41% of girls of the same age. We can’t expect adult sport fans to dramatically change their view of men’s and women’s sports teams when it runs counter to everything they experienced growing up. When Girl Guides did their Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2018, one young respondent said: “I think girls’ lives would be better if girls felt more encouraged to do sports and ‘male’ subjects in school.” We cannot stress enough the importance of starting the process of encouraging girls into sport early.

What next?

Given all this, what can we do? In a conversation that so often relies on vague conclusions about “society” and “equality”, having tangible actions that can make a positive difference is important. Here’s a few ways we can take small steps towards a big goal (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Firstly, we can’t underestimate how important it is to work alongside men, rather than opposite them. Not just because shutting out 50% of the human population makes absolutely no sense, but because men suffer from gender inequality too. Men in sport can play an incredibly important role in calling out sexism where the voice of a woman sadly just wouldn’t be as effective. Sir Andy Murray is a wonderful example of this. Two years ago, Murray was praised for correcting a journalist who said Sam Querrey was the first American to reach a grand slam semi-final since 2009. Murry responded: “Male player,” highlighting that Serena Williams had won a fair few majors in that period.

Secondly, we can build on successful instances where both men’s and women’s sports have happened side by side. In 2016 the Men's and Women's World Twenty20 was held simultaneously in India. In fact, the final took place on the same day and at the same ground. The result was greater publicity and interest in the women's game. Whilst some may argue that such a format makes the women's game a sideshow to the "main event" of the men's tournament, that is not the result in tennis or athletics. A Jessica Ennis-Hill title is as widely reported and known about as a Mo Farah one.

It is a similar story with rugby. The Six Nations has both a men’s and women's tournament running concurrently. Often the women's match is played at Twickenham straight after the men, or alternatively takes place across the road at the Twickenham Stoop on the Friday night before. This raises awareness of the women's rugby and allows fans to be introduced to the women's game. My local club Harlequins include their women's team on their results page, in their social media posts and competitions. As far as they are concerned, they are one club with two teams.

Another way balance can be achieved in sport is through brand investment. Advertising and sponsorship are crucial, not just through funding but in the message projected to women that sport is for them too. The commercial male focus puts a lot of women off and brands are often hesitant to invest in women’s sport because they don’t feel that they’re reaching a large enough audience. But more brands need to break the cycle and tap into a growing market of women.

Some progress has been made here; only yesterday Lucozade announced they will be moving into sponsorship of women’s football for the first time ever ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019. This follows Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy’ ad series, featuring Serena Williams calling out double-standards on how female athletes are described when showing emotion. The ad closes with: “If they want to call you crazy, fine. Show them what crazy can do.”

This is the way forward: equal treatment and partnership, including, not excluding, men in the debate. Celebrating the progress made thus far, but mindful of our steps yet to come.




[4] Cambridge University Press have analysed millions of words relating to men and women and how they are described in language associated with the Olympic sports.