Women Today: Women in Sport

Our first Guest Contribution to the CRAVE blog and a more worthy subject there is not. This month, as part of our Women Today theme, we invited Romanna Dadral, Director at London-based production company Beg, Steal & Borrow to share her thoughts on Women in Sport: the perceptions, the misconceptions and the inequalities in all of their glory.

“Who run the world? GIRLS!” The female anthem of the moment, championing young, independent, smart and driven women the world over who have finally left the summit and are on Catch Up Road approaching the peak of their success and hoping finally to be on par with their male counterparts. Or are they?

Cast your mind back to the World Cup which took place in Brazil this summer and the overall feeling of dismay and disappointment which swept through the nation when England’s much cherished football team lost out on their dream of adding a dash of gold to the cabinet! When you look at the vast amount of money invested into the business of men’s football and the astronomical salaries received by Premier league players, you can’t help but wonder how on earth their female counterparts remain able to surpass them at international level. Looking at ticket prices, a Women’s Super League season ticket sells at approximately £31, 0.06% of the price of the Premier League equivalent, priced at £508. The disparity in the level of investment is one of the many factors impacting on women’s sports.

Even with salaries which don’t scrape the barrel compared with those in the men’s game, less grass roots investment, next to no broadcasting time and a huge deficit in brand endorsements, and low profile venues, female athletes seem to be coming out on top. These are not problems that affect football alone. These struggles are prevalent in rugby too and my own research indicates that women’s fixtures would not be scheduled at Twickenham because “the stadium won’t sell out and no one wants to watch women’s rugby”.

Perhaps it’s coincidental that women have seen sporting success in recent years, notably in the cricket when the England team retained the prestigious Ashes, with Nicola Adams winning gold at London 2012, and the women’s England Rugby team winning the World Cup this year, but what do the blood, sweat and tears all amount to? Maybe these successes are down to the fact that women have to put in twice the work and their commitment, belief and dedication alone make them more hungry.

With all of this useless knowledge rumbling around in my head and left feeling somewhat disappointed that progress has been slow to say the least, it got me thinking in a more general sense about female athletes in what are socially accepted as male sports. Tennis is a game in which women have excelled. You only need to look as far as Venus and Serena Williams to appreciate that in some cases, if you’re simply unbeatable, no amount of resistance can devalue that. But that doesn’t mean they got an easy ride, quite the contrary in fact. Met with endless obstacles, the sisters saw success but instead of being made the faces of women’s tennis compared with the likes of Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena were out in the cold for much of the early part of their careers. At least now you can see the evolution of equality in tennis with players finally receiving equal prize money at Grand Slam tournaments.

In recent years, there has been a real push towards equality for women on all fronts, but what has been achieved in real terms? After some preliminary research, I decided to begin developing a documentary series about female athletes in what remains a male-centric industry. It won’t surprise you to learn that women are still met with infinite hurdles that they either attempt to jump or dodge and re-evaluate their personal goals.

Even now in a society that is increasingly more tolerant, where breaking from tradition is becoming the norm, female athletes struggle to get the kudos and coverage they deserve. The evolution of female sports has been a long and hard road. Taking the Olympics as an example, the first event organised under the International Olympic Committee took place in 1896 but it wasn’t until Paris in1900 that women were allowed to participate. Perhaps more shocking is that even as recently as the 1992 Games, thirty-five countries had all male teams and it wasn’t until London 2012 that every country had female athletes within their delegations.

Having referenced some recent female success stories, it’s clearly not the case that women just aren’t good at sports. It is questionable then, why our forward thinking generation is taking baby steps towards accepting women in the big, bad world of sports. Regardless of record-breaking success, female athletes are still seen first and foremost as sex objects and are consequently not respected as professionals in their own right. A recent example of this was London 2012 throughout which the media printed endless stories about the sexiest women of the Olympics all the while interviewing male athletes about performance and training regimes.

Alarmingly, for every fifty-three articles written about sportsmen, there is one written about a sportswoman. To add insult to injury, the next to no women’s media coverage makes up a meagre 5% of sporting content. Arguably, the right noises are being made with the first ever women’s football international taking place at Wembley Stadium this year, but the Football Association has taken a long time to come this far since 1921 when it banned women’s football on the basis that it is “quite unsuitable for females”.

Lack of coverage means less exposure and if women aren’t being seen and promoted to the degree that men are, the question of how we generate interest arises. Our media don’t yet seem to have generated a formula for covering our sporting heroines which doesn’t include their male fans, celebrity crushes, being pictured in low cut gowns and asked about what makeup they apply before races and matches.

But whilst there is still a lot to groan about, we must pay homage to those women who have succeeded in the business of sports. Karren Brady is a good example of somebody who recognises that she can sit at the table with the big dogs and be seen and heard. Sporting pioneers such as Maggie Alphonsi MBE sadly tend to be unheard of. Maggie’s rugby career spans three World Cups and she is the first woman to be selected as an ambassador for the men’s World Cup next year. Her achievements are more notable than most of her male equals and yet generally speaking, you wouldn’t recognise her in your local supermarket. The fact remains that if you saw an England footballer walking down the street you would recognise him and take a picture or get an autograph but the same can’t yet be said for the women. So what’s the solution?

We need to start making it more socially acceptable for women to participate in sports which have traditionally been accepted as male sports. In order to do this, we need to educate viewers, targeting women in the first instance. After all, if women don’t get behind one another there will never be an open channel of communication. Perhaps more women need to start accompanying their other halves to the pub to watch the game and talk for ninety minutes about women’s football! Rome was not built in a day and I am under no illusion that things will change quickly, but at least if supporting sportswomen is on the agenda and they are given a voice and a following, maybe we will be able to buy tickets for the women’s rugby at Twickenham and women’s boxing on Saturday Night Live!