Experts have warned the effects of COVID-19 could include the reversal of decades worth of work on gender equality. Maya Israel reviews how such a reality is beginning to play out in the sporting world.
This morning, sitting down for breakfast, I saw a newspaper at the other end of the table. I dragged it over and flicked immediately to the sports section; it was too early in the morning to face offence by Boris Johnson. Instead, I watched footballer Gareth Bale leave Madrid, golfer Andrew Johnston withdraw from the British Masters and enjoyed a much considered ‘will he, won’t he’ piece on whether cricketer Ben Stokes will bowl at England’s final test match. But 16 articles of action later, I felt part of the narrative was missing. There was not a single article on women’s sport – just a measly third of a side column, 78 words to be exact (including the title and picture description). To contextualise, a random 4 of the 16 articles on men’s sport accumulated over 4000 words.
It wouldn’t take a discourse analysis on this coverage to conclude that as the sporting world is rising again, women’s sport has largely been left behind. It seems through quarantine we’ve taken great steps backwards, just at a point when women’s coverage was beginning to get somewhere.
What message does this send to women’s sports and its hardworking athletes across the board? It clearly signals that the men’s game is our default
In the return to sport, there’s no denying men’s sport has been prioritised. The Premier League returned on the 17th June, whilst the Women’s Super League was cancelled on the 25th May. In cricket, the men’s three test series is well underway, whist England Women are not set to start until September at best.
In fairness, the financial incentive of holding men’s games is far greater than the women’s; a burst of quick revenue following a lengthy lockdown is seemingly the aim. Claire Connor, ECB director of cricket, suggested prioritising the men’s game is “realistic” for just this reason. However, what message does this send to women’s sports and its hardworking athletes across the board? It clearly signals that the men’s game is our default. That because women’s sport has been continually underfunded for years, and therefore does not reap the financial benefits of the men’s game, women must suffer twofold. It also suggests that women’s sport is not deemed as necessary in saving our nation’s mental health via entertainment in the same way the men’s side is.
If cuts are to be made, it seems likely women’s clubs will be the first to feel them
These messages make the future of women’s sport particularly hazy. The delay in starting will inevitably hit athletes and clubs who rely on a sporting season for their livelihood. They might struggle financially in terms of securing sponsorship deals and other investments if they are not already. If cuts are to be made, it seems likely women’s clubs will be the first to feel them. This won’t always be the case, of course. Last week, in the golfing world, AIG announced its plans to extend its title partnership of the AIG Women’s Open to 2025. However, a pledge of such commitment towards women’s sport at this stage of the pandemic is an anomaly.
Jordan Guard, spokesperson from The Women’s Sport Alliance, highlighted that “in women’s sports there is a lack of written contracts, of which few are long-term or professional. For sportswomen who are now out of contract with clubs or sponsors this summer, there is added uncertainty.”
Less exposure to women’s sport, as well as the general pressures of existing inequality, will only widen this gap if things are to continue this way
The dry spell in women’s sports will also have a trickle-down effect to younger generations of female athletes. Sport England have already reported the gender gap having widened over lockdown in terms of weekly activity levels. Less exposure to women’s sport, as well as the general pressures of existing inequality, will only widen this gap if things are to continue this way.
Pre-pandemic, it felt as if women’s sport was finally breaking new ground. More than 1.9 billion people watched the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019, the Women’s Tennis Association has been rewarding unprecedented amounts of prize money, and female participation in sport was reaching new thresholds as a result of greater investment into grassroots programmes. Sporting bodies must hold on tight these successes to keep women’s sport thriving rather than treating it as deadweight that can be cut loose as soon as there is a hole in the boat.
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