PLANET WORK Women in sports: How level is the playing field?

On the courts and in the courtrooms, the subject of a woman's role in professional sports - and the huge gap between opportunities, funding and media exposure given to males and females in the sporting world - is emblematic of the larger question on gender equality today: is equal really equal? The issue of women and their role in the sporting world includes all the issues currently being debated in the wider world - such as women in decision-making roles, women in management, women in a wide range of professions. Planet Work examines how the role of women in the world of sports illustrates the gender state of play in the wider world, and how women are helping to promote gender equality in a wider professional context through sports.

  • In the world of sports, gender has become one of the main events. Women are taking an increasingly active role in sports the world over, becoming more visible, assertive and active in a way that goes beyond the arena. Winning in sports not only provides a momentary rush of accomplishment - it also involves a race toward combating social stereotyping and reaching the goal of gender equality. To say the hurdles that once appeared insurmountable to women in sports are not only falling but being overcome is not only an apt analogy but symbolic of the advancement women have made both on and off an increasingly level playing field. Women athletes, trainers, promoters and others who make their living in the sports sector are today going the extra mile to change cultural norms - and finding that sports can provide a springboard for further advancement in societies. Be it for work or pleasure, women athletes and their supporters have literally made enormous strides, aiming their ambition, vision and enthusiasm at the target of attaining a universal, equal status in the world of work.
  • The visibility of women athletes, trainers and promoters in today's sports world is a far cry from their status just slightly more than a century ago. When the first Olympic Games of the modern era took place in 1896, the idea of women taking part was thought to be "unfeminine". Since then, it is easy to see the progress that has since been made in many parts of the world. By 1900, societal views had modernized enough to allow 11 women to stand beside the 1,319 men at the opening ceremony at the Paris Olympics, although their participation was restricted to sports regarded as "suitable" for women - tennis and golf.
  • By the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, a new world record was set - just over 40 per cent of participants were female. Leading up to this has been a decreasing trend in the number of countries sending all-male teams - there were 35 all-male national teams at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, 26 at Atlanta in 1996 and 12 at Sydney in 2000 (South China Morning Post, December 2005).
  • During the Fourth Women's Islamic Games held in Tehran in 2005, 1,300 female athletes represented 43 nations, and the Iranian government provided US$1.4 million to support the Games (Business Recorder, September 2005).
  • Major inroads have also been made in access to participation in and pay equity for other international sporting competitions. The 250-year-old Royal & Ancient Club in Scotland, considered the world's leading authority on golf, lifted a long-standing ban on women playing in the Open Championship in 2005 (The Guardian, February 2005). In tennis, the French Open recently joined ranks with the Australian and US Opens by offering both men and women competitors equal prize money, leaving Wimbledon as the only major tournament with prize money inequity (Sports Business, September 2005). Also, the 2005 Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon paid winners of men's and women's categories equal prize money (The Straits Times, June 2005).

Traditional sports, new hurdles

  • Of course, these hard-won victories are not the norm, and women starting out in the sports world have an uphill battle to wage, due to limited opportunities for competition, support and money. "People tend to believe that women have the same opportunities as men, but the infrastructures available to women are very precarious, and the schedules are not conducive to the practice of sport," said Alfredina Silva, a former professional football player from Portugal, in an ILO interview aired on International Women's Day (IWD) this year.
  • Family obligations can also keep women from pursuing sporting activities in some parts of the world. "In Africa, young women and men are not given the same attention," said Tirunesh Dibaba, a long-distance runner from Ethiopia, in an IWD interview with the ILO. "For women, what makes it difficult to go running is the family. The family does not allow you to run, but they also don't want you to go to school. A girl works at home, always at home."
  • Once a woman's athletic career is underway, the most apparent inequalities between male and female professional athletes can be measured in pay and media coverage. For instance, according to the US National Committee on Pay Equity, the average salary in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) is only 2 per cent of the all-male National Basketball Association's (NBA) average ( Media coverage of sports is similarly lopsided: the coverage ratio as of 2004 between male and female professional sports was 9 to 1 in US television and 20 to 1 in US print media (Ms., Summer 2004).
  • So, who's setting the agenda in the media? The editors who assign stories and coverage, or the readership? How can such a huge gap exist today? A survey of sports editors and deputy editors from 285 newspapers in the south-eastern United States in 2003 found that 25 per cent of the editors still believe women are naturally less athletic than men. Nearly half of those surveyed said that men's sports suffered as a result of Title IX, the 1972 ruling that bars gender discrimination in any educational programme that accepts federal funding. Nearly 90 per cent were confident that the gender balance in their newspapers' sports sections reflected reader interests in male over female sports and roughly 45 per cent said they believed women have little or no interest in sports. Only the younger editors were less inclined to view Title IX as a problem for male sports (Associated Press, 2005).
  • Similar views were expressed in a European study in 2005. The study was conducted of the newspaper coverage of women's sports in Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. It evaluated the number of articles, size, page placement, accompanying photographs and photograph size in all major newspapers in the four European countries. The survey found the rate of newspaper coverage was similar to the rate of female participation in the Games, with only 29.3 per cent of the articles and 38 per cent of photos dedicated to women's sports. However, no significant gender differences were found with respect to article size, page placement, accompanying photographs or photograph size (Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, June 2005).
  • "Women's sport is much less visible than men's sport," said Silva. "Women could play a key part in decision-making and ensure that more women participate in sports by improving their conditions."

Taking the lead

  • One area directly linked with advancing the cause of gender equality in sports is leadership. Worldwide, the number of women in decision-making and leadership positions is still relatively small. Some attribute their lack of presence at the executive level to "glass-ceiling" effects, social and culture barriers, a lack of female candidates and a less than supportive professional environment.
  • Working to kick down these barriers are strong female role models like Pat Summitt, considered one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. A former basketball player, she took over coaching the women's team at the University of Tennessee in the US in 1974 at the age of 22, and last year became the most successful US college basketball coach in history, racking up over 880 wins. She also coached the US women's basketball team to its first gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. (The Sunday Times, March 2006).
  • Sports journalism is another sector that has a thick glass ceiling. But the women who have broken through have emerged as legends. Melissa Ludtke, a reporter for the US magazine Sports Illustrated, changed history when she filed a lawsuit after being banned from the locker room during the 1977 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The suit resulted in a ground-breaking federal court ruling in 1978 granting women journalists equal access rights to locker rooms and other sports venues (American Journalism Review, January 2005).
  • Still, change resulting in equality and balance at the executive level is slow in coming. As of 2005 only 12 out of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) 116 members were women. Out of 202 National Olympic Committees (NOC), only nine have women presidents, five of them in Africa. As part of its Women and Sport policy, the IOC established targets in 1997 to increase the number of women in executive roles to 10 per cent by 2001 and 20 per cent by 2005. For comparison, the percentage of women participants at the International Labour Conference, by region, including ministers during the period of 2001 and 2005 was 22 per cent (Gender Balance in the International Labour Conference, ILO 2005).
  • According to "Women, Leadership and the Olympic Movement" in the 2006 ILO publication, Beyond the Scoreboard, authors Ian Henry and Anita White surveyed the Secretary-General of each NOC and its current female members to evaluate the process of recruitment, career paths, overall impact on the organizations and level of support required to ensure the realization of wider involvement of women in decision-making roles. The results indicated that since introducing the targets, the proportion of women at the NOC executive level has indeed risen. Furthermore, the exercise helped to raise awareness of gender inequalities, bring talented women into the Olympic family and improve Olympic governance by setting an example and providing moral leadership to the world of sports in terms of equity representation.

What sports can do for women

  • Involvement in sports for women and men teaches critical lessons on discipline, goal setting, communication and work ethics that are widely transferable and often translate into successful careers down the line. For instance, Marjo Matikaninen, the World Champion and Olympic Gold Medallist in cross-country skiing in 1988 from Finland, went on to a Masters degree in Engineering and is today a member of the European Parliament. "What I find interesting here is that those women who have been successful in sports have also applied the goal-oriented learning to their lives studying at university or establishing their own businesses," said sports psychologist and former Olympic athlete from Finland Laura Jansson, in an ILO interview. "Elite athletes reach their peak between the ages of 20 and 30, depending on the discipline. After that they can be great educators and trainers who have a huge responsibility to the next generation to help them follow their footsteps."
  • Cecilia Tait has done just that. A former professional volleyball player from Peru, her efforts to promote equal sporting opportunities for women helped her get elected to the country's Congress. "We should keep trying to emulate our role models, and to create new role models, to show that through sports you can do it, you can improve quality of life," she said in an ILO interview for IWD. "Why do you think they have voted for me to be in Congress? Because I am a woman and an athlete, and because if I hadn't been an athlete you and others wouldn't have ever known about me. We are public figures, and a country without history and without examples does not move ahead."

The importance of role models for women in sports is undeniable. In fact, one could assert that it is a virtuous circle. The more women take positive, leading roles as athletes, trainers, journalists and decision-makers, the more women will see that gender inequalities can be overcome - not only in sports but in all professions.