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Women in Leadership: Sexism in sport

Rhian Morgan

Rhian Morgan argues that although sexism still exists in sport, things are getting a little better

Women’s Sports Week earlier this month heralded a number of firsts for women’s football. For the first time, the BBC has covered the FIFA Women’s World Cup in its entirety. While Panini launched a sticker album for the game – incredibly, the first women’s event to be the subject of a sticker album
This is despite the fact that the Women’s World Cup has been running since 1991. But then progress is often slow, as the inaugural World Cup was in 1930. So it took them 60 years to recognise the other 50% of the population.

And it has been a roaring success, with 1.25m attending games (a new record), and many games sold out. Global viewing figures are predicted to hit the billion mark, with #fifawwc Tweets already viewed 2.7 billion times.


So what is holding women’s football, and sport in general, back?

Top agent and former Olympian Sky Andrews was recently interviewed by sports journalism students. They assumed, because he is black, that he would have lots of tales to tell about racism. In fact, to the surprise of the (mostly male) students, he said he had found sexism is actually far more prevalent.

I’ve seen examples myself. In the news, Sky Sports and the BBC have been criticised for only employing young, attractive pundits and presenters. During an inquiry into women’s sport, the executive editor of Sky Sports News, Andy Cairns, said: “Our presenters are all experienced, qualified journalists.” Really? My experience is different. On another journalism course, in another college, Sky Sports head-hunted an extremely attractive young woman. She was barely out of her teens. However, they said, as long as she achieved a pass in her NCTJ, she would have an immediate contract sent out for a presenting role. She failed and wasn’t hired. So I guess at least they do pick qualified journalists, even if they have little experience.

But what can you expect, you may ask, when Fifa is a hotbed of corruption? The trouble is, where there’s big-money stakes, it is often the most cut-throat men who succeed. These alpha males also happen to not have a very enlightened view of women. And the fans are even worse.

According to BBC sports news correspondent Natalie Pirks in a recent interview, she described how her investigation into sexism revealed that officials, journalists, chief executives and medical staff all told how rife it is in the industry. And yet a staggering 89% had never complained, because they felt they were in a minority in a male-dominated industry. Ironically, these same women who are hired partly for their looks are also abused for them. Sexual chants are commonplace, while many had been told they were just too attractive for the workplace. Others experienced sexual harassment.

While more than 40% of elite sportswomen in Great Britain have experienced sexism, according to another BBC Sport survey, but only 7% have reported it.
The survey, carried out as part of Women’s Sports Week, found that a third of elite sportswomen do not believe they get enough coaching when compared to men. While 43% said they do not believe their governing body supports them and male colleagues equally.

More than two-thirds said they could not make a living as a top sportswoman. Most also said the media is to blame, with all but 11 respondents saying the media should promote women’s sports better. While nearly half of elite sportswomen said they had been criticised on social media about their appearance, or trolled.

Of course, this kind of experience isn’t just limited to the sports industry (for instance, see my previous column about Sir Tim Hunt). But even so, when it comes to women leaders, sport is probably one of the worst areas to work in. Yes, it can sometimes pay well though the pay is not comparable to the millions sportsmen earn in this country, and sportswomen in the US.

One woman implementing change is FA board member Heather Rabbatts. She talks about a system closed to women, where she feels lonely being “the only one”. Heather adds, ultimately, that it is “a long and steady march to make the game more accessible and free from abuse.” And Heather is leading the charge. Change is certainly brewing, with the FA now implementing a Women In Leadership programme. They have also promised to crack down on sexist chanting. And while top sportspeople like Sky Andrews are teaching tomorrow’s journalists about the problems that exist, there’s hope the message gets outs that women can lead the way in sport.


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