Women's Sport Week: Key figures discuss long battle to put women's sport on same level as men

Let’s start by talking about where women’s sport is at the start of Women’s Sport Week.

Sally Hancock (chair of Women in Sport) Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen some phenomenal successes, with the performances of our athletes at the Paralympics and Olympics: 48 per cent of all the medals won by Team GB were by women. We’ve seen an increase in brand partnerships: Newton [Investment Management] with the Boat Race on the BBC; SSE with its landmark deal with the FA Women’s Cup. We’ve seen an increase in the number of women being represented on sports boards. But there’s still a long way to go. It can still feel like women’s sport is invisible. You have to absolutely seek it out to find any news. Why isn’t women’s football on Match of the Day every week? We have to normalise women’s sport. We need to make it part of our overall vernacular about sport and not simply park it at odd times of the day on obscure channels or odd blogs and hope that somehow is going to inspire a generation – because it isn’t.

Dr Hannah Macleod (GB hockey, Rio 2016 gold medallist and London 2012 bronze medallist) With sponsorship through Investec, we get a lot more exposure than the men, who don’t have a sponsor. While the women’s team is more successful, which is quite unusual, the men still have far bigger opportunities. There is the Indian Premier League, where the men will be given time off programme to go and play, to earn hideous amounts of money for six weeks in India and then they’ll come back. There’s nothing like that for the women. But when we run international events side by side, it would be the women who will play the final on the weekend and the men that play on a Friday. There are bigger crowds for the women than for the men.

Hockey gold
GB’s hockey gold medal has helped raise the profile of women’s sport Credit: AFP

Ruth Holdaway (chief executive, Women in Sport)There’s a temptation to say we just make women’s sport like men’s. And it’s not. It’s different. We’ve done a piece of research called “Understanding Women’s Lives” and what motivates women is spending time with family and friends; they value looking good, feeling good. When we talk about equality, we don’t have to mean that it has to be the same. It can be different but it’s about placing the same value on it.

Orla Chennaoui (Sky Sports presenter) On Sky Sports News, we have a weekly half-hour slot which is dedicated to women’s sport and sportswomen. People say, ‘Why do you need that? Why not just integrate it to the rest of the channel?’ Well, you do still need it because you do need that focal point of showcase of women’s sport that a media landscape that is still dominated by men’s sport may be does not have the room for.

RH Because women’s sport is lagging behind, in some cases – not in every case and hockey might be a really good example – let’s not be shy about saying, actually women are [often] a lot better than men. And that’s true of our national football team: they brought back a bronze medal. The rugby team won the Rugby World Cup. In cricket, the women have won the Ashes many times.

England women won Rugby World Cup
England women won the Rugby World Cup in 2014 Credit: AFP

HMThe feedback after Rio has been immense. The number of people that want to tell me where they were when they were watching it … Friday evening, prime slot. In some of the pubs in Putney, the channel was changed from Man United to the hockey. And, suddenly, you’ve got this massive audience of people who know nothing about hockey getting caught up and excited by it, and it’s no longer ‘jolly hockey sticks’ played on grass.

Claire Taylor MBE (former England cricketer and chair of MCC’s Women Cricket Committee) The power of that game and the drama of that game, what we want to be showing is true competition and that was incredibly competitive. Some of the games we see women playing unfortunately don’t have enough competition in them. The Boat Race worked really well because of the competition and the drama in the race and the best cricket games that I’ve played in and the best ones that I’ve watched are the ones where there’s a close competition.

Is resistance to change purely commercially and financially motivated or is there still an attitudinal problem, particularly among men?

SH If a piece is written in The Guardian, or any paper, that just praises women’s sport or talks about some of the disparities, the comments section underneath is just the most horrific pile of misogynistic rubbish. Where can these men get the time? It really annoys me.

OC In lots of work places, men doing sport with their colleagues is encouraged and it’s almost like a social-networking thing. And I think that’s still not the case with women. We need to change it so that if a woman, for example, wants to do exercise in her lunch break it’s not seen as a patronising indulgence but is actively encouraged.

RH People often ask me, ‘How do you know you’ve achieved success? What does success look like for the charity?’ And I often use the example of a washing-powder advert. Generally speaking, there’ll be a little boy who’s been out playing football and got all muddy and he’ll come running in and mum will wash his football kit. The day when that’s a little girl that’s been out playing football and got the muddy football kit – never mind whether it’s mum or dad that washes the kit – and that would just be normal, that would be success.

Claire Taylor
Claire Taylor says she worked hard throughout her career to make her gender irrelevant Credit: Getty Images

HMOne of the most shocking things in the last six weeks was [when] we were invited on to a TV channel to talk about women in sport and had a great discussion with a female presenter before we went live on TV, and the male presenter kicked off with, ‘So, now there’s gender equality’ … I thought ‘Sorry?’ He absolutely ambushed it. Because the women’s hockey team made it on to the BBC News, that was it, ‘job done’, ‘success’. I was so angry, so angry. The female TV presenter grovelled and apologised afterwards. But I was just like, ‘This sums it up. Absolutely sums it up’. And that attitude there made me go, ‘Right, this battle is definitely up and running – even more so’ … Still really angry!

OC It’s good to get angry. There is clearly a groundswell of women in business who want to see this changing.

CT I fought hard during my career to try to make my gender irrelevant, that I was a good cricketer and it didn’t matter whether I was a woman or a man. And, yet, the experience that you have is bound by the fact that you play women’s cricket. It’s much easier now – there are many more clubs that play cricket – but there was one club in three counties when I first started playing, and that was the only club I could go to. Thank God it was quite close because, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been a cricketer.

What about how sportswomen are portrayed in the media? Is it ever acceptable to sexualise sport, male or female?

CT It’s all about the sport and your ability and it really should not matter what you look like.

SH The stigma that’s attached to that and the profiling that we do see of certain female athletes is enough to put an awful lot of girls off ever thinking that they could ever play to that level. Because, they’ll never look like that, they’ll never be that beautiful – if that’s what you want to call it. And I see that in my own daughter.

OC I think we’re much better than we ever used to be, aren’t we? The media don’t just select a very small number of women and present them to us as a fully packaged, polished example of beauty.

SH To be honest, we also have some sportswomen that don’t help themselves, either.

OC But isn’t that their choice?

SH It is their choice, but it doesn’t help the rest of us.

HM I think that if Serena Williams looked different … She’s a phenomenal, phenomenal athlete, hugely successful, yet doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as she should do. If you look at the 16 gold medallists from the women’s GB hockey team, which ones have got higher profiles? Not the ones that contributed the most, or scored the winning goal, or had been captain for 13 years. It’s the ones that looked prettiest, and you can see the opportunities that come for them. So, it’s blindingly obvious, still, there’s a way to go.

Serena Williams
Serena Williams doesn’t get the recognition she deserves Credit: EPA

OC How do we go about changing that?

HM We celebrate contribution. We celebrate skill. Exactly the same as we do with men. We celebrate competition, so that when two athletes have just competed and it’s a brilliant showcase of what they do and what they’re about then we celebrate that person.

RH There was a study that was done around the Olympics and it looked at the language that was used to describe women’s sport and men’s sport. The men were ‘strong’ and ‘competitive’, and the women were ‘trying really hard’.

OC With women it’s much more of a problem in terms of, ‘the more attractive women get more coverage’. But I think that’s a reflection of a wider malaise in society and it’s not just sport. Look at Mrs [Samantha] Cameron. How many times do I have to read where her dresses are from? Mr [Philip] May? Does anybody comment on how he looks, how he scrubs up?

RH If we get more young girls playing sport, they’ll build in confidence and self-esteem and they will move into positions of leadership. They’ll have as many opportunities as the boys to do that and then society will start to change. It’s about the empowerment benefits of sport and playing sport, just as much as it is changing sport itself.

Is the fastest way to do that getting as many women as possible into leadership positions?

RH The evidence is clear from business that gender diversity at the board level makes a business more successful. The reason the Government wants to see 30 per cent of women on boards is then the sport sector will be more sustainable.

CT I find often that I’m the only woman on the cricket committee. But I’m not just going to talk about the women’s game and women players. I need to hold them to account to make sure that they do think about women when they’re thinking about things. But I’ve got opinions on the Laws of the game, I’ve got an opinion on the male players. So, it shouldn’t just be that, because there’s a woman on the board, it’s, ‘Over you go’.

Women In Sport

Do we think we will ever get to a place where we are not talking about this anymore and, if so, how long will it take?

RHYes, we will. But I can’t tell you when it will be. Because it isn’t just sport changing, it’s about societal change. And, hopefully, one influences the other. But I think it’ll be foolish to put a time frame on it.

OC I don’t think we’ll see it in my lifetime.

CT It will take two or three generations to change the culture.

OC I’m of a very positive mind-frame but I’m incredibly realistic and I think that, until our daughters are grandmothers, then maybe the people coming behind them don’t have to talk about it anymore. But because there is still such disparity, there is still such inequality, we’ve got to make sure that we work hard to make sure that our daughters have a better chance and they have to continue that work to make sure that their daughters have a better chance. So, not in our lifetimes.

BR All agreed?

HM, SH and RH Yes.

To find out more on Investec and Women in Sport’s research into the link between playing sport and success in business download ‘Sport for Success’ at investec.co.uk


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