The fight for gender equality in sport: The women who strive for change

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In 2019, the U.S. Women’s soccer team had enough. For decades the group of women who played in this institutionalised ran sport experienced an unjust gender discriminative pay-gap. Since the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, the U.S. has achieved four titles in that time frame and have by far been the most successful soccer franchise in modern history above their male counterparts. In 2019, they filed a federal lawsuit alleging pay discrimination based on their gender. This lawsuit triggered widespread media coverage and opened up an active conversation on the continued gulf between male and female sports in terms of wages and other factors.

The conversation has been heard in other football associations with the Brazilian and English FA making the landmark decision in equaling the pay wage of both the men’s and women’s international team in early September. While this is refreshing news to those who are striving for equality the road is still a long and arduous test

The general argument against giving equal payment rates to males and females always strains from the profits generated in each case. It has been the case for decades that female sports haven’t attracted the same level of interest as men, and this is highlighted through the lack of insightful media coverage and marketing strategies. The tide is gradually shifting though towards a gender-neutral view of sports stars and teams. However, there needs to be an extensive restructuring in the major and minor sporting, marketing and media organisations to respect both genders equally.

The concept of advocating for equality in sport has not just been a recent upsurge of 21st idealism. There have been women across the world campaigning for their sporting rights since the end of WW1. This article is set to highlight the pioneers of female athleticism and their tremendous work in closing the gap for the future female athlete.

The Dick, Kerr Ladies Football team: The Factory Footballers

It would intrigue the most seasoned of sport admirers that a women’s football match in 1920 attracted 53,000 spectators. The first revolutionary move made by women in football was during WW1 when society required women to work in factories to replace the men that fought abroad. The stereotypical notion that a women’s frailty and demeanor was not suitable for the physicality of football was thrown out the window. As the war progressed, so did the women’s league. The most famous of these teams was Dick, Kerr Ladies FC from Preston. Founded in 1917, the club’s first match drew a crowd of 10,000 people. By 1920, a Boxing Day match against St Helen’s Ladies was watched by 53,000 spectators at Goodison Park. Their best player Lily Parr netted more than 1000 goals in a 31-year career, and she was the first woman to be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum in Preston.

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What would’ve been the beginning of a more competitive and structured women’s league turned sour. In 1921 the FA banned women from training or playing matches on pitches that were run by the association. As life returned to normal in post-war Britain, so did the belittling opinions on the females who previously enjoyed their football and freedoms. This set-back the factory teams, but they continued to play regardless of the taboo against female footballers. The injunction by the FA took 50 years to be lifted, a timeline which could have seen an extensive overhaul of modern gender discrimination in the 20th century.

The women in this story were ahead of their time. Imagination could only construct what women’s football would look today if they were allowed to play in a structured league. Today the WSL (Women’s Super League) in England have progressed but with continued issues over playing conditions, and poor attendance there hasn’t been a major change since 1921.

For the factory ladies of 1921, the era forced them into submission but they defied all odds, and they continued to play the game they love regardless.

Billie Jean King and Venus Williams – Equality for tennis

There are only a handful of sports in which men and women receive the same amount of prize money. Tennis is one of these sports that award such equality to their professional athletes. Such a feat wasn’t an easy road and if it weren’t for Billie Jean King during her whole playing career and Venus Williams in the mid to late 00s, then tennis would not be the trailblazer for equality it is today.

Billie Jean King was an outspoken rebel, the good kind that used her voice to campaign for social justice and continues to do so today. Her first experience of inequality was when she was 12-years old. She was removed from a group photo for wearing tennis shorts and not the traditional tennis skirt. The disparities she would experience progressed as she became the no.1 tennis player in the world, and it was clear she wasn’t going to stand for it.

In the 1960s and 1970s, she dominated the tennis world. At this time the civil rights movement rocked racial stereotypes, Billie Jean established her own campaign. Tennis tournaments at this time saw women players receive significantly lower prize money than those obtained by the male players. In 1971, Billie Jean became the first woman athlete to earn over $100,000 in prize money. Yet when she won the U.S. Open in 1972, she received $15,000 less than the men’s champion, Ilie Năstase. In 1973, she lobbied for equal prize money for men and women at the U.S. Open, and as a result of her efforts, a sponsor was found to level the playing field. During all this, she worked tirelessly to form the Women’s Tennis Association to allow players to be protected in the future.

On top of all this, what Billie Jean King is significantly recognised for is the ‘Battle of the Sexes’. Billie Jean King accepted a challenge to play a match against former number 1-ranked tennis player Bobby Riggs. In doing so, she launched her fight for parity into the worldwide limelight. Ultimately she beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3, and earned the winner-take-all prize of $100,000. The Battle of the Sexes tennis match was about more than merely defeating Riggs. She felt incredible pressure to win because, as she said afterwards, “it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”

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In 2007, 34-years after the radical equalisation in prize money in the US Open, American tennis player Venus Williams followed in Billie Jean’s footsteps by pleading with Wimbledon that women’s tennis players should receive prize money equal to the men’s. It took two years of her working with the Women’s Tennis Association—and writing an op-ed for the Times of London that went viral—before the organizers agreed to close the gap.

The use of media outlets to transition the equality battle is essential and for the sport of tennis, they utilised this effectively. In the Grand Slam competitions, both male and female matches are televised which only improve the image of the female tennis player. Especially since the mishap COVID-19 has created for world sport, media outlets are still prioritising male competitions to create a quicker flow of revenue and this has the potential to hurt women’s sport. Exposure creates interest and interest creates profits, isn’t that the least females deserve?

Skylar Diggins – Sponsorships, Pregnancy and pay-wage gap

Dallas Wings Skylar Diggins has reached the pinnacle any WNBA player has touched with 3 All-Stars awards but yet her contract wage will only be a fraction of what the lowest level bench players have made in the NBA. Her palpable frustration over the NBA’s salary cap of $94 million against the WNBA’s capped salary of only $115,000 has highlighted the chasm separating wage equality in the league. Some may give the argument that the interest isn’t there to allow for equality but these women may practice and play possibly more minutes than some of their NBA counterparts. Diggins public criticism towards the owners of her club and also leading sports network, ESPN has created dialogue in increasing exposure of the WNBA instead of “going into everything that [LeBron James] ate before they show a highlight of a WNBA game.”

Diggins and other athletes such as A’ja Wilson fought for years to achieve a compromise to the level wages were negotiated. The WNBA and its players’ union reached a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with improvements in pay and benefits. Before the CBA, female athletes received less than 30% of revenue-sharing and lost half of their salaries if they went on maternity leave during the season.

Sponsorship of female athletes is difficult to come by unless you have stellar ability and image in your sport. Diggins has some notable endorsements from Body Armour, Puma and Zappos has led her to new heights. A respectable image is essential to maintain sponsorship and for male athletes, these companies aim for straight narrow, ‘family-orientated’ men. On the other hand for sportswomen, they have to choose between motherhood or career. Major sponsors such as Nike have been reported for cutting contracts with female athletes who become pregnant, an ironic twist to the attitude towards the ‘family man’.

It was revealed in 2019 that Skylar Diggins played the entire 2018 season while pregnant which then, in turn, led her to miss the entirety of the 2019 season due to depression. Diggins is not alone in this game of secrecy as many other women have endured the same perceptions in regards to motherhood and sport. Olympic sprint athlete Natasha Hastings has revealed how she took 5 months to tell her sponsor Under Armour about her pregnancy in fear her financial support would be stripped just before Tokyo 2020. Luckily for Hastings, Under Armour were understanding and continued to sponsor her.

There was a clear message in the WNBA and certain companies against pregnancy before the athletes spoke up. A culture of perception surrounding females ‘weakness’ for being a mother and full-time athlete is reflected through the lack of maternity support in countless sporting organisations worldwide. While the conversation has started it takes generations to shift social and cultural norms surrounding females and motherhood.

20×20 initiative: Irish society and their athletes are creating noise around girls and women in sport

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‘If she can’t see it, she can’t be it’. A simple sentence that speaks waves around the future of women’s sport in Ireland. The 20×20 campaign is a concept to include national and local clubs in Ireland to support these three aims in 2020

  1. 20% more media coverage of women’s sport
  2. 20% more participation at player, referee, coaching and administration level
  3. 20% more attendance at women’s games and events

Using national sporting bodies and media outlets to actively support the movement there has been a significant increase in all three aspects despite the COVID-19 pandemic that has shaken the future of women’s sport altogether. The social media presence of the campaign from their ambassadors such as AWFL and Mayo GAA star Sarah Rowe and Arsenal Ladies and Irish International defender Louise Quinn have exposed the beauty of women’s sport.

Gender equality is a leading aspiration for the 20×20 campaign and for the younger generation to be inspired by female and male role models it would eradicate the stigma surrounding ‘women’s sport’.

While the campaign had evidence to be successful, Irish sport needs this more than ever. As the male sporting events have worked to return, there remains a deep shadow where the ladies have not been included in this return to play. In its fragile state women’s sport needs to be backed 100% and that is not going to happen if women’s sport is not exhibited on televisions or online while everyone remains at home.

Women have been marginalised for decades for participating, engaging and speaking about sport, 2020 and the years to come is where this turns around. The efforts that women have started is only the beginning of a deep-rooted fight for equality for future generations.

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