Women In: Sports

Meet the women who are leaping over gender hurdles in the sporting world

Many things that have a deep history of being gendered have been neutralised in the last few years.

Technology, science and architecture are just a few examples of industries in which women are starting to make their mark.

But regardless of the progress we’ve made when it comes to achieving gender equality, there are still some industries that continue to fail women.

Sport is one of them.

THE HISTORY

Women have been underrepresented in sport for a long time. Whilst football in England can be traced as far back as the 12th century, the first official record of women’s football was not until 1895, when North London and South London teams played at Crouch End.

Even then, the women’s game was laughed at, disrespected and degraded. A journalist from the Daily Sketch reported that: “The first few minutes were sufficient to show that football by women, if the British Ladies be taken as a criterion, is totally out of the question. A footballer requires speed, judgement, skill, and pluck. Not one of these four qualities was apparent on Saturday. For the most part, the ladies wandered aimlessly over the field at an ungraceful jog-trot.”

The score was North London 7-1 South London.

Women have excelled in the sport since then, with women’s football mirroring that of men’s in many ways. But despite the improvements, why is there still a striking lack of media coverage surrounding women’s sports?

THE ADVOCATEs

Elise Hughes is a forward for Everton Football Club. At only 19, she’s already had a successful footballing career, having played nationally for Wales.

Elise has had to work incredibly hard to earn her position in women’s football, but still believes there’s more to be done to give women in the industry the recognition they deserve. When asked why she thinks women’s football has so little coverage compared to men’s, her answer was simple:

“The men’s game brings in more revenue and more money. The coverage is biased because it’s supply and demand. What the people want, men’s football, has more fans.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Charlotte Evans, the vice chairwoman for Liverpool John Moores University’s woman’s football team. Although Charlotte’s work is primarily off the pitch, she is still faced with challenges different to that of her male counterparts:

“The standard of men’s football is higher, perhaps due to the stigma surrounding women in football until more recent years. However, I would say with the right systems set in place women’s football is beginning to vastly improve.”

If the fanbase is one of the key reasons why women’s sports are so vastly underrepresented, what can we do to get more women interested in the field?

THE CHALLENGES

Even now, as with many other things, women question whether they’re ‘allowed’ to watch and enjoy sports. Not only is it seen as a man’s hobby, but it seems impossible that women are allowed to enjoy a lot of things without having to justify their pleasure by offering a long list of extensive knowledge about the subject to anyone who asks.

If they don’t know ‘enough,’ they are accused of pretending to enjoy something for male attention. Women still struggle to exist without men thinking everything we do is for them and sport is no different.

Elise thinks this is the same for women on the pitch as well as off:

“Men earn respect the moment they say they are footballers whereas women are constantly questioned about the level they play at, if they make a living from playing at the top level and always being compared to the men’s game, even though they are completely different.”

But making a living from football is yet another hurdle that women have to overcome.

According to research from Sporting Intelligence, the average salary in the English Premier League can be up to 99 times higher than the top paid women’s counterparts.

On top of the extortionate pay gap between women’s and men’s football, Charlotte believes there are attitudes taken by those in the industry that do nothing to help ease the stigma:

“Certain referees speak to you in a patronising and disrespectful tone that they would never take with lads, both at uni level and Sunday league.”

For many women in football, payment isn’t a huge issue. It’s an industry that isn’t entered into without passion and drive, regardless of the pay. It’s an industry you have to enjoy being in before money comes into the question.

But with the obstacle of pay removed, shouldn’t women at least be offered the same level of respect and tolerance male footballers are granted, both off and on the pitch?

THE SOLUTION

“[Women’s football] needs to be its own sport.” Elise told me when I asked her how we can improve the treatment of women in the industry.

“What I mean by that is that it’s constantly compared to the men’s game. It’s hard for someone who’s never watched women’s football to not compare it to the men’s game. But if more people had a clear mind watching the game, understanding that women have different strengths, they’d begin to grasp how good women can actually be.”

Charlotte agrees. She told me that we need to bring more education to the physical differences between the women’s and men’s sports, and realise that football isn’t one size fits all:

“Figures from both the male and female sport need to open a conversation that is both reasonable and forward thinking regarding the physical differences between men and women in sport, rather than the usual patronising talk.” 

Elise also thinks that safety, along with representation, is a key component in encouraging women to engage with sports:

“Women need to feel safer and more confident in a sports environment. Men are more likely to thrive in a competitive environment. I’m not saying women can’t thrive in that environment because they can, but if they saw more women advertised on the TV or social media then it would help women to believe that they can do it too.”

Regardless of the fact we still have a way to go when it comes to increasing coverage, awareness and involvement in women’s sports, we have come on leaps and bounds, especially in recent years. Elise has high hopes for the future:

“The improvements I’ve seen are incredible considering I’m at the start of my career… Being a professional 5 years ago meant that you still had to have a job. Players would train after work and play on weekends for little money. Now I live off my wage and the women’s game is only going in the right direction.”

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