By Aine Cleary
Sport has historically been culturally dominated by men, frequently used as a means to exhibit masculine physical attributes such as strength and stamina. The contrast that forms between male and female sports are often based on these physical attributes, with the female sports often being perceived as ‘slower’ and ‘of lower skill’ when compared to their respective male counterparts. Obviously, this is an arbitrary comparison cultivated by the media, who reinforce this by using the terms “sport” and “women’s sport”, rather than men’s sports and women’s sport or in the demeaning reference to women pursuing sports as ‘tomboys’ or ‘masculine’. In addition, media outlets have been guilty of diminishing female athletes, particularly in the overt sexualisation of their coverage that overshadows their skills and achievements.
Positive media coverage is essential to change the gender stereotypes that exist. The 20×20 campaign ran from 2018 to 2020. Its aim was to create a cultural shift and a change in attitudes towards women in sport. HerSport is Ireland’s only media platform dedicated to women in sport. It creates a platform to celebrate the skills and achievements of women.
Irish athletes such as Sonia O Sullivan, Cora Staunton and Katie Taylor have also changed how women in sport are perceived and showed that there is a place for women even in elite sports. Sonia O Sullivan is one of Ireland’s greatest ever athletes having won five Sportsperson of the Year Awards, more than any other athlete. In 2019 Cora Staunton became the first female GAA player to write an autobiography and the Katie Taylor documentary released in the same year showed massive progression in interest and respect for female athletes. Despite this it remains clear that women must achieve the extraordinary to gain recognition.
The primary issues for women in sport are; the fight for equal treatment, equal pay and equal opportunities. According to an Irish Examiner report, just 5% of sport print media coverage was focused on women in 2020. This is despite the fact that 40% of participants in sport are female. Sport Ireland has set out targets under the ‘policy on women in sport’ including increased female participation in coaching, officiating and leadership. Gender pay gaps still exist in many sports, including soccer and golf. Professional female soccer players earn just a fraction of the fee earned by male players. The argument is often made that the media coverage represents the interest levels, and that the higher wages are due to the higher commercial value. However, without increased visibility and access to women’s sport it is impossible for women’s sport to reach a similar level of interest to men’s.
Gender equality in sport would ensure that all children have an equal chance of succeeding in sport regardless of their gender. Increased female participation would have benefits for both mental and physical health. Gender equality would also be economically beneficial for all stakeholders in sport, increased female participation and interest in sport creates a larger market. Women’s sport is an untapped market with a lot of potential.
Investment in women’s sport is essential to ensure equal access and equal opportunities becomes a reality. The media has a huge role to play, it is difficult to create more interest in the women’s game without media coverage and recognition.