Women in Sport
International Women’s Day is celebrated every year on the 8th March. Its aim is to celebrate women’s achievements and increasing visibility, while calling out inequality. In the sporting world, their mission is to celebrate women athletes and applaud when equality is achieved in pay, sponsorship and visibility. Their theme for 2021 is Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world, and it celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and highlights the gaps that remain.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, we take a look back at the history of women in sport, how far it has come and what obstacles it faces in the future.
History of Women’s Sport
The origin of organized women’s sport can be traced back to the 6th century B.C. Although the ancient Olympic games were initially organized in honor of the 12 Olympian Gods of Greece, 5 of which were women (Hera, Athena, Artemis, Demeter and Aphrodite), in the middle of the 6th century BC, the Greek government banned all women from any sort of participation in the competition. The ancient Greek women formed their own competition – ‘The Heraean Games’ which took place every year and involved only one event – the stadion – which was a running competition similar to the men’s event but 1/6 shorter. There are many key dates and many inspirational women who set standards and opened doors for many others along the way. We have listed just some of these to give an idea of how far women’s sport has come since the 19th century.
- 1842 – Ann Glanville formed a crew of four female rowers who took part in local regattas often beating the men
- 1896 – The first women’s collegiate basketball championship was played
- 1900 – 22 women (2.2 per cent) out of a total of 997 athletes competed in the Olympics for the first time over five sports (tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf)
- 1921 – On 5 December 1921, the English FA banned its members from allowing women’s football to be played at their grounds and forbade its members from acting as referees or linesman at women’s games.
- 1969 – The English Women’s Football Association was formed
- 1972 – Title IX passed in the US stating that ‘No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance’
- 1976 – Nadia Comăneci, won 3 Olympic gold medals at the 1976 Summer Olympics and was the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastic event
- 1981 – The first women were co-opted to the International Olympics committee
- 1982 – The NCCA began sponsoring women’s basketball
- 1991 – A historic decision by the International Olympic Committee stipulated that any new sport seeking to be included had to include women’s events
- 1996 – The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) league was founded as the women’s counterpart to the NBA
- 1999 – Carolina Morace became the first female coach of a men’s professional soccer team in Italy
- 2012 – The London Olympics were the first games in which women competed in all sports on the program
- 2015 – Tickets for the Women’s Singles final of the 2015 US Open sell out faster than the Men’s final, a first in tournament history
- 2018 – In October 2018, the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires were the first fully gender balanced Olympic event ever
- 2021 – More than a century after women first competed at the Olympic Games, female athlete numbers will finally be almost at parity with those of the men at the Tokyo Olympic Games. A new record of 48.8% is expected with a commitment to reach full gender equality for the Olympic Games Paris 2024.
Challenges to gender inequality
Not many people are aware of the popularity of women’s soccer in 1920s England. In the early 20th century, women’s football grew almost as quickly as the men’s game, and reached new heights during the first world war. A women’s soccer match in 1920 had 53,000 in attendance (Dick Kerr’s ladies vs St. Helen’s Ladies) at Everton’s Goodison Park with a further 14,000 outside the grounds. In December 1921, the FA (National Football Association) banned women from playing on Football League grounds and forbade its members from acting as referee or linesman at women’s games. They claimed that the game of football was ‘quite unsuitable’ for females and shouldn’t be encouraged. Several doctors agreed that the sport posed a serious physical risk to women. This ban wasn’t lifted until 1971. Similar bans took place in Brazil, Germany and France.
Female participation in sport began a dramatic increase in the last quarter of the 20th century and the current rate of change is one of the major trends in the sport industry. But women who play sports today can still face many obstacles. Speaking at the Women in Sport Summit in Melbourne in 2019, Kate Jenkins, the sex discrimination commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, outlined a number of key challenges to gender equality in sport over the coming years. These include:-
- Equal Pay
- Support from Media and sponsors
- Participation at Grass Roots level
- Fan Engagement
- Facilities and Access
Fan engagement for women’s sport is higher than ever but the majority of female athletes are still working a second job and this has a huge effect on their preparation for high performance. Female athletes are often balancing work, training and travel. Experiences of women and girls at all level of sport is critical to engagement and the continued growth of women’s sport.
The effect of the Covid Pandemic on Women’s Sport
The impact of Covid 19 on sport in general has meant uncertainty and a huge loss in revenue. It is true that the same issues impacted both men and women but not all sports, or athletes, have been affected equally. The pandemic in many ways has exposed the already fragile foundations of women’s sport and the rescheduling of men’s events in a lot of cases was prioritized over women’s competitions. In The impact of Covid-19 on women’s sport – how the virus compounds funding disparities, Lydia Banerjee uses women’s soccer as a case study to point out some of the discrepancies:-
- Liverpool, winners of the 2019/2020 Premier League won approx £175million. Chelsea, winners of the Women’s Super League received just £100,000
- The Premier League returned after the initial lockdown period and completed their season giving these clubs a chance to earn from broadcast revenue and other streams. The Women’s Super League didn’t return.
- There has been a huge drop in revenue across the board, given that matches have been played behind closed doors, but the clubs do receive the broadcasting revenue. In 2018/2019 clubs earned at least £82m in broadcast revenue with the top clubs earning nearly double that. The Women’s Super League relies heavily on fans attending their matches and earn very little from broadcasting rights.
She points out that in terms of Covid-19 this means that:-
- Men’s clubs have much greater reserves to call on during this pandemic. Women’s teams have no reserves.
- Male players often earn enough to have gym equipment in their own homes, allowing them to continue training. Most females do not have this available and often cannot attend gyms due to lockdown protocols.
- Funding to support high level of testing requirements is not readily available for the women’s teams.
- The Women’s FA cup was suspended during the FA cup as due to the more amateur nature of the game they were unable to train and compete during the restrictions.
Linda further points out that in most sports there is a direct correlation between success and funding – a classic chicken and egg scenario. She outlines that what is needed now is serious commitments from clubs and other governing bodies to secure funding for the women’s game. The current pandemic risks undermining all the years of recent progress in women’s sport.
Taking on gender inequality
In March 2019, the US Women’s National Team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation. In terms of success, the US women in recent times, have won 4 World cups and 4 Olympic gold medals. In court, lawyers on behalf of the US Soccer Federation stated
WNT and MNT players do not perform equal work requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility under similar working conditions
MNT have responsibility for competing in multiple soccer tournaments with the potential for generating a total of more than $40 million in prize money for U.S. Soccer every four years…WNT compete in only one soccer tournament every four years that has the potential to generate any prize money at all, and most recently that amounted to one-tenth of the amount the MNT players could generate.”
Coca-Cola, one of the sport’s largest sponsors, blasted U.S. Soccer calling the comments “unacceptable and offensive” and requested at the time to meet the federation immediately to express their concerns. On Wednesday, March 11th, U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro apologized for
the offense and pain caused by language in this week’s court filing, which did not reflect the values of our Federation or our tremendous admiration of our Women’s National Team. Our WNT players are incredibly talented and work tirelessly, as they have demonstrated time and again from their Olympic Gold medals to their World Cup titles
He resigned from his role the day after. The case went to trial in May 2020. A US district court judge rejected the USWNT’s allegations of gender discrimination and ruled in favor of the US Soccer Federation, declaring that the team had not been underpaid. It allowed their lawsuit to proceed provided it focused on working conditions, such as team travel, accommodation and professional support. The case was settled in December 2020 where the US Soccer Federation said it
denies that it did anything wrong and maintains that it has not discriminated against plaintiffs on the basis of sex in pay or working conditions
Under the terms of the settlement, members of the women’s team will now receive the same conditions as their male counterparts, including chartered flights for team travel, comparable hotel accommodation and specialized professional support services. The USWNT players intend to appeal the decision regarding equal pay.
Leading the way
In October 2018, the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires were the first fully gender balanced Olympic event ever. More than a century after women first competed at the Olympic Games, female athlete numbers will finally be almost at parity with those of the men at Tokyo Olympic Games. A new record of 48.8% is expected with a commitment to reach full gender equality for the Olympic Games, Paris 2024.
Global initiatives are helping to bring women in sport to the forefront. The 20×20 initiative in Ireland had the tag line ‘If she can’t see it, she can’t be it’. It became a national movement to champion girls and women in sport and it was the first initiative of its kind in Ireland. Its main objective was to create a cultural shift in society through a 20% increase in participation, media coverage and attendance in women’s sport by the end of 2020. All Irish people regardless of age and gender were asked to #showyourstripes for women in sport. By the end of 2020, over 76 sporting bodies signed the 20×20 charter; 600 clubs across 45 sports signed the club charter and 28 out of Ireland’s 30 national universities signed the 20×20 3rd Level Charter. The charter set out the commitment of each sporting body to bring women’s sport to the fore and provide equal opportunities to girls and women in regards to coverage, participation and attendance in their sport. The 20×20 campaign created 17% increase in participation, 34% in attendances and 50% in online and print coverage.
Team Heroine is an organization started to help brands and right’s holders unleash the power of women’s sport to create and captivate fans. They selected The 10 Best Women’s Sport Campaigns Of 2020 in a recent article. Their top 3 picks for 2020 were:-
3rd place: Sport England x This Girl Can – Me Again Again
This campaign focused on the reality that many women across England (and the world) were facing with the added pressures due to the Covid pandemic. They focused on inspiring women to get active in a way that suited them emphasizing that there is no right or wrong way to get active – If it gets your heart rate up, it counts.
2nd place: Super Bowl x Microsoft – Katie Sowers Be The One
Microsoft used the biggest and most expensive moment in US sport, the Super Bowl to celebrate San Francisco 49ers Offensive Assistant Coach, Katie Sowers who was the first female coach to feature in the Super Bowl. It paid homage to females breaking down barriers and showed the world that women belong in all areas of sport
1st place: ESPN x WNBA – WNBA Orange Hoodies
ESPN teamed up with the WNBA for their the #OrangeHoodie campaign to raise awareness of its opening weekend in July 2020. The NBA’s players promoted their counterparts in the WNBA by wearing the orange hoodie. It became the best-selling WNBA item ever and the first game of the season was the most-watched WNBA opener since 2012.
There are many more initiatives like this globally and all help bring awareness and attention to the development of women’s sport.
Despite all the obstacles, the future for women’s sports does look bright and there are so many more opportunities for young women in sport than there were even 10 years ago. Women’s sport has started to thrive even without fully funded systems and infrastructure. The FIFA’s women’s world cup in 2019 in France was the 8th women’s world cup in soccer. The final between the United States and Netherlands was the most watched match in Women’s World Cup history. According to FIFA data, the match received an average live audience of 82.18 million, up by 56% on the 2015 final.
In her article Sex, the World Cup and Breaking Up the Boys’ Club, Dr. Emily Ryall commented that
Great sport requires only three things:
– excellence of skill,
– uncertainty of outcome
– and a crescendo of drama until the last second.
Gender or sex is irrelevant
Organizations such as the Women’s Sports Foundation(set up in 1974 by Billie Jean King) and more recently the 20×20 initiative aim to create a cultural shift in our perception of girls and women in life and sport.
This isn’t a ‘women for women’ initiative, it’s ‘all of society for all of society’. If sport is good, which we know it to be, then more sport is better. If we all play, we all win. 20×20 is asking all sections of Irish society to show their stripes and pledge one small action to increase the visibility of women’s sport in Ireland because if she can’t see it, she can’t be it
Metrifit is proud to support women’s sport and offers specific female tracking. Using Metrifit helps to provide deeper context to inform the decision making process, helping athletes perform at their best. Subjective wellness questionnaires along with player training load data helps drive professional conversation and actionable tasks to enhance the sporting results and quality of life for athletes and teams.
Metrifit’s athlete monitoring and well-being software is used world-wide in team environments in Universities, High Schools, National Associations and with professional and amateur teams across many sports. Our new lifestyle profiling functionality is based on years of experience in this area – we know the key factors that underlie optimal performance. This is available for coaches and teams but also for individual athletes. It provides an essential baseline to assess where you are, and set goals and objectives to improve in key areas that ultimately will improve your performance.
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