When it Comes to Sports, It’s a Still a Man’s World

It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World. But it would be nothing without a woman or a girl. These lyrics from James Brown’s hit song was written in 1966. Today, as we stand at the dawn of a new decade more than 50 years later, does the statement still hold true? Maybe. In several disciplines we are reaching gender parity in representation. Yet sports may be one of the few areas where we still have a long way to go. As I get ready to settle into my comfy couch to enjoy Super Bowl Sunday, I reflect on women in sports and especially South Asian female athletes. How are we doing? I’m keeping score.

Let’s look at the scores for sports in three categories: 1)  Opportunity 2) Representation and 3) Equal Pay.

In the category of opportunity, there is good news. From being banned from participating in (or even watching) the Olympics, women today have more opportunities than ever to participate. However, in the early days, women had to undergo gender testing to ensure that they were not males gaming the system. Progress in the United States came in 1972 after the establishment of Title IX, a Federal law that mandates everyone will have “equal access to any educational program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance.” This access includes sports and legally requires federally funded institutions, ranging from public schools to private colleges, to provide girls and boys with equitable sports opportunities. And that’s important because “sports is one of the great drivers of gender equality” and plays a critical role in empowering women, according to UN Women, which last year signed a memorandum of understanding with FIFA to drive gender parity in sports.  “This is a significant moment for FIFA as we combine forces with UN Women to realise gender equality for women both on and off the pitch,” said Gianni Infantino, FIFA President. “Together, we will raise awareness about women’s football and its impact in terms of health, empowerment and positive role models for women and girls around the world.” We can claim hard-fought victory in this set. Our score: 1-0. 

Let’s now go to set number 2:  Representation, which to some degree can be judged by media coverage. According to the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, although women represent 40 percent of all American Athletes, they receive just 4 percent of sports media coverage. The one exception seems to be the Olympics, when media outlets globally focus on the females or women’s teams in gymnastics, ice skating or hockey. Why is this coverage important? Because such content and its viewership, and the resulting sponsorships from major corporate brands and media networks, impact the financial model of sports. If a sport doesn’t have a large viewership or sponsorship, it is not financially viable for those who play, which given the high costs of training for peak performance is particularly impactful on professional female athletes. So, we have a long way to go. Moreover, given the gender violence in sports issue, brought into sharp focus by the abuse members of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, athletics can be a downright dangerous profession for females to enter. We score a disappointing and disheartening 0 in this set.

Finally, let’s look at equal pay: Perhaps no team has brought this topic to life more than the United States women’s soccer team, which won the World Cup championships in France 2019. Last year, the team made their case in a gender discrimination federal court, arguing that they were inequitably compensated compared to the U.S. men’s soccer team. The two teams had different compensation structures regarding not just salaries and benefits, but also for matches and performance. The US agreed to a collective bargaining agreement granting the women higher compensation and improved working environment, and several other countries followed suit. Despite the success of this case, the compensation gap between female and male athletes is still wide, and we are set to lose this match for the foreseeable future because of the complexity and disparity of compensation models among sports. In this set, we competed well and get high marks for great volleys, but in the end, our score remains 0.

So the ultimate score: 1-2. We still have a long way to go, but we must celebrate the small victories. They motivate us and build momentum for a more equitable future. It may still be a man’s world, but we will continue to compete,  play and win the match of gender parity.

Check out this profile on Jasmine Maietta who brings sports and art together.

References:

https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2019/6/press-release-fifa-and-un-women-sign-mou

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/08/sports/soccer/world-cup-equal-pay.html