England’s women have had an impressive sporting summer. The Lionesses defeated their close rivals, France, in the UEFA Women’s Championship (the Women’s Euros, in common parlance), ultimately being conquered by the victorious Netherlands in August. It was only the second time that they had advanced further than the group stages since 1997. The Women’s Rugby World Cup was hosted in Ireland in August, and England’s team made it through to the final, beaten at the last by the impressive New Zealand squad. Johanna Konta made it to the singles semi-finals of Wimbledon, the first British women to attain such a high position in the tournament since Virginia Wade in 1978. Wimbledon is arguably Britain’s most famous sporting event, while football and rugby are the two sports which have the highest profile in the UK’s cultural awareness, so these are hardly insignificant achievements.
With that potted history of the major sporting accomplishments complete, some of which were more thoroughly reported than others, we’ve got to question why women’s sports don’t seem to get the same level of coverage and media hype as men’s sports do. Over the course of each of the tournaments mentioned, there was a distinct drought of articles about the women’s teams and the progress they had made. Apart from the stories which reported the most significant moments – England getting into the WRWC final, Johanna Konta being in with a shot to reach the final of Wimbledon – the articles reporting on these championships were scarce, and apparently secondary to whatever was going on in the world of men’s sport at the time.
I realise that this is not a particularly well-founded or professional journalistic assertion, since there are no firm statistics to back up my claims; however, I will say this. Make a habit of checking the sports section of whatever newspaper, paper or online, that you get your news from. I can say, with almost total certainty, that the number of stories about men’s sports vastly outnumbers the amount of coverage for women’s sports, nearly every single day. The question changes entirely once you consider the spread of articles covering women’s international events compared to national games, which are almost entirely invisible compared to the international events just peeking above the parapet.
Of course, there are exceptions and it would be unfair to crowd all news outlets together and brand them as guilty of inadequately representing women in sport. Perhaps the consumers of sports news are also partially to blame; after all, newspapers don’t want to commission stories that won’t be read, simply because there is very little point in spending time writing articles with a minor viewership. We are left, then, with a question of where the problem starts. Does it start with society itself, which has historically demonstrated little interest in women’s sports, even now that women are participating in most sports which were previously male-dominated? Or would that interest be better fuelled if there was more publicity and representation of women in sports? Or is it the result of any number of different possible answers?
But representation is hugely important, simply because it offers possibilities to young girls, our next generation of Team GB (if it still exists when they’re old enough to compete on a national stage) that they could be a goalie like Karen Bardsley, or a tennis player like Johanna Konta. It tells them that they can be good enough even just to stand on a court, or a pitch, or a field, and play for fun. It’s imperative that they see examples of strong, fit women to emulate and admire, particularly when boys are swamped with footballers, not all of whom are necessarily admirable, to model themselves on. Media matters.
The number of articles about women isn’t the only problem. Stories about women over the last two months have included their sports kits, after a row about ‘slut-shaming’ female players in the LPGA earlier this year, and the way that they are ‘breaking new ground’ in some previously male-dominated sport, like Jamie Chadwick who will soon be the first female F1 driver. This tiring and patronising attitude positions women in sport as ‘other’ and alien, implying that their very presence and appearance is enough to be remarked about, while, ironically, their careers in sports are secondary. It’s frustrating, to say the least.
Representation of women in sports needs to change, and it needs to turn more towards concerns about their wins, their losses, and their achievements. Coverage inspires participation. Participation encourages more events to take place. More events lead to more coverage. And so it spirals outwards.