Where Are All the Sports Women?

In this blog post I’d like to share with you my findings from a very unscientific study into the representation of female sportspeople. Over the course of the past 6 weeks (35 days) I have found that of over 117 stories to be featured in the Guardian’s sports side bar have been about women. Yes, you heard right, over 35 days 117 stories featured on the side bar, just 3 of them concerned women in sports.

What I Did:

I have followed the sports side tab on The Guardian home page for the past six weeks (October 13th-November 21st), screenshotting each day (I only followed weekdays). Of the six weeks that I was undertaking this content analysis only three stories appeared that featured women in sports, despite there having been many opportunities to represent more (the WTA World Tour Finals took place during data collection for example and only one featured, meanwhile there were lots of stories that concerned the ATP World Tour Finals). Of the three articles, one was about Christine Ohuruogu’s comments of concern regarding Doha 2019, another was about Liverpool’s retention of the Women’s Super League title, and somewhat ironically the third story that was featured was a story specifically about sexism in sport. 

Take a look at these images from the study just to see how dearth the reporting of women’s sports were on the homepage. Click on any image for a larger version of it (it also opens up a gallery) and you can see the date of the screenshot on the image too.

What I found:

While this might not be the most scientific of studies (I screenshotted at different times in the day, and may have missed the odd story about women in sports as features changed), but the findings are clear. Women in sports are almost entirely invisible in this form of media. Let me reiterate, 3 out of 35 days, 3 out of 117 stories. This is just not good enough. It’s not.

Why it Matters

The invisibility of women in sport is something that has frustrated me for some time, and is something that I think has a big impact on the ways in which women and girls imagine themselves in relation to sport. Based on my findings I don’t think its a stretch to say that women are represented vastly differently in the world of sport to their male counterparts (lets not even get into the impact the insistence of a gender-binary in sport has on trans and queer sportspeople – a whole other ballgame).

This difference in representation has an impact, it has an impact on the women that are in sport, it has an impact on the sports that women choose to go into, it has an impact on whether women even want to go into sport. A recent study into exercise in England found that women undertake much fewer physical activities than men:

  • 67% of men and 55% of women aged 16 and over met the new recommendations for aerobic activity. 26% of women and 19% of men were classed as inactive.
  • 46% of men and 37% of women reported walking of at least moderate intensity for 10 minutes or more on at least one day in the last four weeks.
  • 52% of men and 45% of women had taken part in sports/exercise at least once during the past four weeks.

Source: HSCIC, 2014.

When it comes to events such as the Paralympics, male sportspeople continue to dominate. For example, at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Summer Games the total percentage of female participants was just 35%. Meanwhile London 2012 saw only a marginal improvement:

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 14.53.22From: http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/aug/30/paralympic-teams-athlete-numbers-gender-data

One of the arguments that I’d like to make is that women have to see women doing sport in order to imagine themselves doing sport. This comes back to the See Jane motto of ‘if she can see it, she can be it’.

There’s widespread discourse about sport being un-feminine. Women’s bodies look ‘less attractive’ during sport, we sweat and perhaps we get muscles. All of these things lie in opposition to the feminine ideals still propagated in the beauty myth (which has lots of implications in terms of race, ability, class). And so, its crucial that women (and men, and everyone else) see that women’s bodies can be athletic (whatever they may look like when actually doing sport), and that women are valued when taking part in sport. And this leads me to the final reason for why we need fair representation of women in sports.

Women still earn less than men and women are often valued less when undertaking sports (professional and otherwise). This was clearly demonstrated in the findings of the BBC report into prize winnings, where they found that men earn more than women in 30% of sports. The following infographic collated from this study displays the disparity starkly:

BBC prize disparity infographic

One of the greatest achievements of patriarchy in recent years is to downplay the financial inequalities that women face in 2014. One of the most common comments that I am given by people that question my feminism is, ‘but we’re all equal now, right?’. Well, no, unfortunately we’re not, and no such place that this is more starkly demonstrated than in sports prize winnings. Women spend no less time in training than men, and yet they are not equally rewarded for their hard work. Women have been undertaking inspiring feats and yet we rarely see films the scale of Rush, Chariots of Fire, or Ali featuring sportswomen at our box offices. We need to see women in sport in our media not simply because (although, why not ‘just because’?), but because we need to inspire women and girls into undertaking sport, into seeing that if they do so they will be valued (equally), because it encourages girls and women into living healthier lifestyles, because sport is for everyone not just the few.

Because, if she can’t see it, she probably won’t be it.


(For inspiring stories about women in sports, as well as opportunities to get involved, see places like Women’s SportNet*, IPC Women in Sport, or check out your local sports centre/council for opportunities)

Kindness and Peer Review.

I’m never sure if I should write about this sort of thing, because I often fear that in doing so I’ll reveal myself as either a) the shabby and fraudulent academic writer that I am, or b) an academic that can’t handle the heat of the job. But I want to write about it because if I don’t then it won’t be said and we can’t actually get around to making any changes. Nadine Muller’s academic consciousness raising has taught me that much of the feeling of inadequacy that academics experience isn’t something that is, nor should be, considered ‘normal’ and it seems to serve little purpose other than to make people feel crap (read: not actually progressing the field). I know that I am definitely not alone in dealing with mental health problems that have either been caused by, or at least exacerbated by being in academia.

So, I want to spend a moment thinking about the peer review process, and the impact that it has on us. Peer review is an essential part of the academic process. It ensures that the work that we produce is up to the necessary standards, that we are progressing knowledge with work that is of the highest quality.

One criticism that has come up in conversation recently is the lack of peer review. We write and write and write for publication and sometimes when we receive feedback (good or negative) it is only a couple of lines long. But today I’m not discussing that type of feedback, I talking about the feedback that is substantive, but its substantive and mean.

Now, I should note that peer reviewers work for free, we take time out of our already busy workloads to review work, and that doesn’t always lead to the best working conditions for reviewers. But I’ve noticed that there’s a common issue where some reviewers are being unnecessarily unkind in their reviews. This is when the review reads more as ‘cutting’ than it does constructive. I always try to be constructive, even when pointing out the flaws in the work, but that doesn’t seem to be common practice (I know a number of colleagues at various levels who have all received unnecessarily mean reviews from a particular journal). The problem seems to be that reviewers seem happy with taking the author down, along with the work. This is something that can be particularly damaging to authors that are early in their career, attempting to carve out a name for themselves.

Take this comment from a recent review I received as an example:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 13.53.33

Okay, so maybe I used the phrase too often (I am reminded this later on by the reviewer):

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 14.06.15

Okay, okay, I get it. But there are ways to say it. Now that I have some distance from the review I can almost find it comical (by this point in reading the review for the first time I’d actually started crying), but I just wonder how hard it would have been for the reviewer to stop for a second and wonder if they would like to read what they were writing if it was their work under review. Such catty remarks serve not to progress the work to where it needs to be, but to push the author away from it altogether. Its hard to go back and try and take constructive comments from a review that makes you feel bad about yourself when you read it.

This following piece of writing from Bev Skeggs is one that resonates with me. I have it pinned up on my office wall as a reminder that even some of the most sophisticated thinkers struggle with their identity in academia:


I talk about my class a lot. I have spent a lot of time in the university context feeling that this is not a space for me. I don’t know the language, I don’t know how to use the space, I don’t know how to fit in. I’ve struggled to write academically throughout my career, what grammar goes where and how to use longer words. To use entirely inaccessible language here, my habitus is faulty. And sometimes it feels that the peer review process only seeks to reaffirm that to me. So, when I see:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 13.30.20

I read: ‘You don’t belong here. You are not good enough‘.

But then I reflect on how I have lots of friends and colleagues from more affluent backgrounds who have the same anxieties as me, so I’m not even sure its a class issue. I think instead its actually a “don’t be so fucking mean” issue.

And maybe the piece of work wasn’t quite right, it probably wasn’t ready for publication in that state. That’s fine, I can live with that. Most pieces of work need some or maybe even a lot of attention before they’re ready. And sometimes, a piece of work could have a fundamental flaw at some level and it won’t ever be viable for publication. But there are ways of saying it.

So, what I want to encourage us to all do is to realise that firstly, we’re not alone in this, and secondly, it’s not on. We can all do a little bit in our own reviews of other people’s work, asking ourselves if we would be happy to receive the comments we’re giving. We seem to be stuck in some nasty cycle where we get a mean review and assume that’s just how its done, repeating the cycle. For lots of reasons academia has ended up in this really shitty place where people find themselves getting ground down in all avenues of their work. Peer review could be an easy place to enact some changes.

And then again, I still feel that sharing this is a risk. Its a risk because I do run the risk of revealing myself as a poor academic. But I’m not a poor academic, and I have to have faith in that, we all do. It doesn’t feel right to say “I’m well regarded by my peers” because we’re constantly taught to second-guess ourselves. But you know what? I think I am well regarded by my peers. I have produced, and published, good academic work. I want to fucking own those statements.

We’re constantly taught that what we’re doing isn’t good enough, we’re not working hard enough, stress isn’t stress until you’re in hospital. But we have to change that. We have to say that “I want to work in a supportive, constructive and kind environment, an environment where we’re not in competition with one another, but where we want to see our colleagues strive and achieve for the good of both them, and for the progression of knowledge”, and we have to fight for achieving that environment.