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)

Mystique? More Like The Feminine Mistake

Helen Grant’s belief is that when it comes to women’s sport we need to ‘give them what they want’, which are sports that are in one way or another beautifying. Cheerleading, ballet and roller skating (were Grant’s examples). Not only does such a claim render invisible all of the hard work that these bodies do when competing in such sports, but women’s interests are returned to thostrong_is_beautifulse of ‘being-looked-at’. Sport is, by its very nature, active. It is precisely about doing.

Jon Berger’s claim that ‘men act, women appear’ is therefore painfully relevant here. When discussing roller skating Grant said how wonderful the women taking part looked while doing the sport, with ‘lovely sparkly socks’ and ‘their hair done’ (clearly she wasn’t observing the brutal sport of roller derby, where while some of the socks may be sparkly, there is no time for hair under those sweat filled helmets). In such comments, the active women of competitive sport are reduced to little more than how they appear. Could you imagine if Welsh rugby star Adam Jones was told that his appearance when competing should now be a concern?

Look prettier Adam!

Look prettier Adam!

And this is the important thing, it’s not that women can’t or shouldn’t look presentable (whatever that means) when competing, but rather that this is not something we say or expect of men. Rather than encouraging women to take up sport because they can still look feminine while doing so, we should be encouraging women into sport because of what it allows them to do.