A question of (sexism in) sport

Despite plaudits from politicians, women's sport gets less media coverage than men's sport, says Natalie Davis, and sports pages largely feature women as eyecandy not athletes

Natalie Davis, 18 December 2009

The British Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony, held last week, highlighted a year of sensational sport. Now in its 56th year, it recognises sporting achivements across the disciplines - from football to ice skating, from tennis to snooker. Yet of the 56 years it has been running, only 13 of its winners have been female - less than 25%. Have British sportswomen achieved less? Do they lack the profile needed to win this award? Or is this figure representative of a deeper crisis in how women's sport is viewed and valued in our society?

womenscricketteam.gifIn August this year, the country celebrated the Ashes coming home. Yet the Ashes were, in a sense, already home. The England women's cricket team held on to their Ashes title in July, adding yet another achievement to an already outstanding year of success. In March, the England women's cricket team won the World Cup in Australia. This was followed by victory at the Twenty20 World Cup in June. Yet the media attention given to the women's cricket team relative to that given to the men's team is almost non-existent. You'd be forgiven for thinking England doesn't even have a women's cricket team.

In an official capacity, the women's team were given the recognition they deserved, for example, a reception at Downing St and captain Charlotte Edwards was awarded an MBE. But this failed to translate into substantial media coverage. We're talking about the performance of one of our national sporting teams, yet nobody is apparently interested. The transfer of a league two footballer is likely to get bigger headlines.

And it's not just cricket. Open any newspaper and you'll find scant coverage of any women's sport. The usual arguments which surface to defend this situation include: women aren't interested in sport, only men read the sports pages, women's sport is of a lower standard, women's sport is boring, and so on. But these are all circular arguments. The sports pages are designed for a male audience and alienate women in various ways. Targeting an entire section of the newspaper at men while excluding women, and then claiming women aren't interested, is illogical. And if sports coverage was more balanced between men and women, greater funding and resources would be invested in women's sports and the standard would be raised.

So in what ways are women excluded from sports coverage?

Firstly, there is a severe bias towards the quantity of men's sport over women's sport. In 2003, the Women Sports and Fitness Foundation undertook a study to assess the coverage of women's sport for one month in the print media, and then repeated the research in 2006. It found:

The results for the month do appear to show an increase between 2003 and 2006 in column inches given over to women and girls' sports from 3.3% to 4.8%, however, this is distorted by the two weeks of tennis and Winter Olympics coverage. During the one week when there was no tennis coverage or Winter Olympics, space devoted to female sports dropped to 3.4%. Football domination in the media results in all other sports competing for the little space that is left, however, even if football articles are excluded, only 14% of articles are devoted to female sports.

A quick survey of newspapers in the week of the World Athletics Championships (which should provide ample opportunity for covering women's sporting events) showed the following results (figures represent the number of articles focusing on women's sport vs the total number of sports articles):

Mon 17 Aug Tues18 AugWeds 19 AugThurs 20 AugFri 21 AugOverall %
Daily Mail3/502/232/302/430/315%
Guardian4/341/292/282/352/327%
Independent2/293/271/182/291/257%
Metro2/192/351/241/391/215%
Telegraph5/455/412/341/363/328%
Times4/322/241/132/282/368%

N.B. Articles were counted as 'focusing on women' if a female athlete was given substantial coverage in an article, even if the focus of the article was on a male athlete. Merely mentioning a female athlete in an article does not count. All sports pages and the front page of the main newspaper were included. Results columns, fixtures, etc were not included.

Obviously this is a small sample and a simple method of evaluation, but it does provide an indication of the quantitative bias that exists in the print media and the severe marginalisation of women's sport.

It is not just quantity that serves to propagate the impression the sports pages are for and about men. Women are also excluded via the placement of irrelevant pictures of 'hot' women throughout the sports sections. Just in case a woman dares to open the sports pages, she can be confident that a well-placed FHM-style picture will remind her that she's in the wrong place and this part of the newspaper really isn't for her. Silly girl, she should be reading the part of the paper written for women so she can learn about yet another beauty product that will make her look 10 years younger. The problem isn't that women aren't interested in the sports pages, it's that their content actively alienates women.

Following the World Swimming Championships in Rome in July, The Metro ran a small story at the bottom of the page documenting the silver medal for Jo Jackson and bronze medal for Rebecca Adlington in the 400 metre freestyle. Unfortunately these achievements took place during the same weekend Lewis Hamilton won the Hungarian Grand Prix so, understandably, a large picture of his Pussycat Doll girlfriend, Nicole Scherzinger, took precedence. What is the message here? If you're a woman and want to feature in the sports pages of the newspaper, don't strive to be a successful athlete; become a singer/dancer and date a successful athlete instead.

Similarly, when Andy Roddick and Andy Murray were heading into the semi-final at Wimbledon, the now defunct London Lite dedicated half a page to their girlfriends, with the headline "Battle of the Babes". Obviously, the 'battle' was about who wore what and who looked hotter. Is this relevant for the sports pages.

When The London Paper was still in publication, the sports pages devoted a special feature to a particular woman every Friday. What could have been a great opportunity to showcase an up-and-coming female athlete in an area of the newspaper primarily devoted to male athletes was completely missed. The 'London Eyeful' chose a woman, usually the partner of a famous sportsman, often a lingerie model, or similar, and always wearing very little. If you have a regular space in the sports section devoted to a woman, why not devote it to an actual sportswoman?

I could fill pages with examples of irrelevant pictures of 'hot' women being used to appeal to an imagined audience composed entirely of straight men. Jenson Button wins a race; obviously we need a picture of his girlfriend, Jessica Michibata, to accompany the story. The Daily Mail runs a story about the standard of food at sports stadiums; cue a picture of Nigella Lawson falling out of a red dress. Open any newspaper on any day of the week, and you're likely to find an example of this.

And it's not just print media that perpetuates the idea that being interested in sport is a domain reserved just for men. If, as a woman, you dare run the risk of attending a sporting event - watch out! You may end up being one of those irrelevant distractions offered up for the pleasure of male viewers. Louise France recently wrote in The Observer about the way cameramen seek out female spectators:

The edict - find a girl, any girl, so long as she's pretty, blonde, glamorous, slim, tanned, under 30 and falling out of her Zara halterneck... Watch yesterday's Lions rugby replays, or the Ashes this week and on into the summer, the next Formula One grand prix, or the Open later this month, and the same scenario will be played out. There's even an elite handful of cricket cameramen who run bets on who can find the sexiest female spectator first. She'll be the one they return to in the lull between overs.

On top of the fact that perhaps women don't want to be held up as the bit of meat for men to drool over while they're waiting for their next beer to arrive, this assumes that the viewing audience is completely male and straight, and caters for it accordingly. Women, you don't belong here, other than to be eye candy for the men (and then only if you make the grade of course).

In addition, the treatment of female athletes themselves as sex objects has become almost standard now. The objectification of women in mainstream media, advertising and pop culture is so embedded in our society this has crossed the boundary into the sporting arena. Top athletes are increasingly being valued for how they look rather than how they perform.

serena.jpgEarlier this year, Wimbledon caused controversy when the All England Club admitted to putting more 'attractive' women on Centre Court and Court 1 to appeal to the crowds. This is insulting to both men and women. It devalues the achievements of top female athletes and sends out the message that it's more important to look good rather than perform well. It assumes the crowd is male (and straight), or at least, the men in the crowd are more important than the women. But it also assumes that these men would rather see a bit of eye candy than a top game of tennis. If you're paying £65 to see a day of tennis, I imagine you'd want to see the best tennis available.

Prior to the Athens Olympics, a handful of female athletes took time out of their training schedules to pose naked in Playboy magazine in a special 'Olympian' edition. Why do top athletes feel the need to strip off to get some kudos? Surely competing at the highest level possibly and representing your country on the Olympic stage is an unbeatable accomplishment in itself. But as Ariel Levy argues in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, women posing in Playboy "enjoy a higher standing in our culture than Olympians right now". Surely it's more sexy to "play your sport with your flawless body and your face gripped with passion in front of the eyes of the world". Apparently not.

Beach volleyball is the classic example of women being objectified. Legal regulations state that women's bikinis must be 7 cm across the hip. In contrast, men's shorts must be 10cm above the knee. And men can wear t-shirts, albeit sleeveless. I'm no mathematician, but those measurements seem a bit unequal. This sends the message that for men the focus is the sport, but for women the focus is on what they look like. Denise Johns, the UK's top beach volleyball player, doesn't like it but accepts that if it raises the profile of the game it serves as a means to an end. But why must top female athletes sexualise themselves to generate interest in their sport while men are able to get on with playing the sport without having to portray themselves as sex objects in the process?

basketball.jpgBasketball is already a popular sport in the States, but the recent unveiling of the Florida State women's team's new website shows that, even with already popular sports, the sexualisation of women is becoming a necessity. The campaign features the players, not on the basketball court, and not even wearing sports clothes (as they are on the men's website), but dressed in sexy, satin dresses while exiting limos. The ongoing sexualisation of sportswomen also reinforces a different and equally damaging trend. Homophobia. As Jayda Evans argues, the "emphasis on femininity and beauty indicates an underlying fear of being viewed as anything other than straight". Granted, there are also serious problems of homophobia in men's sport, but sportsmen do not face the same pressure to be sexualised to sell their sport like sportswomen often do.

However, it is the latest new sport to emerge from the US that really leaves me speechless. The Lingerie Football League kicked off in September this year. It's similar to a regular NFL game, except the pitch is slightly smaller and the length of the game is shorter. And all of the women are wearing lingerie. One excited reviewer wrote that "an LFL game promises to bring you everything you want in female sports - lots of girl-on-girl action, bouncing boobs and a hell of a lot of skimpy underwear." I think he's getting porn muddled up with sport. They do contain a lot of the same letters so maybe that's why he got confused? The majority of porn dehumanises women and presents women as merely sex objects; and it seems this is now crossing the boundary into women's sport too.

I'm not sure why a professional sportsman hasn't bothered to watch a single woman compete in the very code he competes in. Perhaps he didn't know women even took part in boxing due to a lack of coverage

The continual focus on women's looks rather than performance devalues the achievements of professional athletes while raising the profile of 'sports' such as the Lingerie Football League. One of the arguments put forward for the lack of interest in women's sport is the low standard. Perhaps the standard would improve if women were valued for athletic performance rather than how good they look while playing their sport.

The exclusion of women from sports coverage also has wider implications. The continued assumption that sport is for men, and the irrelevant focus on what female athletes look like, discourages women not only from spectating, but also from playing sport. The Women's Sports and Fitness Foundation has investigated the barriers to girls and women participating in sport. One of the key barriers is the male-dominated culture of sport.

The culture of sport itself presents a problem. Some women/girls are turned off 'sport' altogether because they see it as a male-dominated activity. It is just not seen as feminine or 'girly' to be interested in sport and, for many girls, being sporty is felt to be at odds with being feminine.

Linking to this argument is the problem of female body image.

In general female adolescents report greater body image dissatisfaction than males. For girls and women the relationship between body image and physical activity is a vicious circle; the more self-conscious they feel about their bodies, the less likely they are to take part in sport, and yet, participation in sport has a positive effect on girls perceptions of their bodies.

The coverage of women's sport exacerbates these problems and further discourages women from both spectating and participating in sport. It doesn't help that women are constantly being bombarded with advertising and magazines telling us how to '"get the perfect bikini body" emphasising exercise as merely a way of looking good. It is rare to see advertising or articles encouraging participation in sport, which is much more about staying fit and healthy and, above all, having fun. The Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation produced a report on the future of women's sport, and the picture is not rosy:

There is a crisis in participation: more than 80% of women are not doing enough activity to benefit their health. Women's participation is markedly lower than men's and there are clear differences between men and women in their choice of activity, with twice as many men playing organised competitive sport than women. Six in 10 women prefer 'exercising' to playing sport and participation in team and competitive sports is exceptionally low.

Obviously the alienation of women from the sports pages of the newspaper are not the only reason for this, but they do play a role. A lack of resources and funding is also a major problem. This is largely because men's sport is seen as more popular. Again this is a self-fulfilling argument. Men's sport is more popular because the industry excludes women to such a large extent.

Yes, there are gains that are being made, for example, it has recently been announced that women's boxing will be included at the Olympics. Regardless of your views on boxing as a sport, allowing only men to participate in a sport at Olympic level is blatant sexism. So it's great news for women. But even that caused controversy as Amir Khan spoke out against it. "Deep down I think women shouldn't fight. That's my opinion." Khan did go on to say that he had never actually seen a women's fight. I'm not sure why a professional sportsman hasn't bothered to watch a single woman compete in the very code he competes in. Perhaps he didn't know women even took part in boxing due to a lack of coverage.

The male-dominated world of sport desperately needs to be challenged both within the media and more broadly. There is a real need for women's sport to be taken more seriously, and to provide gender neutral coverage, to value women for their performance rather than their looks, to provide an inclusive forum for both men and women to watch and enjoy sport, and to inspire women to take up sport by sending out positive. Success in the sporting world depends on talent, motivation and sheer hard work, for both women and men equally. It's time our society reflected that.

Photo of some of the England Women's Cricket Team by paddynapper, and photo of Serena Williams by ProphecyBlur shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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