What's the Problem with Women in Sport?

Last week The Mirror published an article on women’s football that caused widespread outrage. As you flicked through the paper to check out the sports and betting column, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped back in time, for the attitude displayed by Mirror veteran Derick McGoverm was straight out of the 50s. Beginning strongly with “the world cup has shown that women’s football really isn’t that good—whoever could have predicted that?”, McGovern goes on to say that “a woman’s place is not on a foreign field playing second-rate football […] a woman’s place is in the wrong” and that he has refused to bet on women’s football as “women already cost me enough.” The piece was astounding, to say the least, though upon deeper investigation not all together out of sync with his normal bile. Perhaps someone should tell him we’re in 2015...

Let us first examine that ‘second-rate football’ part. Simply by making the semi-final, the England women’s team has achieved what the men haven’t done since 1990. In fact, they have become only the 3rd English team in history to make a World-Cup semi, the other being the winning side in 1966. If English women are second rate, what, pray, does that make English men? Of course, McGovern’s comments were probably aimed at women’s football in general, rather than simply a jibe at our girls. Again though, what exactly does second rate mean? Well, if you particularly relish the melodramatic diving, so emblematic of men’s football, you’ll probably be left disappointed. The same thing goes if you were looking forward to ridiculous celebrations eating into actual playtime. There’s a lot less biting involved, less racism—both orgy-based and in chanting form—and less homophobia. Perhaps least endearing of all is the lack of eye-wateringly over-inflated paychecks, not to mention backhanders and corruption. Clearly I don’t understand football—what exactly can McGovern be referring to as second-rate?

The England team are set to play Japan in the semi-final, which kicks off tonight at 12am British time

The England team are set to play Japan in the semi-final, which kicks off tonight at 12am British time

The comments come in the wake of a backlash over Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks concerning “the problem with girls” in science, and his apparent support for segregated labs. Hunt admitted he was a chauvinistic pig, and I wholeheartedly support that evaluation. Unfortunately, a number of public figures defended him, including the current London mayor Boris Johnson, who has a history of sexist comments all of his own. There’s a reason, though, why we can’t just let these incidents slide, and dismiss them as the ill-bred ramblings of an antiquated class of men. If any of the perpetrators have ever wondered why they receive such a public backlash, a mystery Hunt seemed to struggle with, here it is: the problem is that in these men's areas there is still a very real and persistent struggle raging for equality. Whether it’s in Parliament, in laboratories, or in the sporting world, these are all male-dominated spaces, and women still struggle for representation, validation and acceptance.

There are many factors that have gone against women in sport, from the lack of funding and commercial investment—from January 2010 to August 2011 women’s sport in the UK received just 0.5% of all sports sponsorship (p. 2)—to the low wage incentives compared to their male counterparts, as well as the low profile it plays in the media. Thankfully, these trends are changing, and no doubt the success of female athletes on home turf in 2012 gave women’s sport a boost, not only in terms of the raised profile of its athletes, but in creating a new appetite for them.

There’s another factor, however, that goes against women in sport, and that concerns the double standards between men and women when it comes to the appearance of our bodies. We all talk a lot about the impact of unattainable body standards on the lives of women, but not an awful lot of that addresses the way in which society views an athletic female build. Whilst men in sport never really have to worry about this—an increasingly muscular build is right in line with the ‘preferable’ male physique—women, unfortunately, find the opposite. I speak here from personal experience. When I was younger I used to swim competitively at a fairly high level, but I packed it in at around 16. The huge amount of training involved obviously had an impact on my body. I struggled to put on any weight despite eating like a horse, so had nothing to cover my bones and muscles. I was basically a toothpick, and I felt it keenly. Then the muscles in my back and shoulders began to get more powerful, and that toothpick started to resemble an uppercase T. I wish I could say that this didn’t play a part in my decision to leave the sport, but I’d be lying. Sure, there were other reasons—many others—that played a significantly larger role. But it was still there. I was 15, I had no self-confidence to begin with, and I worried about my body. I worried the ‘problem’ would get worse as I went on, that I’d get bigger, more muscular, and more masculine. I remember vividly the time a well-meaning but clueless male teacher stood me up in front of a GCSE Sports Studies Class—a class, of course, that was made up overwhelmingly of males—to exemplify one of the body types of sports people, taking care to point out my large shoulders and lack of hips, I wanted the ground to swallow me up.  Can you imagine many other 15-year old girls that would react differently? 

My predicament was in no way out of the ordinary, and I knew girls from a variety of other sports—judo, rowing and athletics, for instance—who felt the same pressure in their formative years. This, I believe, is gradually changing too. When it comes to female body image we no longer meekly accept the unrealistic pageant style beauty that is forced down our throats from ads and magazine, but we are starting to accept a more athletic body—those who believe our derision for adverts like THAT Protein World one comes from a position of envy and hatred for health should take note. Jessica Ennis, whose ultra-toned body may once have been called manly, has found success in the advertising world, not only in adverts for gyms, or sandwiched between Rory Mcllroy and Jenson Button on that Santander sofa. Her face can now be seen beaming from Olay ads, or splashed across the covers of women’s magazines. She is coveted, admired, desired. Hopefully young girls in sport can look to women like Ennis and realise that their bodies, which are result of so much hard work and dedication, are anything but unattractive, that they should walk as tall as their male counterparts.

Fifa's #Wecanplay campaign has led to an increase in participation in girls' football across the UK.

Fifa's #Wecanplay campaign has led to an increase in participation in girls' football across the UK.

The world of women’s sport is changing. Let’s not pretend, though, that there’s still not a long way to go. That’s why we have to stand up to the bitter bullies like McGovern, and all those like him. Undoubtedly these men don’t hold all female sports people in such contempt, but they fail to realize that if you pick on women’s football, you pick on all women’s sport. You pick on the Jessica Ennis’, the Laura Robsons, and the Nicola Adams’.

England manager Mark Sampson has urged the country to get behind his lionesses in tonight’s match. I might actually oblige—and I can’t stand football! As the country urges our women on tonight, we can take satisfaction in knowing that we are encouraging a new generation of girls to take up their boots, much, I’m sure, to the chagrin of McGovern. And to that unpleasant man, might I add one final thought:

Women play sport. Sometimes, they play it better than men. Deal with it.