level playing field

Women's teams are consistently outperforming their male counterparts but nobody is paying attention

29th May 2019

Did you know that Manchester City beat West Ham in the FA Cup scoring their second final victory in three years? Did you know they didn’t concede a single goal all season?

No, not Pep Guardiola’s lads but their superstar women’s side, who walked out at Wembley against West Ham United to a 3-0 win.

The reason you didn’t realise this is probably the same reason you didn’t see that England Women’s Rugby Union team won this year’s Six Nations with a Grandslam — not losing a single match.  Simply put, women’s sport doesn’t get the same media coverage as men’s.

Now, it is 2019, and it’s fair to say that gender equality has come a long way since the days of Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Davison and that famous afternoon at the 1913 Derby. We’ve had a second female Prime Minister, Theresa May, who although dividing opinion, is the most visible and theoretically powerful figure in UK politics. But for some reason, this female visibility in traditionally male-dominated fields hasn’t yet transferred into the sporting world.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the positive effect sport can have on our country. Look how England’s men’s squad united a broken nation last summer, as we went on an incredible journey to the World Cup semi-finals. Yet when you consider that the women’s side bettered that feat by finishing third in the World Cup in 2015, it highlights the microscopic coverage women’s sport really gets.

The Women in Sport 2014 report, Women’s Sport: Say Yes to Success, evidenced this point. “Women’s Sport makes up 7% of all sports media coverage in the UK. Just over 10% of televised sports coverage is dedicated to women’s sport.”

If they crash out in the group stage, it’s a setback but it’s only delaying what naturally is a huge growth area

According to the same report, on radio, newspaper and online platforms, only 5%, 2% and 4% is dedicated to women’s sport respectively. When you think about how prominent digital sports coverage is today, these numbers are simply embarrassing.

There is no doubt in future years female pundits will become more the norm than the exception, but how long until that happens? Lee Clayton, the Head of talkSPORT,  believes that change is on its way and despite the current lack of coverage, things are getting better.“I think it’s undergoing a pretty remarkable transformation in the last six months,” he tells the Overtake. “For instance, far more women’s sport is covered in national newspapers, television and websites.”

Clayton believes that this summer will be a great opportunity for the England women’s football side to take the British media by storm, given that it is a relatively quiet one for men’s football. But how do they do that?

“Win the World Cup! You saw with cricket that when England Women won the Cricket World Cup, that was the back three pages of The Daily Mail — and it had never been in that position before. And the same will happen now if England wins this World Cup. If they crash out in the group stage, it’s a setback but it’s only delaying what naturally is a huge growth area.”

There is already a build up of support ahead of the women’s tournament. The song Three Lions, the hallmark of England’s fanbase, originally recorded by The Lightning Seeds with Baddiel and Skinner, has been reworked to champion England’s women.

Support and media visibility is just one part of the problem though, as the difficulties surrounding women in sport may run deeper.

Women’s participation in grassroots sport is lower than that of men, particularly at the age of 16. After school years, women drop out of sport at an alarming rate, with social factors such as peer pressure, lack of facilities and support, and misogyny being key reasons as to why they stop.

The women’s game has a long way to go in terms of increasing the commercial value

As a result, the popularity of sport among women diminishes, resulting in the lower participation numbers and a negative attitude toward women’s sport — from both men and women — meaning coverage at a professional level gets less attention than it deserves.

It has to be emphasised that there is a myriad of factors that cause this drop in participation and, of course, there are a huge number of girls who have the desire to become professional athletes. But more girls need encouragement and role models to see sports as a potential career.

Imagine the impact if the women’s national football squad had got the same amount of coverage as the men’s team had last summer when they reached the semi-finals. There can be no doubting there would have been millions of young women seeing that and wanting to be a part of something similar; inspired to take part.

Clayton says the stereotype among all genders of women taking part in sport as “manly” is diminishing, which in turn is building the grassroots game. Society is “definitely going away from that stereotype and has been for a long time”.

He adds: “Interestingly, the women’s game at the junior level is very healthy. For instance, the increased numbers of girls going from secondary schools are on the rise and that’s an indication of increased interest, increased facilities and opportunities but the women’s game has a long way to go in terms of increasing the commercial value.”

Danika Priim, prop for Leeds Rhinos women’s rugby league squad says: “Once women start winning bigger titles, you instantly see a more positive perspective from those who may have doubted it. I think that these days there is a lesser issue with gender in sport and more with success — who doesn’t like success?!

We are as athletic, hardworking, determined and driven as our male counterparts and therefore can produce exciting and entertaining games

“You could argue that popularity of different sports begins at school and, being a teacher myself, stereotypically (as much as I hate to do it) female practitioners are more comfortable with what they did in school.  So netball, rounders, gymnastics, dance and, for male teachers, football, rugby, cricket.”

Priim says the way sport is taught needs to change. “I know from experience that some of my female colleagues are nervous about teaching contact sports and this is why they chose not to offer it as an extra-curricular activity.

“However, more investment in grassroots level will allow a volunteer or coach to go into schools and offer taster sessions and therefore will increase the popularity of sports and make them more accessible with external clubs and places to go.”

The signs are there that major companies are trying to improve the gender divide. Alex Scott, former right-back for both Arsenal and England’s women teams, has become a regular football pundit on both Sky Sports and BBC, bringing fresh insight the men who have been on our screens year upon year lack. One example is her debate with Paul Ince about Chelsea striker Gonzalo Higuain. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch.

However, Priim adds that money is the overriding decider. “Money is the key as you can’t cover games unless someone is willing to do it for free which generally means a smaller audience, or we get the money to ensure that larger media outlets can cover our games.

“I think women’s sport will be huge in the next three to five years and it would be in someone’s best interest to invest now whilst it’s developing. We are as athletic, hardworking, determined and driven as our male counterparts and therefore can produce exciting and entertaining games,” Priim adds.

When England’s men drew to Scotland 36-36 in their last 2019 Six Nations match and finished second in the table, the women’s side won the Grandslam only a few hours later. Although the women’s team tremendously outachieved the men’s, which team were we left talking about following that weekend?

We’re now living in a society striving for equality for everyone but it seems that sport is still a major area where we are falling way behind. While there is potential in the future, we still have a while to go before men and women in professional sports are on a level playing field.

29th May 2019