I’m going to kick off with a controversial-sounding sentence: I don’t like the existence of Women’s Sport Week. Don’t judge me just yet – I’ll explain what I mean by that in the course of this blog. But fundamentally, I wish it wasn’t happening and hopefully in the not too distant future we might talk about it in the past tense. “Do you remember ‘Women’s Sport Week’? It seems crazy we used to have that…”
If you haven’t yet noticed the extra column inches in the sports pages and the flurry of social media activity focused on sportswomen, perhaps you need a quick introduction to what the week is all about:
‘Women’s Sport Week (1-7 June 2015) is an opportunity for everybody to celebrate, raise awareness and increase the profile of women’s sport across the UK.’
Essentially, this is another attempt to bridge the enormous gap between men and women’s sport. I probably should talk about ‘gaps’ in the plural – because there are lots of areas of inequality: media coverage, sponsorship, general perceptions, prize money, participation, the opportunities available in professional sport… and so the list goes on. I have a real internal battle about the increasing work to improve gender equality in sport. My idealistic side is what leads me to say I wish Women’s Sports Week (and other campaigns like it) didn’t exist. I suppose it’s really down to the fact that I wish we didn’t need them.
Sometimes it’s also about context. Tennis is a good example of this. I’m sure it’s true that Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic get more media interest because they are men. But it’s also because for the last decade, these four players in particular have generated amazing performance levels and fierce rivalries in the men’s game. Conversely, in women’s tennis, Serena Williams is just better than everyone else. Maria Sharapova – probably the second best player of this generation – has a 2/17 win/loss record against Serena, and hasn’t actually beaten her since their first two matches in 2004. There just isn’t quite the same drama. And so whilst I do want equality, I also want this to be determined by the quality of the tennis matches played and the battles between contemporary greats. Maybe in the next generation of players, four highly competitive, great tennis women will emerge to help bridge that gap for the right reasons.
It can also be about how easy it is to find and celebrate a female role model. This is of course largely down to the media and who they decide to dedicate those column inches and photographs to. Jessica Ennis-Hill is one of only a few genuine world superstars in British Athletics and competes in a discipline where we have historically been successful with Olympic gold medallists like Denise Lewis and Dame Mary Peters. It probably also helps that she seems to be a down-to-earth woman, she’s attempting a comeback after having her first baby, she doesn’t tend to stir up controversy, and she’s not exactly struggling in the looks department. But hang on – should women have to tick so many boxes to actually be seen in the media? Again, I’m a bit torn on this. I’m glad Ennis-Hill is talked about and regarded as a role model, but I wish I could believe she would be as popular and as famous if she was a bit more ‘bad ass’ and a bit less pretty.
Maybe I’m being narrow-minded to think that what a girl looks like when she plays sport doesn’t affect other women’s perceptions and likelihood to participate themselves. But for me, rosy cheeks, bloody knees and sweating don’t put me off. In my eyes, these things don’t make me less feminine or more masculine, they’re just one little part of a thing I do. Campaigns like ‘This Girl Can’ are trying to break down these barriers and hopefully getting more women involved in exercise will have a knock-on effect in some of the other areas of inequality. Last week, The Telegraph ran a feature on the GB Women’s Hockey team, which was largely based around a glamour photoshoot of several of the players. Whilst it was supposed to be a positive reflection on women’s sport and women’s hockey, this type of article remains a double-edged sword in so many ways. Dressing up to increase the profile, sponsorship and coverage of women’s sport may be important for growth; but it also reinforces the stereotypes that causes so many of these inequalities in the first place. As a friend of mine said,
“Can you imagine Diego Costa being asked to wear make up for a photoshoot and then telling him it will help broaden his appeal?”
It’s particularly difficult when we are pushing for equality on so many fronts. What do we actually want: More girls playing sport at grass roots level? As many column inches written on Arsenal Ladies as on Arsenal men? Top female sports stars to get the same recognition as their male counterparts irrespective of how many sets they play or their level of performance? Girls to take part and embrace getting sweaty, or girls to take part to prove you can do sport and still look classically pretty? Some of the battles we’re fighting don’t completely make sense to me, but that’s because I don’t believe all of them are about ‘equality’ per se.
The whole point is that genuine equality in sport should be about every kind of diversity, not having to push or overemphasise a given demographic. Clearly female sport has a long way to go, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that girls and women are the only ones who suffer from inequality. True ‘sport for all’ would mean that gender, disability, race, sexuality, religion, body image, age and culture don’t negatively influence anyone’s access to or experience of sport, or the way that is perceived by other people.
Of course, this is all going to be pretty difficult to achieve. Before the haters tell me this isn’t a reason not to try, I’m not saying Women’s Sport Week isn’t necessary at the moment and that our attempts to find equality aren’t important – they clearly are. I accept that sometimes unfairness, prejudice and bias are broken down only by these same qualities being applied in the opposite direction. I’ll enjoy seeing a few more successful, talented and inspirational women receive some well-deserved and important media attention this week. I’m just looking forward to a day when we don’t need to have a special week for women’s sport – because in the end, we are just running around, sweating, puffing, throwing, jumping, winning, losing and taking part too.