Why What We Say Affects Equal Play

Firstly, hello again. A few weeks off writing my blog turned into a few months… and before I knew it, I’d taken a full blown sabbatical. I’m back. I’ll try not to leave it so long next time.

I wrote this with half an eye on the England versus Scotland match in the Women’s European Football Championships. Gary Lineker’s twitter feed would suggest he was pretty busy last night fending off criticism about how much he is paid by the BBC, but if he was watching he would have seen Jodie Taylor score the first hat trick for any England football player in a major tournament since he popped up with three goals against Poland in the 1986 World Cup. The Men’s World Cup, that is – if we describe female competitions as “Women’s,” shouldn’t we start clarifying when tournaments are played by their male counterparts too?

Striker Toni Duggan recently became the first English player since Lineker to join FC Barcelona. I wonder if Duggan will outdo his 42 goals for the Catalans – and if she does, I wonder how widely it will be acknowledged.

While I’m on the subjects of women’s football and sports presenters, we watched Clare Balding’s excellent Channel 4 documentary, “When Football Banned Women” the other night. If you didn’t see it (and if so, I’d highly recommend tracking it down on catch up TV), it told the story of the little-known heyday of English women’s football, of Lily Parr and her Dick Kerr Ladies’ team mates playing in front of crowds of 25,000. The glory days were cut cruelly and unjustifiably short by the FA in 1921 and the women’s side of the game has been playing catch up ever since.

So why does this matter? It matters because despite the best efforts of Women’s Sport Week and This Girl Can, despite increasing female participation in netball, football and hockey, despite the baby steps we are taking towards a level playing field… we are still fighting against deeply rooted social prejudice. 

This was illustrated by both the decisions about and reaction to the show court allocation at Wimbledon this year. Among other things, a breakdown of the Centre and Court One allocations shows that:

“The top five seeded women played on court two and court three more times than on Centre Court this year. For men, not a single match was held on court two or court three, or the outside courts.” [BBC – http://m.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/40630043]

There’s no getting away from the fact that sport is about business and entertainment, but if administrative decisions are based on how good it is assumed a match might be and on a supposed current level of popularity, we create a situation which will always support the status quo. Fundamentally, it doesn’t enable change and it doesn’t provide female players the same opportunities to achieve their potential and push the boundaries of their performances.

Andy Murray received well-deserved praise at SW19 for correcting a journalist who described Sam Querrey as the first American Grand Slam semi finalist since 2009. However, for me it wasn’t so much what he said (“First male semi finalist”) as how he said it. The beauty of Murray’s response – low key, matter-of-fact, immediate – was that it shows his respect for and interest in women’s tennis is innate. He’s prepared to speak up about gender equality, but he just makes it a normal part of conversation. And guess what? Men are equally as important as women in this process. 

That’s why I was pleased that it was my husband who saw the advert for Clare Balding’s documentary and wanted to see it. And that he chose to switch on the England versus Scotland game (and probably watched it more closely than I did). Creating change is about the big things, but mostly it’s about the little things… having access to high level women’s sport in the media, valuing it in its own right (which is why comments about where Serena would be ranked in men’s tennis don’t even warrant a discussion),  choosing to watch it and talking about it afterwards.

Breaking down social barriers does need grand gestures and big examples to be made at times, but genuine social change is about challenging our conscious and subconscious biases. We need more column inches on Laura Kenny and photos of Serena Williams and young footballers who aspire to be like the England Lionesses just as much as Harry Kane and Dele Alli, but we also have to keep pulling ourselves up on our ingrained attitudes and the words we typically express them with.

If we don’t do these things, it’s too easy to hide behind statistics about positive change, whether in terms of participation, coverage or opportunity. Gender equality will only become a genuine social norm once our thoughts and values, and the way we express them all become reprogrammed.