Sexism in Sport

Guest blogger Riley McRae, Year 12 Lavalla Catholic College, Gippsland, English oral presentation.

Australia is the sporting nation. We live and breathe sport. As a country, Australia has some of the most celebrated athletes and holds many of the world most prestigious accolades. Sport dominates our news headlines, it’s in every conversation. In fact, 63.6% of our entire population is actively involved in sport; professionals and amateurs, young and old, male and female.

Our reputation as a sporting nation is unparalleled, unmatched. Yet there’s one hurdle that even we seem to be unable to overcome. The issue of gender equality in sport is tainting our proud reputation. While many persist on turning a blind eye, it’s staring right at us; you only have turn on the radio or TV or pick up a newspaper or magazine to see just how prominent sexism is in sport. Whether it’s in its most blatant form, on our magazine covers for instance, or of the underlying variety, for example, the pay gap between male and female athletes, gender inequality is the largest issue facing sport in both Australia and the world today. It’s age-old and its worldwide, and undoubtedly, the sporting world’s attitude towards women needs to change.

Sexism in sport is a complex issue that takes on many forms. Often it is underlying, intricate and can go unnoticed – though it’s not uncommon to see blatant instances of this inequality. Frequently, there’s a close correlation between the two and the difference between such instances is often blurred. There are many examples of this sexism, for instance on the covers and on the pages of our favourite magazines. Sports Illustrated [SI], the multi award-winning magazine published in the United States, is widely perceived to be the world’s most celebrated sports magazine. Since its original publication in 1960, SI, as it’s known, is still the USA’s only “all sports” magazine that has a weekly release.

Covers of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issues
Covers of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issues (Google search results)

Every year SI releases its annual swimsuit issue. Every year since its initial running in 1964, the swimsuit issue has been SI’s highest selling release for its respective calendar year, without fail. The issue is completely unrelated to any sport and doesn’t address any current affair within sport in America or indeed anywhere on earth; though every year, SI rakes in millions from the exploitation of women who are seen as little more than a sex object.

What’s peculiar though unsurprising is that not once in SI’s proud 54-year history, has the publication run a male swimwear edition. Never has a male athlete been reduced to little more than publicity stunt to raise a bit of controversy and target the reader’s arousal. Never has a male been reduced to nothing more than his sexual appeal. Why? Because that would just be unacceptable, the sporting world wouldn’t have it. It’s a common mentality- sportsmen are recognised for their achievement; sportswomen are recognised for their aesthetic value. The 2015 issue ran Hannah Davis on the cover- her notable achievement? Being the girlfriend of major league baseballer Derek Jeter. It surely poses a question; would near explicit images of a male ever be run on SI’s cover simply because he is romantically linked to a famous female athlete i.e. Serena Williams? Never.

Interestingly but not unexpectedly, a massive difference in attitude can be observed about sportsmen and sportswomen through a simple google search. For instance, in 2010, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova were both ranked number one by the ATP for men’s and women’s tennis. One only has to google either players name to get a compelling, comparative look at how the internet perceives each of the athletes.    [Google search results: Federer 39 million/ Sharpova 22 million]

There are instances of this barefaced discrimination closer to home as well. On August 1, 2015, one of Australia’s finest up and coming sports reporters, Erin Molan, fronted Kiis radio to take part in an interview with Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O. Molan is a regular on ‘The NRL footy show’ and was supposedly taking part in the segment to discuss topics in the NRL (National Rugby League) and wider sporting world. Instead, Molan was questioned about whether she had or had not had a ‘boob job’. Sandilands then went on to label Molan’s family as “probably coke-heads”, before grilling the reporter on what athletes she had slept with. When Molan attempted to rebut by saying “have you ever listened to me on the NRL footy show?”, Sandilands replied “No-one’s listening”. This isn’t a strange occurrence. While Sandilands’ attitude was extreme, it’s reflective of the attitude that’s fostered by many. It’s an attitude that has been forever bred into a grand portion of the public, it is commonplace.

Gender based inequality isn't always so obviousGender-based inequality isn’t always so obvious,
and many examples are deeply rooted and stem from an age-old way of thinking; that women’s sport is subordinate and contributes less in terms of entertainment value and revenue. It raises the question; why do we view women’s sport as inferior?  Why, when there are as many women participating in sport in Australia as men, does society still not place the two on the same level of importance? It’s true, women’s sport doesn’t produce anywhere near the revenue that their male equivalents do. Sportswomen on average aren’t paid as much as males, in their respective sports. Crowds at women’s sporting, on average, do not compare to that of men’s. This is for the simple reason that sport is still an overwhelmingly male-dominated domain, and women who want to carve out a career in sports – whether it be as an athlete, a reporter, an analyst or a coach- are often made to work twice as hard, for half the results.

Netball in Australia has over 50,000 more participants than Australian Rules football; yet the median salary for a professional netballer is just $21,000, with a professional team being allocated $240,000 worth of salary cap to pay its members – just $10,000 more than the average salary for a single male athlete in the AFL.  As much as we like to think we have developed as a sporting society, and as much as we like to think that we have addressed gender inequality in sport- we are, realistically, a long way short of a solution.

Take FIFA for example, the governing body for world football (or soccer). Football is the world’s most popular sport, with almost 300 million playing amateur or professionally. It’s estimated that around 22% of these participants are female. If accurate, this equates to 66 million participants. There are nine figureheads in FIFA’s governing body, one for each of the 6 confederations, plus a president, vice president and deputy. Despite heavy opposition from those engaged with FIFA, these positions are currently all held by males. Also, there are only 2 females in the next 3 tiers of governance in the organisation, meaning just 5% of significant positions are held by women. This is the world’s most important sporting organisation. Is there no greater representation of such evident sexism? Perhaps only in a quote from former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who said “women need to be playing in tighter shorts”.

My coach says i run like a girl and I said if he ran a little faster he could too. Mia HammDespite this there are those who will persist in arguing that Australia and the world’s attitude to women in sport has changed, and those who are quick to point out that we now have a female winner of the Melbourne Cup, a new national women’s AFL league and increased viewing and representation in the “formerly” male dominated sports of cricket and soccer. To a certain extent this is correct. There is evidence of Australia making efforts to fight the sexism that has plagued sport over the generations – though one must ask why it has taken so long for these changes to happen? And have we really improved our thinking as much as we depict? Yes, Michelle Payne did, just last year, become the first female winner of the prestigious Melbourne Cup. What makes the achievement even more astounding is that Payne was the only women in the 2015 edition of the race, and indeed the only women to take part in the race for the last 12 years, making her one of 6 women to ever compete in the event.

Furthermore, if sexism isn’t prominent in sport, in this case horse racing, how does one explain the outpour of support Payne received after she declared “get stuffed, because women can do anything and we can beat the world”?

Undoubtedly, the inclusion of a women’s national T20 cricket league, and the impending arrival of a Women’s AFL in 2017, are big steps towards bridging the gap in gender equality on our shores- but again, one must ask why it has taken this long? And why have those involved had to fight so hard for something that was made so readily available to their male counterparts? Women’s cricket has been well represented in Australia since the 1940’s, yet we were not represented in T20 format at international level until 1996, and it took a further 20 years to develop a T20 domestic league in our nation.

Women’s Australian Rules football has been the fastest growing sport in terms of participant numbers over the last 5 years, across both genders. Last year the curtain raiser for the Western Bulldogs vs Melbourne AFL match, contested by the respective women’s teams, attracted more viewers than the actual AFL match. Despite the obvious market for a women’s league in our national sport, AFL [Players Association] CEO Paul Marsh estimates it will take until at least 2028 before those competing in the league can earn a living solely of their match salary. Why aren’t we investing more into what would appear to be an extremely fruitful market, both in terms of revenue and demand? Acclaimed TV personality Sam Newman’s seemingly backwards opinion makes it pretty clear- “Aussie rules isn’t a girl’s game. It just doesn’t look right”.I talk to my children about women's sporting achievements

There can be little debate that sexism is an issue that plagues sport on various levels, and in a number of complex ways – not just on the field or the court, but in almost all aspects of sport. From demeaning publications to astounding divisions in pay and representation it’s overwhelmingly clear that sports attitude towards women need to be improved drastically. Whilst we have made some headway into the issue, its unquestionably time for “the sporting nation” put its money where its mouth is – there is a lot of work to be done.

Our thanks to Riley for permission to publish and congratulations on Making the Link!   It is so encouraging to see and hear young people taking a stand and speaking out about inequality and sexism in society.