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Talking About Issues Specific to Women in Sports on International Women’s Day

In addition to honoring and recognizing women who have made an impact and shown leadership to bring equality and gender parity in all aspects of society. International Women’s Day is also about creating awareness and discussion of issues that inhibit equal representation and equality for women.

Sport is a unique platform which allows something as simple as “playing a game” to serve a much greater role in advocating and educating for many different issues that affect our society today. This includes women in all aspects of sports, such as coaches, athletes, executives, journalists, media representation, etc. Here is a rundown of some of the biggest issues that we should talk about affecting women in sports, these four examples represent only a part of the greater discussion.

Equal pay for professional and elite level female athletes.

At the most recent FIFA World Cup tournaments, held in 2015 for women and 2018 for men. The gender pay gap was still quite large. With the US Men’s National Soccer team earning over 5x as much per player than the Women’s team. Despite the Women’s team having won the last three World Cup championships while the Men’s team didn’t even qualify for the most recent tournament.

In 2016, five national team athletes, Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Rebecca Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, filed a complaint against the US Soccer Federation to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was the first ever complaint filed with the EEOC regarding equal pay for women in sports. Despite the pay gap between the Men’s and Women’s teams, it was reported that the women’s team is significantly more profitable. This includes finishing the 2017 fiscal year with a $5 million dollar surplus whereas the men’s national team finished with a budget deficit.

“We have proven our worth over the years. The pay disparity between the men and the women is just too large,” said Lloyd on NBC’s “Today Show.”

As of today, the EEOC has not issued a decision, however in 2017 a new collective bargaining agreement was signed between the Players Association and the US Soccer Federation that helped to close the pay gap.

However, the US Soccer Federation isn’t the only professional sports organization that has issues with equal pay. There is a strong pay gap between the athletes in the WNBA and the NBA. This is its own discussion because of the difference in the annual revenues of the NBA versus the WNBA determines the salaries of the players (unlike the revenues of the men’s and women’s national soccer teams). While the annual revenues for the NBA generate about $5.9 billion annually, and currently no similar data is publicly available for the WNBA. It is safe to say that the WNBA annual revenue is considerably less. However, the pay gap comes from the percentage of that annual revenue goes back to the players. According to Forbes, NBA players receive 50% of the annual revenue, whereas the WNBA players only receive 25% (for more information on the math behind this conclusion, click here). As a result, the WNBA athletes are worth less in their total value to the WNBA when compared to their NBA counterparts. On average, it would be like saying that WNBA athletes earn 25 cents for every dollar that the WNBA earns whereas NBA athletes earn 50 cents for every dollar the NBA earns. Even as the WNBA annual revenue has been increasing, this kind of pay gap continues to persist within the sport.

Representation of Women’s Sports in the Media

When you tune into watch sports on television, it is easy to find a basketball game, football game, hockey, baseball or another mainstream professional sports game. However, there’s a strong chance that the game you tune into will be played by men. If you can find a women’s game or tournament being broadcast, it feels like the commentators are only there because they are paid too. Commentating and covering a women’s game feels like a chore and it shows, which means the viewer immediately gets bored and leads to lower ratings which only justifies the decreased network coverage. According to a study released by USC scientists Michela Musto, Cheryl Cooky, Michael A. Messner, media coverage (including news reports, event broadcasts, highlight frames, etc.) of women’s sports has gone from degenerative sexism to “gender-bland sexism” that diminishes the accomplishments of female athletes and tend to come off as “uninspiring.” Of course, that study is predicated on women’s sports getting any media coverage at all. This is an ongoing argument that is often used to justify the sexism and misogyny behind the lack of coverage of women’s sports. A study by Travis Scheadler, Audrey Wagstaff in 2012 reported that women’s sports elicit only 1.4% of ESPN SportCenter‘s total coverage was dedicated to women’s sports. In addition, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, the US Women’s National Basketball team took home their 5th consecutive gold medal and the Men’s team took home their 2nd however, the Women’s team only had half a minute of primetime coverage whereas the Men’s team had half an hour.

For the first time ever, at the 2012 Summer Olympics women’s sports did receive overall more coverage than the men’s sports. However, this coverage was biased toward more “feminine” sports such as gymnastics and less focused on “masculine” sports such as boxing, powerlifting, or basketball.

It is argued that the lack of representation, and the bias of representation contributes to the lack of interest from sports fans towards women’s sports.

Different standards of athleticism between Male and Female Sports

The current societal standards of femininity undervalue the strength, power and performance capabilities of female athletes. The ideal “feminine” standard would include the expectation that women are weak, fragile and otherwise not as strong as men. As a result, this has led to a significant difference in how a single sport is contested between Men and Women. In the sport of figure skating, which is a traditionally “feminine” sport. It is rare to see female athletes performing triple jumps while the male athletes can’t even be competitive if they don’t perform quadruples. In figure skating, artistry, poise and femininity are valued in the women’s division which means that athleticism such as the ability to perform jumps and twists are not value as much as artistry, beauty and poise of the athlete.  Athletes such as Surya Bonaly and Tonya Harding faced a lot of challenges to be competitive because despite their superior athleticism, they did not have the kind of artistry and “femininity” that was so valued. Contrary to this, the men’s division tries to “masculinize” the sport of figure skating by encouraging athletes to push their limits and capabilities of performing an increasing number of jumps and twists. Athletes like Nathen Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu are very competitive with their capabilities of performing quadruples and celebrated for their strength, power and speed. In Women’s Figure Skating, landing a triple axel will win you an Olympic gold medal, but for men it’ll barely get you 10th place.

The same kind of divide exists in gymnastics as well. Particularly in the events in the women versus men’s division. Just like figure skating, the events offered in the men’s division are to emphasize strength, power, athleticism and “masculinity” whereas the women’s events focus on more “feminine” qualities. Events like the floor routine exist for both men and women, but only the women’s routine includes music and elements of dance

In downhill skiing events, there are often different courses for the Downhill, Super G, Slalom, Giant Slalom for women than there are for men. The women’s courses are often less intense and subsequently “slower” than the men’s courses. The men’s courses are often steeper and longer with greater elevation change, which help increases average speed and thus creates differences between male and female downhill times, making them impossible to compare fairly. In 2018, Lindsey Vonn, the greatest female downhill skier of all time had repeatedly requested permission to race in the men’s division. She was repeatedly denied, and it spurred a heated debate on whether or not Vonn would be competitive against men. With many people comparing the results of women’s races versus the men as justification for their arguments, but without taking into consideration that women and men do not race on the same courses.

At the 2020 Summer Olympics, for the first time in the history of competitive swimming. The Olympic swim competition will include men and women in all contested events. Previously, the 800m freestyle was limited only to women and the 1500m freestyle was limited only to men. This level of “pool equality” is a promising sign that gender equality in terms of sport intensity is slowly but surely, moving forward. However, there is still much progress to make.

Many people will argue that there is a difference in strength between men and women, specifically upper body strength. But is this based on biological and genetic differences between males and females that has been present throughout time? We’d argue no. It wasn’t until the onset of the industrial revolution that gender roles became more defined and rigid that emphasized weakness as a purely feminine trait (including phrases such as “play like a girl”). However, for centuries both men and women shared equal work of the household chores and duties that included various tasks requiring strength, power, and endurance. Tasks that weren’t relegating to a specific gender, but more based on simply what was needed to get done. Men and women shared those duties equally and with equal expectations, there were no differences in strengths or any gender roles that defined what a male or female exclusively should do. The past 200 years society has been pushing the ideal that “femininity” equals weakness, it’s no wonder why the average upper body strength of females is considerably less than males. This leads to my next point…

Unrealistic Body Image Standards 

The push for the ideal “femininity” has a lot of consequences, especially among female athletes. In a “sex sells” capitalistic society, there are images of naked/ half naked women displayed all over the place. In sports, a lot of “feminine” events, such as gymnastics, figure skating, synchronized swimming, cheerleading, beach volleyball, etc, further push these unrealistic beauty standards through their sport. Aesthetic sports include judgement on an athlete’s appearance just as much as their performance. Referencing a point above in regard to figure skating, one of the struggles that athletic figure skaters such as Surya Bonaly and Tonya Harding faced is that they simply didn’t have the “feminine body” that the judges wanted to see.

In sports such as tennis and beach volleyball, even the uniform requirements are biased toward emphasizing women’s bodies and femininity over the athleticism. Female tennis players are often required to wear skirts and beach volleyball players are required to wear bikinis. Even when their male counterparts are able to wear shorts and t shirts.

Unrealistic body image standards like this push athletes to the extremes in terms of eating disorders and unhealthy behaviors. It is a very common condition that coaches, athletic trainers, sports psychologists and athletic directors are trained to see the signs of. Conditions such as anorexia and bulimia are very prevalent in women’s sports. At least 1/3 of female athletes are at risk of developing eating disorders and a condition called the “Female Athlete Triad” can develop that leads to long term health consequences in female athletes. Yet, sports that emphasize body image above athleticism continue to perpetuate this kind of unhealthy behavior, and while it’s present among both men and women, it is biased toward women. Again, more “feminine” sports that tend to emphasize beauty, naked bodies and such are also the sports in which eating disorders are most common.

For International Women’s Day, we celebrate the women who have and continue to pave the way for gender equality and representation in sports. It is also important to recognize why International Women’s Day is so important by creating these discussions and understanding the issues that these strong women are continuing to fight for every day. These are issues only scratch the surface of a larger discussion. It’s a discussion we can all be part of, regardless of our gender. Together, we can show our support for these leaders who are working for progress and change and stand behind them as they show us the way.

By Dirk Smith

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