For generations professional and amateur sorts alike have been a battleground of women athletes struggling for recognition. More than being excluded from sports played by men they often face discriminatory rules when they set up their own leagues.

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Generations of girls told they would not be interested or being shamed into quitting teams or training by puberty. By 14 girls are twice as likely as boys to be dropping out of sports and by 17 51% of them will have quit sports completely. In the US alone, where more study has been done, girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to participate in high school sports according to the Women’s Sports Foundation which has a lot of data on the disparity.

Many agree that somethings will have to change but what these changes should be and how they happen in not a simple question.

The most basic issues of access, funding and broadcasting are perhaps are the most measurable and perhaps the easiest to propose solutions to.

There is a large gap between the prize money and salaries of men and women in a number of sports. The USA women’s soccer team has been trying to draw attention to the pay gap between themselves and their male counterparts for years. In ice hockey, the women’s national hockey league has had to put up with another round of pay cuts. The situation is much the same in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

Lexie Hoffmeyer of the Toronto Furies, the defending CWHL Clarkson Cup champions, responds to Morgan Rielly of the Toronto Maple Leafs being “a girl about it” comment.

Women’s sports often struggle to be broadcast or discussed in the media. In Ireland women’s sports average 3.3% of sports coverage. According to research done in the UK, stories about men’s sports outnumbered those about women’s sports 20 to one in March 2013 in six main British newspapers; the Sun, Mirror, Times, Telegraph, Mail and Express.

There was a range of criticism of commentary during the Rio 2016 Olympics that objectified women’s athletes. There were racially charged comments about Gabby Douglas’ hair, infantalisation of the whole USA women’s gymnastics team and comments focusing on athletes in regards their male counterpoints or family members.

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An article on the Irish women’s rugby team in 2014 too was a parade of sexism and cliches. Including the line “Let me shatter your misconceptions about women in the sport. These are not butch, masculine, beer-swilling, men-hating women. They are fit, toned, effortlessly pretty players who love nothing more than getting dolled up for the evening“.

These issue are pervasive but measurable and can be addressed.

More insidious is the less observable societal pressure which dissuades girls from pursuing sport for fun. There is some focus on highly successful professional athletes as role models. But not all boys are not expected to make careers out of the sport they enjoy. We don’t need to win gold medals for exercise and team-work to be worthwhile.

What can be done?

Regulations could be passed that would guarantee equal funding and equitable broadcasting but some argue that would not be enough to tackle the wider societal prejudices.

While segregated sports allow women to compete without dealing with sexist discrimination in being accepted onto teams they do not perhaps deal with the wider concerns.

Transgender and intersex athletes are also pushed to the margins or excluded entirely. There are those leagues that have made an effort to be inclusive, such as the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) which has had a player for the Buffalo Beauts, Harrison Brown, come out as a transgender man to a great deal of support. But even these leagues have policies that still focus a great detail on hormones and other questionably scientific  and arbitrary measurements of gender. There has often been an assumption that men would try to sneak into women’s sports to have an advantage. The international roller derby association WFTDA also recently changed their official policy to remove references to hormones making it one of the few gendered sporting organisations that relies purely on self-identity.

On the other hand, many women athletes have no interest in being integrated into male dominated leagues feeling that this would reduce the amount of progress they could make.

Involvement in sports from a young age and onwards can have such a benefial effect on a person’s social life, health and mental wellbeing that it seem vital to me that serious effort be made to lesson the pressures on girls and women to give up on.

More reading:

Katie Taylor discusses broadcasting women’s sport

Women Play Sport but Not on TV

NPR on sexism at the 2016 Olympics

Vox on Sexist Comments at the 2016 Olympics 

Sport & gender: A history of bad science

Image Sources:

1. Flickr: Women’s hurdles race taking place at Sydney Sports Ground, New South Wales, March 1931 by National Library of Australia

2. Agência Brasil Fotografias (Credit: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil) – Ginasta holandesa ganha ouro nas traves, CC BY 2.0