Examination of Sexism in Sport
8 years ago, my cousin was selected in the Pakistan Nation Women’s Soccer team as captain of the side for the first time in her short soccer career. It was a very proud moment for her and our whole family as she would not only be raising the family name, but she would also be representing my nation in a foreign world cup tournament for the first time in the history of Pakistan. However, all the satisfaction quickly turned into a feeling of dejection when extremists group in Pakistan started to protest against the participation of the Women’s team as they claimed that sports were not meant for women and rather than becoming athletes, these women should stay in their homes to protect their “family’s honour”. Soon after, the team was withheld from the world cup when the government announced that the team would not fly to Russia for the world cup due to “security reasons”. This incident changed my life. I was shook. A girl’s lifelong dream was being taken away from her because of a group of people didn’t believe that women could be athletes. I was too little to understand the idea of gender inequalities at the time, but as I grew older I tried to look into the issue in my quest to find a reason why these differences were created.
Sexism has played its part in many different work environments for quite some time. It especially raises big conversation, and an ongoing problem in the sports industry. Not only does it affect the women who work in the industry, but also other minorities. For so long sexism has been a topic of discussion, but no real attempts at change have been made. It has been 30 years since Title IX legislation granted women equal playing time, but the male-dominated world of sports journalism has yet to catch up with the law. Coverage of women’s sports lags far behind men’s and focuses on female athletes’ femininity and sexuality over their achievements on the court and field. While female athleticism challenges gender norms, women athletes continue to be depicted in traditional roles that reaffirm their femininity – as wives and mothers or sex objects. By comparison, male athletes are framed according to heroic masculine ideals that honour courage, strength, and endurance. This reality hurts me deeply, and every now and then I ask myself a question: why is it that although women are equal to men under the law, in reality they are so far apart in the world of sports?
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I’ve learnt that Sport’s ruthless, performance-based meritocracy, results in male dominance not, it is claimed, because of entrenched, calculated sexism, but because of the inexorable iron laws of ‘nature’. These alibis are routinely produced during the periodic scandals that erupt within sport. While they do not go unchallenged, they have proven resilient because of the specific history of sport as a social institution. I will briefly trace that history, because it reveals why it is particularly difficult to counter sexism within sport. Women can do almost anything that men can do, but the way they are viewed within the athletics world does not match their actual abilities. The light in which women are portrayed is vastly dimmer than the one shining upon men in professional and collegiate sports, even though women’s sports are required to be as easily accessible and as equally funded as men’s in collegiate athletics due to Title IX legislation.
Sex appeal, rather than recognition of athletic accomplishments, is prevalent. A woman’s body is not portrayed as a strong, muscular machine capable of extraordinary athletic feats like a man’s body is, but instead is seen more as an object pleasurable to the eye when it is exposed outside of the realm of sports. When men see these objectified images, they do not look at a female athlete as an athlete; instead, they see a caretaker, a keeper of the household, a wife, mother, and most often, a sex object. The caretaker image stems from television and media-generated stereotypes that have formed over time through the presentation of women cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the household, essentially making life easier for their men and families. Female bodies are exploited through bikini photo shoots rather than through competitive action shots in uniform as men are portrayed.
In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed many such controversies involving gender inequality, even on a personal level as stated previously, but every time the problem seems to be reaching a desirable outcome, a new incident seems to overshadow any sort of developments towards the issue.
Tennis stars such as Venus and Serena Williams provide one example. Their career accomplishments include numerous Grand Slam tournament wins, both having been ranked as the #1 player in the world on at least one occasion each, and they will undoubtedly go down as two of the greatest tennis players, regardless of gender, of all time. Even with their impressive tennis resumes, telecasts and news reports largely focus on the outfits the Williams’ choose to wear, instead of athletic aspects, while pointing out provocative aspects of the clothing. Granted, these women make the decision to wear the questionable outfits, but media outlets are not required to report on the fashion of the game, instead they are choosing to do so. This type of coverage is evidence of how women in sports are represented through the media. Serena Williams would later go on to be involved in another controversial incident in 2018 at the US Open, when she claimed that she had been deducted a game unfairly, accusing the chair umpire; Carlos Ramos, of sexism.
Women’s athletic abilities seem to be considered far inferior and their competition less intense than any man’s, apparent through the lack of media and commercialization efforts directed toward the benefit of the female gender. Therefore, the amount of media coverage and airtime given to males compared to females is a ratio heavily favouring men. Women have come a long way in the sports world, especially since Title IX was implemented in 1972, but their abilities and accomplishments continue to be overlooked by male sports reporters in particular, who see a woman’s primary role as caretaker and sex symbol, thus giving women credit and exposure mainly for their sex appeal, which creates an image of inferiority compared to male athletes.
The most prestigious championship in the world of women’s soccer provided a platform where this type of portrayal could be propagated on an international scene. The everlasting image of the entire 1999 Women’s World Cup remains to be when female soccer player Brandi Chastain ripped her jersey off, revealing her sports bra in elation after scoring the World Cup-clinching penalty kick. In the real scope of the happening, taking your shirt off after scoring an important goal in soccer is an old age trend and it seemed a harmless act that was not meant to be interpreted in a sexual way; it was just a reaction to a defining moment in her life and in the larger scope of women’s sports, as well as the popularity of soccer as an American sport. But unfortunately, this seemingly innocent action sparked a media craze and influenced an even larger movement to expose female athletes in the sexual light that has become commonplace today.
Moreover, at the 2015 Australian Open, following an impressive victory which would eventually become a breakthrough in her career, Eugenie Bouchard was asked by post-match interviewer Ian Cohen, working for Channel Seven, to “give us a twirl” in front of the thousands in attendance and millions watching at home, including members of her pound family, eager to celebrate the occasion. The young Bouchard, embarrassed, handled it politely, giving a partial eye-roll before acceding to his request. Afterwards she said: “It was very much unexpected. I don’t know, an old guy asking you to twirl. It was funny.” It was clear that she wasn’t sure what exactly happened and what it meant in the bigger picture until the issue was given a voice by many athletes and supporters around the world, eventually leading to the dismissal of the interviewer of the channel, and more importantly, it seemed like the incident would not repeat itself anytime soon.
More recently, the 2018 FIFA Ballon d’Or ceremony, held on the 11th of December, was supposed to be a monumental occasion for all soccer players to be rewarded for their outstanding performances throughout the year, but it turned out to be one of the darkest sports award functions in history. For the very first time, the women’s player of the year category was introduced, which seemed like a big step towards equality in the field of soccer. As Ada Hegerberg proudly held aloft her Ballon d’Or and then told young girls ‘please believe in yourself’, women’s football cherished a watershed moment in its long and tortuous fight to win parity with the men’s game. However, the feeling of elation would not last. After the winner of the first world women’s title was asked on stage by host DJ Martin Solveig if she knew how to twerk, a sexually-provocative dance, it became clear that a landmark chance to show football had moved on from its sexist past had been lost. Hegerberg, 23, appeared visibly stunned, a room packed with world football’s elite fell silent and Kylian Mbappe’s shocked expression reflected the reaction which would soon transmit to social media, with many male and female athletes speaking out about the incident in support of Hegerberg.
This shift to the sexual exposure of female athletes is never more evident or exemplified than by the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Sports Illustrated has long been known for its exemplary sports writing and its vivid images of athletes (mostly men) in action. It is a sports magazine through and through, and not intended to be of the Playboy nature, at least not until the issue with the half-naked women was officially introduced in 1964. Since then, many have argued whether the magazine is benefiting the issue of sexism in sports or making it worse. According to dictionary.com, sport is defined as ‘an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing.’ Therefore, modelling is not a sport and the problem is that a majority of the women depicted in the annual issue are not even athletes. The fame of the magazine and its antics over the years further prove that women are treated unequally, inferior to men through both representation and sexual portrayal.
Apart from the sexual aspect and unfair division of media rights, unequal pay between the two genders is still an ongoing debate. The men’s and women’s champions at the latest Australian Open tennis event are set to pocket four million Australian dollars (US$3.2m) each later this month, an equity often cited as one of the great examples of gender equality in sport. When Wimbledon agreed to offer equal prize-money a decade ago, only nine out of the 44 sports which remunerate athletes paid equally. That number is now 35. However, the remaining nine are among the biggest and most lucrative in the world: Football, golf and cricket among them.
Serena Williams is the only female in the world’s 100 highest-paid athletes. Recent studies suggested gender equality in football is worse than in politics, business and medicine. Even in tennis, away from the Grand Slams, the gap remains considerable. Earlier this month, Nick Kyrgios pocketed $83,650 for winning the Brisbane International. Julia Georges, meanwhile, earned $43,000 for winning a similar-level event in Auckland. Adding endorsements, the gulf widens. World’s top-ranked female tennis player Simona Halep’s off-court earnings came in at $1.5m last year, dwarfed by Roger Federer, currently men’s number two, who pocketed $58m. This month, Novak Djokovic urged male tennis players to demand more prize-money. Last year, Djokovic said male players should earn more than their female counterparts because they have a bigger following. Furthermore, FIFA, football’s world governing body, awarded a total prize pool of $15m for the last Women’s World Cup. For the men’s equivalent, the pool was $576m. In golf, the men’s world number 143, Mackenzie Hughes, earned more in 2017 ($2.36m) than the women’s number two Sung Hyun Park ($2.34m). The 2017 earnings of top-ranked golfer Dustin Johnson’s caddie surpassed all but three of the top female golfers.
On a positive note, Golf and Squash seem to be two sports aiming for parity. Squash has made substantial breakthroughs in gender equality, offering equal prize-money for the first time at the 2017 World Championships and at five of the seven elite World Series tournaments. Moreover, The European Championships at Gleneagles this year will be the first mixed golf event, held on the same course with equal prize-money.
Even in this day and age, it is extremely heart-breaking that sexism in sport, and in society in general, still exists. After my research, although I was not exactly able to answer the question of why the barriers between the two genders exist, I believe that the sporting world is more united than ever before to find a solution to this problem and I’m hopeful that with the effort being put in by the sporting world to end this disparity, we will soon have a sporting society where athlete will be judged according to their performances, rather than their gender.