A woman’s place is on the pitch: the gender divide in sport

In 2018 France took home $38 million in prize money for winning the Men’s FIFA World Cup, more than all 24 women’s teams would compete for the following year in the Women’s competition, with the USA taking home just $4 million for the same feat.

The enormity of such a pay gap isn’t unusual in professional sports; Forbes‘ 2020 list of the ten highest paid athletes in the world consists solely of men, as does every other list previously. While there’s certainly an argument that women in these professional capacities perhaps aren’t as skilled as their male counterparts, writing off the issue as solved on these grounds is hugely problematic. It paints a picture of women as naturally inferior to men, when in reality the prevalence of gender stereotypes and expectations and the lack of support and encouragement this leads to when women do choose to enter into professional sports is almost undoubtedly the cause.

It’s clear that from a young age girls and boys face pressure to conform to gender stereotypes.

It seems as though there are two separate issues at hand when it comes to women in sports; why aren’t more women playing professionally, and why aren’t we interested in those who do? I would argue that the predominant cause of both of these issues lies in stereotypes about women’s ability and their expected role in society. It’s clear that from a young age girls and boys face pressure to conform to gender stereotypes.

A 2005 study found that parents provide less encouragement for sports for their daughters in comparison with their sons, and perceive their sons as having a higher competence for physical activity (Fredricks and Eccles). A more recent article in The Conversation looked at the ways in which girls are being denied access to sports in school, with one girl from South Wales ridiculed and labelled a ‘lesbian’ by classmates for wanting to play football, with teachers agreeing the sport was not for her and suggesting she try netball instead. Separating boys and girls in this way surely only serves to perpetuate perceived gender differences. This is an argument articulated by McDonagh and Pappano in their book, Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal, as they assert that:

‘Coercive sex segregation does not reflect actual sex differences … but … enforces a flawed premise that females are inherently athletically inferior to males’.

With a gender divide enforced at such a young age it’s no wonder less girls are entering into professional sports, nor is it particularly surprising that those who do face negative assumptions about their ability.  

While efforts are being made to aid in this discrepancy, it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go, with gender bias’ still very much present. In 2015, upon the England women’s football team securing a bronze medal in the world cup, the FA tweeted that the players ‘could go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today’. This isn’t the only time the FA has come under fire for sexist comments. In December 2016 they released a document entitled ‘Considerations for increasing participation in women and girls football’ in which they made a number of suggestions for widening participation in the sport, including advertising ‘in places where girls go’ such as ‘coffee shops or on the back of toilet doors’, only playing indoors during the winter months, and using colourful and nice smelling bibs. To top it all off they included a range of pink equipment they felt would encourage girls to take part.

The lack of funding for and the way we treat women in sports serves not only as a reflection of sexism in society, but actively reinforces it.

It’s clear that the way in which women in sports are currently treated perpetuates existing negative stereotypes. The lack of funding for and the way we treat women in sports serves not only as a reflection of sexism in society, but actively reinforces it. Viewing women as primarily wives and mothers, and treating them as such, provides them little to no opportunity to progress and means they’re often unable to focus on their sport in the same way as their male counterparts. While male Premier League players are able to dedicate themselves to their training, women in the FA’s Super League often don’t have such a privilege as they’re forced to supplement their income with a second job. It’s no wonder these women aren’t considered as talented as their male peers when they’re unable to dedicate the same amount of time to practice.

While the topic of women in sports may seem bleak, it is evident that progress is being made. In October 2018 FIFA announced it was doubling the prize money for the Women’s World Cup, raising it from $15 million to $30 million, albeit still a fraction of the Men’s World Cup prize. Campaigns such as Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ are focusing on getting more women into sport and keeping active, looking to break down the fear many women have of being judged while participating in physical activity. Furthermore, the prevalence of female sporting role models is ever increasing, providing hope for a new generation of female athletes. While there’s evidently a long way to go in reducing the sporting gender divide, the process has certainly begun.

By Aoife Dickinson

Image: by who?du!nelson via Unsplash

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