Structural changes are needed for women in sport.
Female athletes want control over how they can best do their jobs whether it’s the clothes they wear or their psychological security.
The position of women athletes has come under the microscope in recent months. Whether it’s the clothes they wear or the pressures they face and the impact they have on their mental health, there is rebellion in the ranks. Female athletes want control and are speaking up on outdated uniform regulations and demanding that athleticism be prioritised over how they appeal to spectators and sponsors. They are also being more vocal about the specific pressures they face and their psychological well-being. It’s time to look at the structural changes needed for women in sport.
Importance of sports for girls
Girls regularly stop playing sports after puberty and this has long-term consequences on their mental and physical health. Part of the reason is the focus on their appearance and an awareness of their bodies which are objectified and sexualised by situations which we saw in the Norwegian Beach Handball situation. They see this on their TV screens at every major sporting event.
This is a phenomenon that is found internationally where dropout rates are across Europe and the developed world, although Scandinavian countries report higher rates of sports participation for girls. The Australian Youth and Confidence Research suggests that over half of girls give up sport by the age of 17, also seen in Canada where they have witnessed an ongoing reduction in the levels of female participation in the last two decades. The Women’s Sport Federation (WSF) indicate that more girls of colour engage in sport than their white counterparts. This is not a good diversity statistic.
Outdated dress codes
Women’s dress codes in sport are determined by “traditions” that are both outdated and gendered. Their outfits have long tried to reconcile notions of “femininity” (also sexuality) with the practicalities of being an athlete. This objectifies female athletes rather than focusing on their sporting skills. Having consistent uniform rules for boys and girls, men and women would go a long way to overcoming issues around body image. The German Olympic Gymnastics team is challenging these and competed in full-body unitards to challenge sexuèalisation. Nadia Nadim, the Danish soccer player was able to play without having to compromise her personal beliefs.
Lack of role models
There is a general lack of female role models in sport although this is changing with the reach of social media. According to a study carried out by WSF, 65% of girls don’t know of any sporting role models in their chosen sport but could name a male one. Girls are frequently ridiculed for playing sport in school which is seen to be a gender-coded activity for boys. This is at a time when girls as young as 8 are body shamed.
It’s more important than ever for parents to watch sports with their daughters and to encourage involvement.
Gender gap in sport
Women traditionally played sport for leisure and to stay in shape, rather than competitively, so there has always been a historical gender gap in sport. This has led to women’s sports being diminished in a competitive arena because they have been around for a shorter time. This is clear today in the earnings potential between male and female players. In the WNBA the highest salary is $117,000 and for the NBA it’s $40 million, a gap of $39,883,000. We see a similar situation in football (soccer).
The best-paid footballer ever was Lionel Messi who made £141 million in comparison with Carli Lloyd who earned $518,000, 272 times LESS than Messi. The highest-paid female athlete is Naomi Osaka who earned $60 million dollars. Conor Mcgregor is the highest-paid male athlete with earnings of $208 million.
Women in sports leadership
What is clearly needed is for there to be more women in leadership roles in the official governing associations of the leading sports. In 2020, the IOC has reached its target for gender-balanced participation within the IOC commissions, with 47.7 percent of the positions currently held by women (in 2013 women held 20 percent of the positions) Hopefully what we will see is the impact of this gender balance filter throughout the ranks.
It is important to listen to the views of women who are currently active athletes, as well as those in the general arena, especially when all athletes are under the social media microscope every minute of every day. Sport is more than sport, it is a major industry, and the pressure on individuals and teams to appease sponsors is huge. You will recall that Nike dropped pregnant athlete Allyson Felix only to face a major backlash.
With Biles and Osaka stepping back at critical competitive moments for mental health reasons, the need to support all athletes psychologically is critical. Biles was already a survivor of abuse under the coaching regime of US gymnastics team coach Larry Nassar who was sentenced to100 years in prison for the offences carried out.
Times are changing
What we are seeing is those female athletes speaking up is changing the way we view women in all sports and dealing with outdated and male-coded practices. Women want greater control of what they need to do their jobs and the psychological security of their workplaces. The pitch, track, pool or stadium is their office.
It is normal that female athletes want control. We should focus on their athleticism, skills, and the contribution they make to their sports not how they look.