By Constantinos Massonos, Contributor
Gender inequality has been an issue in society all through recorded history, with countless cases of women facing issues of equality in their relationships, career, education, and other aspects of their lives. Historically in sports, female athletes have been treated differently from male athletes, and while many inequalities of the past are being eradicated, women athletes still have to fight for equality in their rights, equality in their pay, and equality in the way they are portrayed by the media.
The struggle to close the gender pay gap, the difference in earnings between men and women, is constant and common across most industries. Female athletes have publicized the issue for decades. In the 1970s, a group of female tennis players decided to protest against pay disparities by starting their own women-only tennis circuit and managed to convince the U.S Open to offer equal prize money to men and women in 1973. An indication of how things have changed since 1973 can be found in the Forbes’s 100 highest-earning athletes report for 2018, where only one female athlete made the list, Serena Williams. Serena is also on the top of the list of highest-earning female athletes, where 8 out of the 10 top female athletes also come from tennis, which is the only sport where women have some pay parity.
In 2016, five members of the US Women Soccer team filed a wage-discrimination action against the U.S. Soccer Federation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that while the women’s team generated nearly $20 million more than the men’s team, women were paid about a quarter of what men earn; while losing their fight in court, a year after, they managed to sign a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer that increased their income by more than 30%. Their “win” is an inspiration for women’s teams around the world to step up, with Canada’s soccer team soon after, requesting talks for maternity coverage in their contracts and the US Women’s hockey team reaching out for improved pay and working conditions.
Despite the growing participation of women in sports (reports in the US indicate that 40% of sportspeople are women), sports media coverage does not follow suit. Only 6-8% of total sports media coverage is devoted to females while women-only sports stories add up to only 3.5% of all sports stories in the four major US newspapers.
But equality in media coverage does not only mean an equal number of sports articles or air time, neither equal number of male and female athletes appearing on TV shows. It’s clear that in today’s society males are the dominant figure in sports and the media attention they receive focuses on their skills and performance, while the media attention female athletes receive usually focuses on their physical attractiveness or non-sport-related activities. Equality can be achieved by simply portraying female athletes as powerful and talented just as they do men.
The “SheIS” initiative, was launched a few months ago by a number of women’s sports stakeholders including the WNBA, U.S. Tennis Association and Canadian Women’s Hockey and is pooling resources together in order to increase viewership and attendance in women sports. The idea behind this initiative is that women should support other women, an idea applicable to any level of women sports.
While sports are a powerful platform to promote gender equality, there is still a wide array of measures that sports organizations can undertake, such as public debates, mentoring schemes, proactive policies and increasing women’s decision making in their governing boards. In combination with legislation and other voluntary measures, wiping out gender stereotypes can have a crucial effect in the struggle for achieving equal rights for both men and women athletes.
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