Here it is again, another narrative on gender equality in the modern era. Haven’t we had enough?

First off, why is it when men play basketball, the game is simply referred to ‘basketball’, but when women play basketball, the term gets gendered and become ‘women’s basketball’?

Second, there are an abundance of great female athletes in the world, but why is it difficult for them to gain recognition from the media?

There are still concerns about whether the sports industry portrays a masculine hegemonic culture – there are some who believe that these masculine hegemonic ideals are shifting towards a more gender-equal environment, but there are also counter arguments that lies on the understanding that sports will always present a masculine culture. There seem to be a lack of female coverage, figure and authority in the sports industry. And when we talk about the idea of representations, most of the time we are talking about media representations. It probably doesn’t take us by surprise that most studies have consistently found that the volume of women’s sports media coverage is less than men’s sports. In 2006, according to the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), women’s sports received just 5 per cent of coverage, and that all female games receive just 0.5 per cent of all commercial sponsorship . It seems that the media coverage of female workers in the sports industry (athletes, reporters, broadcasters) are depreciated under the cultural ideology imposed by gender order. Although some might argue that we have seen the growth in how modern sports today continue to encourage more women participation in sports, most research have shown that hierarchical gender relations are not only embedded in social structures, but also in the habitus of individuals and the collective identities of groups. This means that some individuals, especially men in the sports industry, still unconsciously follow the conventional ideology of sports being a men-dominated field.

Perhaps the controversy of Cam Newton, 28, and his comment towards a female reporter would be a relevant introductory to this issue. The NFL player who plays the quarterback for Carolina Panthers, made a sexist comment to a female reporter when he said that it is “funny to hear” a woman speaks knowledgably about football. The reporter, Jourdan Rodrigue, later said that she was “dismayed by his response” and posted a tweet stating:

 “I don’t think it’s “funny” to be a female talk about routes. I think it’s my job” (BBC, 2017)

Newton’s comment implies that it is unusual for females to have an in-depth understanding about the rules of football, and therefore ‘funny’ hearing it when they make such remarks.

Source: Youtube, The National

Most of us were probably taught from an early age what it takes to be a woman and what it takes to be man. It is the stereotypical assumptions imposed by society that leads into such judgments about women; what is male-appropriate and what is female-appropriate (Brookes, 2002). It is the influence of gender-role stereotyping and sexism that affects a sportscaster’s or a sports journalist, specifically female journalists’ credibility (Mudrick, 2016). For example, why does it become a big deal when women have accomplished something in sports? Why do we set such low expectations on what women can achieve?

Let’s look at the case of Caster Semenya. Caster Semenya won a gold medal in the 800-meter race at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics with a year best time. She had also won a gold medal in the 800-meter race at the Commonwealth Youth Games, and both the 80 and 1,500 meter races (Sloop, 2012). In light of the gender norms still remain largely in place, such achievements were unsurprisingly questioned and criticized. Semenya was asked to undergo a “gender test” by the International Association of Athletics Federations given by the fact that she appears to have some ‘masculine’ figures.

Caster Semenya, Source: Sports Net

An early work found that audience were less likely to agree with a woman reporter’s projection (Ordman & Zillman in Mudrick, 2016). However, there was also a study that involved 544 participants, aiming to see how participants asses the credibility of two sportscaster’s (male and female) in a basketball debate in which the participant’s attitudes toward the sportscaster, gender-role stereotyping, and sexism as well as media consumption intentions were also measured. Their results indicated that participants’ endorsement of gender stereotypes had a negative effect on the perceived credibility of the female sportscaster (Mudrick, 2016). Although there are some inconsistent results on how women in sports are belittled, it is no question that such issue will not occur within the discourse of men in sports.

Media Coverage

Like other cultural recreation, it is important to understand the manner in which sport and its depiction, usually in the media, reproduces or challenges the male hegemony (O’Neill & Mulready, 2015). It is not how women are not participating as much as men in sports, it is not how there are lack of opportunities for women to participate in sports, it is how women are actually participating, yet they are not getting enough recognition from either media or audience that becomes the issue here. Although women’s participation in sports has reached unprecedented highs, research continue to show that media coverage of female athletes still lags behind male’s. Women have found it difficult to establish the right and recognition of their place in the sports world (Boyle & Haynes, 2009) and they remain underrepresented in the sports media, despite the increased opportunities of sports and journalism for women (Mudrick, 2016). Moreover, despite the fact that women are being more actively involved in sport, this change has not been reflected in attendant media coverage of women in sport (Messner in Boyle & Haynes, 2009).

The lack of media coverage does not only affect female athletes, but it also affects other women working in the sports industry. In televised sport broadcasting, women are more often assigned to sideline reporting – a role with limited air time – while their male colleagues are assigned a more prominent anchor or analyst duties with longer segments (Mudrick, 2016). In addition, the 2014 Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) Race and Gender Report Card reports that women compromised just 13.3% of sports newspaper and website staffs (Lapchick et. al., in Mudrick, 2016). Women were more likely to be copy editors/designers (19.2%), rather than reporters (12.7%), columnists (12.4%), and editors (9.9%) (Mudrick, 2016). Such figures indicate that the more prominent the role, the less likely it will be a woman… harsh, isn’t it?

But of course, it is critical that we address some studies that have identified some cases in which women’s sports have in fact gained coverage. Until today Australia is known to have published more articles on women’s sports, relative to their competitors, and at least in some newspapers in Australia, sports newswork has developed to include the coverage of women’s sports (Sherwood et. al., 2016).

  • Australian Diamonds netball team won the 2015 Netball World Cup, and the achievement was published on the front page of every major newspaper in Australia.
  • The Matilda’s national women’s soccer team, appeared on front and back pages of Australia’s newspapers, as a result of making it to the quarterfinals of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

These examples of increased coverage of Australian women’s sports are significant, particularly significant to counter some research that have argued that women’s sports do not receive coverage in sports media. Furthermore, the 1996 Olympics is believed to be the “year of the woman” – in which there was an emphasis on women’s achievements, instead of their looks. Val Ackerman, president of the WNBA also stated “the Atlanta Olympics elevated women’s sports to a new high because of the changes in media coverage, facilitating, among other things, the development of professional league” (Heywood, 2003).

Why Do We Need To Be Informed About This?

So, we understand that there are some concerns regarding the lack of media coverage of female athletes, but why is it important to raise up this issue? One reason is that female sports coverage provides strong role models for young girls. Particularly important to challenge the imposed stereotypes of women and what Whannel points out can act as barriers to female participation in sports (O’Neill & Mulready, 2015). In addition, given the lack of women in many departments of the sports media industry, discrimination toward women “certainly appears” to exist within hiring practices (Mudrick, 2016). Moreover, problems continue to exist for women who have gained such high positions in the industry, as they are often harassed and challenged by the sports fans (Grubb & Billiot in Mudrick et. al., 2016). WSFF believes that due to the lack of coverage of women’s sports, there is a crisis; in which 80% of women are not active enough; that there are too few women in higher-ranking positions to become inspiring role models for young women to be introduced to the active lifestyle. However, I am a little hesitant with this particular statement; Firstly because I question the sample size of this finding; and secondly, I believe that with the rise of social media, specifically Instagram, it seems that female role models are being built in a way that they have become influencers for young women to look ‘healthy’ and ‘fit’, promoting a new ideal image of women – “muscles are good”. But again, there is that distinct line between looking ‘healthy’ and ‘thin’, currently we have prevailing culture where young girls grow up wanting to be thin rather than active and healthy (Peacock, 2010).

But it is not just the lack of coverage that becomes the issue, it is when these women earned media coverage, but in a demoralizing and objectifying, sexualized way. Sportswomen may be sexualized, often labelled as “girls” or called by their first names, or their achievements trivialized (Brookes, 2002) and they understand how frightening this issue can be. Sport anchors, reporters, and writers often explicitly refer to a female athlete’s attractiveness, emotionality, femininity, and heterosexuality – all of which effectively convey to the audience that her stereotypical gender role is more significant than her athletic role (Knight & Giuliano, 2010). It seems that because competitively participating in sports is inconsistent with society’s construction of the female role, the media coverage of female athletes seems to ‘protect’ female athletes from rejection by society, by emphasizing other aspects they are known to have, such as their attractiveness (Kane in Knight & Giuliano, 2010). Consider the following picture published by Sports Illustrated:

Sports Illustrated Cover Year 2000 (Left), Year 2009 (Right). Source: Sports Ethics

Both Anna Kournikova and Roger Federer are both very successful tennis players. However, we can see that these are two very contrastive pictures. Kournikova is seductively looking into the camera in a casual, non ‘sporty’ look; while Federer is seen to demonstrate an athletic position, emphasizing the sportsman look.

Female boxer Cathy Brown also argues that women are pressured into doing seductive media shots and dressing in a way that will encourage media attention and make them more appealing to the ‘male gaze’.

Men constitute the majority of sporting audiences, we cannot get media coverage simply because we are brilliant at our sport … Anna Kournikova, who in all honesty was not great at her sport, managed to get sponsorship. Why? Because she is beautiful, sexy and prepared to show half-naked images of herself (Brown in Boyle & Haynes, 2009).

Where Are We Now?

Regardless of where we stand in terms of gender equality in the sports industry, sports have historically been an institution that showcases masculinity, and the way I see it, the phenomenon of women’s sports could go either way; either continue to prove this masculine hegemonic trend; or it could build on the activism of women’s organizations that have embraced the beauty of sports. We need more women in general working in majority of the areas in the sports industry. If sports newsroom were run by women, it will help offer a wider perspective towards equality; media coverage of female athletes will likely represent women as athletes first, women second.


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