Girl’s back holding a bar
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Examining gender inequality in sport

By Melanie Goldberg

Women deserve sport and deserve opportunities.

Arguably never having left the spotlight, the recent Olympics and Paralympics have emphasised once again the intrinsic gender inequality within the sporting world. From the Norwegian Women’s Beach Volleyball team facing a fine for wearing comfortable clothing to Paralympic Sprinter Olivia Breen being subject to crude comments over her running shorts; institutionalised misogyny was far from unfamiliar. According to a report from the Women’s Sport Foundation, women comprised less than 25% of Paralympians at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in 2018 and there are still several Olympic and Paralympic events that disbar women from participation. These events ultimately reflect systematic discrimination that occurs throughout sport, which is just as endemic in recreational and amateur levels. Barriers begin at the lowest levels, with something as simple as a lack of choice of sports at school which unfortunately begins this vicious and unequal cycle.

A 2021 Youth Sport Trust report has found that out of almost 30,000 girls surveyed, 37% stated that their period affects their ability to get involved in sport. Additionally, 33% stated that issues surrounding body image and unwanted attention were also factors in their engagement, or lack thereof, with exercise. Professional sportswomen still feel the burden of a topic that is such a fundamental part of their being but continues to be extremely taboo. 40% of elite sportswomen reported that they would not feel comfortable discussing their periods with their coaches, according to a BBC Survey. The survey also reported that 60% of respondents answered yes to whether their period has forced them to miss training. Other menstruation-related issues include lack of sanitary bins, white uniforms, and painful side effects from hormonal contraception. Periods are an inevitable part of most women’s lives, so where is the focus on better infrastructure and practice to mitigate and reduce negative effects?

“…out of almost 30,000 girls surveyed, 37% stated that their period affects their ability to get involved in sport.”

A prime example of systematic misogyny is the pay disparity between the Men’s and Women’s FIFA World Cup. Many argue that men attract bigger audiences and therefore, deserve higher wages. However, this feeble argument ignores that wage discrepancies amongst professional athletes is a fundamental consequence of ingrained beliefs that begin in early childhood. This is about retaining the sporting status quo that genders physical traits; muscular, athletic bodies are only acceptable for men. Women are “allowed” to be sporty, but only to the extent that they can retain their perceived femininity. Aside from the argument of whether anybody should receive millions in wages for kicking a ball about, what message this really conveys is that a woman’s worth is not equal to that of men. In reality, this translates to young girls that they cannot grow up to be what they want to be, but the four-year-old boy sitting next to them in nursery can. How can we expect to reduce inequality when there are such severe systemic barriers in place that heavily discourage, and even physically prevent, women and girls from progressing?

“Women are “allowed” to be sporty, but only to the extent that they can retain their perceived femininity.”

It is evident that women and girls cannot rely on solidarity from men and that female-only organisations and movements are able to tackle these issues, particularly at a recreational level. This Girl Can is a UK grassroots movement that aims to increase the participation of women in sports. One of their core principles is tackling body image issues that have become a barrier to participation for many women and girls. Thus far, they are credited with having encouraged an estimated 3m women to get back into sports. In a similar vein, Girl Up conducts research into sport-related sexism, provides financial support through a scholarship fund and runs online fitness events. Moreover, women’s literature such as Anna Kessel’s Eat. Sweat. Play. brilliantly centres the battle against gender inequality in the sporting world. Kessel also writes prolifically concerning gender discrepancies in sport, which should be highly recommended reading for both men and women.

We are all stuck in a vicious cycle with extreme barriers in every level of support, which will inevitably persist without equally extreme and challenging measures. Women deserve sport and deserve opportunities. It’s time to stop being complicit and apathetic and do something about it.


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