Women in sport hit the grass ceiling

Ms Broderick and I.
Ms Broderick and I.

The following was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 21st 2010. It is shared  here as a guest blog post with the permission of the author Elizabeth Broderick, the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner. It is an edited version of a speech she gave at the 5th IWG World Conference on Women and Sport.

Despite what many politicians might think, the talk in town isn’t the new resources tax or the coming federal election – it’s actually next week’s State of Origin and who will win the men’s FIFA World Cup in June.

We are ”sports mad”, ”a sporting nation”, ”a nation of sportsmen”. As the Observer’s chief sport writer, Kevin Mitchell, recently remarked about Australia, ”In a country generally blessed with sunshine, sport dominates nearly everything: news bulletins, pub discussions, the timing of weddings and holidays, the standing of politicians.”

The accomplishments of our male and female athletes are extraordinary. At the Beijing Olympics, women made up 45 per cent of Australia’s team and won more than half of our gold medals.

But unfortunately, the achievements of sports women are often invisible. On the data available, the coverage of women’s sport accounts for just 2 per cent of total sports broadcasting on television, 1.4 per cent on radio and 10.7 per cent of total sports reporting in newspapers.

The participation of women in sport at all levels is marked by division and discrimination that is reinforced by negative gender stereotypes. Strict gender segregation marks all levels of sport and elite, professional sport remains the unquestioned domain of men.

When the Associated Press named its top 10 female athletes of 2009, two were racehorses.

And disturbingly, professional sport in Australia has been plagued by allegations of sexual violence and harassment of women by high-profile sportsmen.

While outrage about these allegations may be immediate, it appears to be transitory – it seems the value of these players to the game quickly outweighs their ”transgressions” or ”misconduct”.

Gender stereotypes pervade all levels of sport and these are created and reinforced through the different ways that men and women are able – or even permitted – to participate in sport. This difference creates a profound power imbalance that lies at the heart of all forms of discrimination against women, including violence.

It is for this reason that identifying and addressing these negative stereotypes is crucial. These stereotypes foster a belief that women’s role in sport is an inferior and subordinate one – that women are merely fans, the support team or perhaps most visible when looking ”sexy” and ”alluring” at the awards dinner.

Of course, as we all know, this doesn’t mean that women are not participating in sport, as players, administrators, officials and spectators. A quick survey of the crowd at Homebush or the MCG or any suburban sporting field will show you that.

Women’s participation in sport reflects the issues women face more broadly in society. When we talk about women in sport, we often raise the same issues as when we talk about women in the workplace: pay equity; women in leadership positions; discrimination on the grounds of sex; the celebration of a male ideal and the marginalisation of women as the physically weaker and the caring sex.

Engaging women of all ages in sport is an end in itself. The United Nations has said that, combined with the emotional, psychological and medical benefits that are associated with participation in sport, participation also enables girls and women to increase their self-confidence and self-esteem, enjoy freedom of expression and acquire valuable skills in negotiation, management and decision-making.

But, as sportswomen and men and human rights advocates, we should not lose sight of the power of sport to act as a catalyst for challenging gender stereotypes and violence against women, and as an important vehicle to achieve gender equality.

Nowhere is this more true than in a country such as ours. The wide Australian sports arena provides a significant opportunity to reach out to young boys and men on attitudes about women. The participation of boys and men in sport – from their roles as athletes to fans to organisational leaders and the positioning of sport within the national imagination – means sport has the potential to be a powerful forum for dialogue and change.

There are increasing examples of sporting clubs creating a range of programs to do just that – from the under 5s to the professional teams – and I am hopeful these will contribute to the more positive and balanced participation of young women and men at all levels in the future.

Many commentators have also drawn the link between violence against women by sportsmen and the lack of women in visible positions of sports leadership and governance.

Indeed, it is my view that increasing the representation of women in leadership and decision-making positions is critical to raising the status of women and gender equality.

Recently, I have been looking at these structures in corporate Australia, but it is just as clear that we seem to have the same problem when it comes to women’s leadership in sport.

A research study conducted by Johanna Adriaanse, an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney, shows that only 21 per cent of board directors of national sport organisations in Australia are women. Just over 20 per cent of national sport organisations have no women directors at all. Those with no women directors include Australian Rugby League, Australian Rugby Union and Cricket Australia – some of our most iconic sports. As one woman put it to me, we have our own grass ceiling.

The International Working Group on Women and Sport, which is meeting in Sydney today, has suggested that it should be a condition of funding grants to national sporting bodies in Australia that they increase the representation of women on their boards. It is truly time that we took such decisive and effective action.

After all, everyone deserves the opportunity to participate in sport and to be recognised for their achievements. Just this week, at the Twenty20 World Cup cricket finals in Barbados, the loss by the Australian men’s team generated far more media coverage than the women’s thrilling victory over New Zealand. I rest my case.

3 thoughts on “Women in sport hit the grass ceiling

  1. Kelly Valder says:

    Those statistics on the coverage of women’s sport are shocking. I am going to update the statistics I share with NZ girls in the Love the Skin presentation – our girls need to know and I hope we can break/’Roundup’ those grass ceilings soon!

  2. Jane Higgins says:

    Another area where women are undervalued and unseen! Will it never end! Thanks for the interesting topic Ms Broderick & Danni.

  3. Storm Greenhill-Brown says:

    All so true and highly frustrating. Women are out there doing and achieving at a very high level but it’s the general public’s access or lack of it via the media that drives me wild! The gorgeous Barbara Barkley who is CEO of WomensportQld is working hard to allow girls and women in sport to shine up here. Power on!

Comments are closed.