Deirdre O’Neill: Challenging the media silence on women’s sport

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JUST two years after the London Olympics, audiences are once again thrilling to the spectacle of elite sporting achievement in Glasgow. As we read about Jodie Simpson’s gold victory in the triathlon, 13-year-old Erraid Davies winning bronze in the para-sport 100m breaststroke, Laura Trott overcoming a kidney infection to take gold in the points cycling race and Leeds divers Alicia Blagg and Rebecca Gallantree winning Commonwealth Games gold, spare a thought for female athletes competing outside these high-profile events.

The rest of the sports calendar’s Press coverage is a famine when it comes to women’s sporting achievements. In research we carried out into everyday coverage – when there is no Wimbledon, no Commonwealth Games – examining over 2,000 sports articles in the national press six months after the 2012 Olympics, we found that just four per cent of articles covered women’s sports.

What is more, this figure was just three per cent six months before the Olympics and 4.5 per cent a decade earlier in 2002. In other words, little has changed, and the Olympics appears to have left little or no legacy when it comes to routine women’s sports coverage. What is more, our findings were remarkably consistent with other similar studies, such as research by the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) in 2006.

Even though women are participating and winning in all spheres, they are still not getting the attention they deserve. So why is this happening? On the face of it, sports journalism would appear to be a bastion of misogyny, whether conscious – writing in the Scottish Daily Record in September 2013, Tam Cowan called for Fir Park stadium to be “torched” for hosting women’s football – or unconscious, by omitting women’s achievements in favour of swathes of male football coverage. Men’s football absolutely dominates, hoovering up about 70 per cent per cent of coverage.

It was not always thus. The first female football match was played in 1895 and Britain pioneered the first phase of women’s football around the time of the First World War. The eminent women’s team, Dick Kerr Ladies, played to audiences of tens of thousands, not just at home but oversees, and attracted plenty of Press coverage. Yet, by 1921, the Football Association had banned women’s football from Football League grounds, declaring the game unsuitable for women.

While they have ground to make up following this ban, women’s football is resurgent and gaining more coverage along with women’s cricket. In many ways, broadcasting is beginning to lead the way, although more can be done. Interestingly, we also see high-profile female sports presenters, such as Clare Balding and Gabby Logan, but the fact that there are still very few women sports writers is likely to be affecting Press coverage.

Does any of this matter? Well, yes. There are probably more barriers to women participating in sport and exercise than men, ranging from less leisure time due to carrying the burden of domestic and childcare responsibilities, to sports fields having one set of changing rooms, where men get priority. In addition, the WSFF have also found that body image acutely affects young girls, who often feel self-conscious and embarrassed about working up a sweat on the sports field. Given these obstacles, and our celebrity-saturated and sexualised culture, role models of skilled, strong and successful sports women in the media are arguably more vital than ever. The WSFF has found that four out of five women are not active enough to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and childhood obesity is on the increase.

So a number of issues need to change: we need better facilities in educational and community sports institutions for girls and women.

If a call for investment appears at odds with the austerity agenda being pushed by this Government, we need to remember that a fitter society will save money in the longer term. Governments have choices. We need to have more light shone on women’s sports by the media all year round, and we need sports organisations to fully promote women’s sports. More coverage will lead to greater sponsorship investment. And what about our role as readers and audiences? Do we have a part to play?

There is evidence that women are using the internet to engage with sports coverage and talk directly to athletes they admire. In addition, broadcasters are slowly improving coverage. It may be that the Press are missing a trick in attracting female readers. If you feel readers are missing out, write a letter, or contact sports editors. We all have a part to play in changing a culture that appears to value male athletes over female ones.

Deirdre O’Neill is a lecturer in journalism at Leeds Trinity University. Together with Matt Mulready, she is co-author of ‘The Invisible Woman? A comparative study of women’s sports coverage in the UK national press before and after the 2012 Olympic Games’, to be published in Journalism Practice.