/ 11 September 2023

The fight for gender equality in sport continues

Olympic medal contender Caster Semenya.
Caster Semenya.

As championships come to an end, the momentum to support women’s sports dies out and they are left to fight the economic, exclusionary and unequal problems they faced before these tournaments. This is despite sportswomen proving their worth time and time again and creating a reference and blueprint for many young women and girls to take up sports as a career, hobby or an interest. 

The past couple of years has seen sportswomen (inclusive of LGBTI+ individuals) not only prove their worth but expose the level of sexism and gender inequality in sports. This comes at a time when the Women’s World Cup, Netball World Cup and FIBA Basketball World Cup are shaking up gender and social norms and stereotypes. It extends to individual women in sports such as tennis, athletics, swimming and gymnastics.

Although sports women are more vocal about the exclusion they face and how it affects their ability to navigate sports and life, those with power turn a blind eye. This includes ministries, boards, governance structures, the media and international sports bodies, which are predominantly led by men.

Sportswomen continue to face stereotyping and prejudices that are brought by gender and social norms that define women as fragile, less capable and passive. This framing has led to a lack of support for women’s sports because there is a level of masculinity associated with sport. Thisigoes as far as their games not being broadcasted, their sports events not being attended or having little to no investments (including endorsements) for teams and individuals. These prejudices discourage women from participating in sports or being granted equal opportunities in sports governance. 

Another issue is the pay gap and lack of investment in women’s sports. This is one of the most overt areas of prejudice, as women remain far behind men when it comes to being paid. Arguments such as differential performance, unequal representation and revenue generation have been put forward. Many governments, institutions and companies fail to adequately invest and resource women’s sports. For example, most companies are hesitant to conclude brand and endorsement deals with sportswomen, and when they do, they view it as a moral obligation and not an investment.

The lack of representation and female leadership in boards and institutions creates a cycle of exclusion from sports systems. Female coaches are not supported, despite the accolades and achievements they bring forward. 

A lack of laws and regulatory frameworks together with poor media representation creates even bigger challenges. There are regulatory gaps in the protection of athletes’ gender rights in sport. Despite a strong human rights framework protecting gender rights, the complex relationship between law and sport leaves athletes in a vulnerable position, with limited accountability of sports bodies and restricted access to a legal remedy. This extends to the protection of non-conforming athletes’ rights, who may not strictly fit into the binary categories of sport. Media representation and reporting has negatively contributed to the harmful gender stereotypes. Anna Mambula articulates it very well by saying “the media tends to represent women athletes as women first and athletes second”.

It is important to put forward steps to be taken to achieve gender equality in the sports industry. 

  1. Dismantle stereotypes and prejudices: Sports institutions, male allies and sports activists ought to increase efforts towards to change stereotypes about women in sports. This extends to how institutions position women, approach communication and support their sports.
  2. Representation in sports leadership: A key gender-transformative approach to this gender barrier is promoting gender equality in sports governance and leadership. Female coaches should be paid well and supported. Having a more equal male and female board of directors in sports governance correlates to a better working environment. This ensures wider gender interests are considered when resources are allocated.
  3. Pay sportswomen better: Efforts at the institutional level play an important role in laying the foundation to bring long-term positive changes to narrow the gender pay gap. For example, having equal pay policies being adopted in sports institutions is crucial.
  4. Resourcing women’s sports: The investment into women’s sport is an important part of creating longevity and a conducive environment for women to participate. The starting point is the school level. Among many other resourcing components, are broadcasting games, providing brand and endorsements deals and creating or maintaining sports facilities for women.
  5. Amend laws, policies and other frameworks: These continue to be a barrier to the participation of women in sports. Laws fall short of gender integration and diversity and their interpretations and application tend to be sexist. Reform is needed at a global level, regional and domestic level to integrate gender equality strategies. Equally, effective reform to protect the rights of non-confirming athletes needs to occur.
  6. Shift in media reporting: The media is a powerful tool, if strategically used to address the gender disparity in sports. It influences and reinforces attitudes, beliefs and practices. Together, organisations and the media can show leadership in increasing the visibility of women in sports. The training of female sports reporters can also contribute to promoting women’s sports and addressing gender inequalities.

All of this cannot be done without the support of male counterparts. The push for gender equality in women’s sports is not a women’s fight only. The support, mentorship and contributions of men are vital for progress to be seen.

Karabo Mokgonyana is a legal and development practitioner and programme director for the Sesi Fellowship and Skill Hub.