Male And Female Sport: Is It A Level Playing Field (And Should It Be)?
© Illustration by INJECTION - Laura Holtslag-Alvarez
Exploring why, if we hold men and women to the same standards in sport, there is no hope for equality.
If you were asked to name the top performer in every sport, who would you pick?
If it were basketball you might say Michael Jordan, for golf, Tiger Woods, and for football most would choose Cristiano Ronaldo. But why?
Why wouldn’t it be Diana Tauraso, Ko Jin-Young, or Megan Rapinoe? It seems as though society has taught us that, as it often feels to women, men are the default. That women’s sport doesn’t deserve the same platform as men’s, despite its equivalent quality. How can we overturn such an overt inequality that still persists?
Whether you like football or not, conversations around it seem hard to avoid in the summer. I’m sure anybody with an Instagram account in July of 2021 had their feeds turned into a sea of “its coming home” as the nation watched the England men’s team reach the final of the UEFA European Championship. But when they missed out on victory, who was it who actually “brought football home?” Women! A year later, the Lionesses won the UEFA European Women’s Championship against Germany, becoming the first English team - male or female - to ever do so.
Yet, even when women are performing at their highest, it so often isn’t enough. Reporting on the success of the Lionesses, newsreader Roger Johnson announced on BBC Breakfast, “the quality of football is so good, you could almost be watching men.” Compare this to the commentary of female presenter Gabby Logan - “The Lionesses have brought football home…it’s only just begun” - and it’s difficult to miss the misogynistic attitudes towards women’s football. To put this in numbers, a recent study found that 68% of male football fans believe women should not participate in sports but, if they had to, they should choose “more feminine” ones than football.
And this misogyny is nothing new. In fact, it stems from over 100 years of (self-elected) male superiority in sport. Women’s football boomed during the First World War: men’s leagues were suspended as they were drafted to fight, so women took up the game to raise money for the war effort (with great success, it should be noted). But, alas, the prosperity of women’s football was not to last. When the men returned from war, they soon shut it down, citing the sport as being dangerous for women’s “health and morality.” Were they threatened by women’s success? Who knows - but they successfully banned the game for 50 years.
What’s more saddening is that, it isn’t even that hard to imagine a world without women’s sport: only 4% of sports media coverage worldwide is related to women’s sporting events. This is true even though the final of the women’s Euros was the most attended final ever, of either gender’s tournament.
This second-class impression of women’s sport isn’t only reflected in people’s (read: men’s) perceptions of it or the far lower viewing potential, but in the gender pay gap. According to the BBC, the average Women’s Super League player earns £47,000 a year. Meanwhile, the average wage of a male Premier League player is £60,000 a week. The situation isn’t improved in other sports either: the female winner of US Golf open in 2020 was awarded just over £700,000 - less than half of her male counterpart’s winnings; the average male basketball player in the US earns over eight times as much as a female basketballer; on Forbes’ ranking of the top 10 highest paid athletes, none are women (Naomi Osaka is the first to make an appearance, down at number 19). I’m not surprised by this, and I doubt you are either, but when will we stop accepting this as the norm?
A patriarchal ideology has plagued women’s sport for decades, and still today indoctrinates the view that women’s sport is inferior to men’s. Yet, the idea that men’s sport is “better” than women’s is one with no empirical basis. It is not based on fact, but on misogyny.
But what if, in trying to better the position of women’s sport, we instead ask why we’re equating male and female sports anyway?
Men and women are biologically and physiologically different, and we recognise this in both sporting non-sporting contexts: we know that medicines work differently in our bodies for example, and we accept in athletics that men and women have different world records, thus not holding them to the same standards. Why then, do we exclude other sports, such as football, from this understanding? If we overwrite the expectation that male and female sports should be exactly the same, we invite the possibility of removing the “male vs female” narrative surrounding them.
What’s more, this notion actually has scientific backing. An artificial Intelligence model has been developed with the ability to identify a female or male football team based on their differences in play style: women tend to score more goals but men shoot from further away, and women show a higher number of free kicks while men perform more passes. Adopting a mindset based on fact could allow male-played games to be considered valuable, with their specific technicalities and nuances, while also awarding female-played games of the same sport equal grace.
In encouraging this change in perception and an understanding that they are different, we accept the opportunity to override an ideology that traps female sport as a sub-par version of men’s, and freeing it from the misogyny that it has long been held down by.