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Women in Sport: a level playing field?

With many of us spending much of our time outside of work watching events in Sochi, it is perhaps easy to forget the journey that many female athletes have had to get there.

Take female ski jumpers for instance. Ski jumping has been an Olympic sport since the first ever Winter Games in 1924. But women were excluded until now. It took the International Olympic Committee 90 years to let women compete. And this was only after a successful discrimination claim against the International Olympic Committee in 2009.

The Winter Olympics aside, most sports coverage, investment and senior positions in sport are given to men. According to the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, only 5% of sports media coverage is devoted to women's sport and just 0.5% of commercial investment goes to women only sport.

The inequality of commercial investment in men's and women's elite sport is a real problem. Sometimes smaller prize money is given to women competing in the same event. It is hard to forget that it is only seven years since Wimbledon agreed to reward female players the same amount of prize money as their male counterparts. And yet recently there have been a few dissenting voices asking if women really deserve it.

Liz Nicholl, the Chief Executive of UK Sport, recently explained that often prizes are backed by a commercial investor who wants a commercial return; this return is visibility with the media. So what is the answer? If the profile of women's sport can be raised, this will hopefully have a positive impact on commercial interests and there will be more equity in terms of prize money. But it would be unrealistic to think that this can happen overnight.

Helen Grant, Minister for Sport, Tourism and Equalities, believes that the best strategy is to "increase participation, get the media to give more visibility to some of our fantastic female athletes" and have "more women on boards of governing bodies so that they can shape and develop the sport from the very top and show leadership". I am tempted to agree with Helen: proper investment and sponsorship is needed alongside more women on boards within sports organisations acting as leaders and shaping policy. After all, even today only one in five board positions in publicly funded sport are held by women.

Debbie Jevans, the Chief Executive of England Rugby 2015, recently asked "if you look across the boards of business and sport there isn't the right percentage of females in my view. If you look at a number of sports where often women are as successful as men, they're not represented. Why is that?"

Certain sports seem to struggle when it comes to gender equality. To address this, UK Sport and Sport England are targeting 25% female representation on boards by 2017. For example, despite Victoria Pendleton's and Laura Trott's successes for Team GB, British Cycling currently has no women at all on its board. However, applications are now being sought from women for two non-executive positions. British Cycling is not alone; until very recently four other national sporting bodies still had all-male boards. By contrast, in the RFU 38% of executive leadership positions are held by women. Sporting bodies need to think about changing their culture and the way that they operate. Of course, this applies to not just women, but other under-represented groups too. Arguably the best way to do so is to start at the top.

But it is not just board positions which are dominated by men; only 17.1% of coaches at an elite level are women. It is vital that we have more female coaches. After all, they are excellent role models for younger women in sport. So why aren't more women getting into coaching? This may have something to do with the selection process. Often apprentice coaches have to be nominated by a senior head coach in the governing body. Of course, most of those are men and a significant proportion of nominees are men. Surely sports should be encouraged to consider female candidates who are equally deserving.

Another obstacle which may prevent women from pursuing a career at the top of elite sport is that quite often women have, or are expected to have, a greater caring responsibility at home. Coaches at an elite level can spend significant periods of time away from their families. Perhaps a woman's role in the family, or the perception of a woman's role, can explain why we aren't seeing more female coaches at this level.

Earlier this month, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee published oral evidence from an inquiry into women and sport. It had been hoped that the successes of Team GB’s female athletes in the Olympics would result in greater prominence for women’s sporting achievements and encourage more girls and women to participate in sport. However, it appears that women’s sport still faces a number of disadvantages when compared with sport for men.

One such disadvantage is that there is an enduring perception that women's sports are somehow not as exciting as men's. I believe that women's sport is just as exciting to watch and the female athletes as just as talented. In many ways the media has a responsibility to encourage women's sport and female athletes to be seen as absolutely equal to the men's game and male athletes.

At present there seems to be a lack of respect for female athletes and sports women, despite their many achievements. Last month, Sky Sports News ran a live Q&A session on Twitter with Beth Tweddle, the world champion gymnast and Olympic medallist. Using the hashtag '#Sportswomen', followers on Twitter were encouraged to send in their questions. Instead of asking about her experiences as a world class athlete, what followed was a stream of cyber bullying and misogyny. Following the Q&A, a Sky Sports spokesperson said "this experience highlights some of the unacceptable and offensive attitudes that can be encountered by women in the public eye". I'm inclined to agree.

Perhaps the only silver lining is that this incident has raised awareness of the challenge that women in sport face. Both at a boardroom level and as an athlete, it seems to me that the playing field seems far from even.

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