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Double standards over women playing sport

The media celebrate the women’s football teams as role models. Isabel Ringrose looks at what’s changed and what’s the same in how women are viewed
Issue 2869
Two women on a football field in England team uniform

At the UEFA Women’s Champion League in 2019 (Picture: Ailura/Creative Commons)

Why do women’s sports, from the world stage to local level, get different treatment to men’s sports? The pressures on women don’t fade away on the sports field.

And although you can see sexism and systematic bias at the elite level, oppression also shapes outcomes for much wider numbers of women and girls.

For all the media profile for the England women’s football team, girls are pushed out of the sport early.

Football Association figures published a year ago showed 72 percent of girls play as much football as boys in primary school. But that figure drops to 44 percent in secondary school, and only 40 percent of secondary schools offer girls the same access to football via after-school clubs as boys.

More generally, over 1 million girls who thought of themselves as sporty at primary school lose interest in physical activity as teenagers.

A study, by Women in Sport found that a fear of being judged and a lack of confidence were the main reasons cited for a waning interest in sport among teenage girls. 

At one time much of the media and most politicians treated women’s sport as a bit odd unless it was plucky British 1960s tennis stars such as Ann Jones. 

Today sexism hasn’t gone away but there’s money and national prestige to be gained from women’s sport. The view of women as caring and family-centred co-exists with pushing women into the spotlight to seem like our rulers take “equality” seriously.

Women still face a harsher and higher level of scrutiny for the way they look and dress. BBC commentator John Inverdale produced a notorious example when he said in 2013 that tennis star Marion Bartoli was “never going to be a looker”.

And in some ways worse was the Daily Mail newspaper story two years later that Bartoli “has undergone a remarkable transformation, dropping two-and-a-half stone to boast the lean frame of a catwalk model”—thereby showing that Inverdale had been wrong.

Serena Williams spoke last year about the “double standards” on women, especially black women.

The Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket recently found England cricket to be filled with sexism. It reported women are “subordinate” to men and treated as “second‑class citizens”, routinely experiencing misogyny and are marginalised.

The media likes women to reflect sexualised stereotypes, and sports governing bodies like to deliver what they want.

In 2021 the European Handball Federation fined the Norwegian volleyball team £1,500 for refusing to wear exposing bikini pants. Women’s sport mirrors the expectations and discrimination women face in daily life.

But sport is also a place where conflicts and views are reflected and fought out, even if it is in a highly distorted way. Women have revolted against their treatment and put issues such as how they are expected to dress. 

Because women insisted on it, it’s now possible to discuss puberty and menstruation and their impact on girls and sport. There are challenges to the line that women are the “weaker sex” or that women are supposed to be submissive, caring and centred solely on raising a family.

Women’s sport at every level receives far less funding and much less attention from the government, councils and the media. But sexism in sport is a product of wider issues in society, which is why it’s not enough to just argue for an equal amount of cash or media coverage.

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