Why do we need an International Women’s Day? When do we get to a stage where celebrating the specific work of women in all walks of life, and highlighting the inequalities they continue to face, no longer becomes necessary? There are some who would argue we’re here already. We’re not, unfortunately, but I’ll come to that in a bit. I’d rather start with the first aim of International Women’s Day, if I may, the celebration. There is so much to celebrate in women’s sport, which should never become lost in any discussion over inequality. Nor should it become a case of either/or; celebrating or pushing for parity. We can, and should, do both.
Women’s sport, before the pandemic at least, had advanced immeasurably in terms of visibility, awareness, coverage and promotion. The momentum of that upwards trajectory felt unstoppable, inevitable at last. When I was growing up, there were very few female sporting role models beyond my first love, track and field. I idolised Sally Gunnell and Sonia O’Sullivan, without realising how limited my pool of visible examples actually was. Fast forward a few decades and I’m walking with my daughter along the street as she stops to point at a poster advertising an old-school football sticker book. We go through each of the players in turn. She sees an older, potential version of herself in every square. It’s a women’s football sticker book. It was old-school in format only.
Sonia O'Sullivan of Ireland competes in the the women's 5,000 metre final on August 23, 2004
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I sit and watch women’s bike racing on the TV with her and she can choose a favourite rider to cheer. We live in Amsterdam so her choices are usually Dutch, unless Lizzie Deignan is in the mix, but the fact she can choose anyone at all is a game changer. When I started covering women’s cycling in depth just five years ago, the best I could hope for was either a shaky stream of the finish uploaded by a fan or race organiser or an official 10-minute highlight reel, less than half of which was given over to the action. Now, I can plan a calendar of live race watching and have conversations with friends about the weekend’s action. If you have never focused attention on women’s sport, you won’t know what a privilege that feels, but it does. One of the most well-worn clichés about women’s cycling these days is how consistently exciting it is. I’m betting it was always exciting, but these days we can see it for ourselves.
Since the runaway success of the first women’s issue of Rouleur magazine recently, which I had the honour of guest editing, we’re seeing more women’s cycling featuring prominently across publications and websites. Change begets change.
Women’s sport has become bigger news, too. We only need to look to the likes of the 2018 Commonwealth netball success of Tracey Neville’s side, or the Olympic hockey win of Team GB in Rio for moments of women’s sport which have transcended sports coverage. We have a generation of young girls and boys for whom their where-were-you-when moments in sporting history, could well be related to women’s sport, as well as men’s. That is huge.
I am incredibly proud to be renewing my own partnership with Eurosport at a time when we will get to watch the Healthy Ageing Tour for the first time. Eurosport and GCN will broadcast more than 40 days of live women’s road cycling this year, including some of the best women’s races on the calendar such as the highly anticipated inaugural Paris-Roubaix, as well as a brand new partnership with the Women’s Tour which sees it produced for live coverage for the first time. It’s fantastic to be part of the mission to help bring parity to world class men’s and women’s cycling.
But, and it is a big but, there is still so much that needs to be done. The Covid pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated a gaping gender pay gap. A recent Nottingham Trent University study revealed that 80% of female athletes believe the growth of women’s sport during the pandemic has been hindered by inequalities compared with men’s sport. Twelve-times women’s world snooker champion Reanne Evans told us in our International Women’s Day - Women in Sport special that her colleagues have had to take up extra jobs in the past year with the suspension of the women’s tour. Tracey Neville told us there is a similar situation in netball. Whereas male professionals can afford to concentrate on their sport and often belong to structures which allow them to continue training if not competing, only three dozen women in England are professional netball players. All the others who offer inspiration on the court are juggling work life off it.
A cultural shift is also needed. Women’s rights campaigners worldwide have warned of an increase in online abuse directed towards women as the coronavirus confines many to their homes and in front of their computers. Male athletes and coaches aren’t immune to the darker elements of social media, but women still bear the brunt for daring to occupy a traditionally male world.
Annabel Croft and Tracey Neville both told us of online death threats they have received, simply for doing their jobs. I don’t know if you can imagine that, but it’s time we all did.
None of this is to say that there is any one solution. When we point out inequalities in women’s sport, there tends to be a rush to apportion blame. In truth there is no easy answer to any kind of inequality, built as it is on generations of expectation, societal structures and cultural norms. But it is still important that we recognise inequalities for what they are, so we don’t sleepwalk into more of the same in the future.
Women’s sport has been in a fantastic place. I believe we will get back there after the pandemic once more. There is plenty more celebration to come.
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