Last Friday was International Women’s Day – a day where women are celebrated in countries around the world. In March alone, UK sportswomen have more than earned recognition for their achievements. Laura Muir retained her European 1,500m and 3,000m titles, beating the 31-year-old British indoor mile record by 5 seconds at the European Indoor Championships, the England Women’s Football Team won the SheBelievesCup, and, after crushing victories, England Women’s Rugby are on track for a Six Nations win.
I hope I am not getting too carried away when I say that there is currently a real momentum behind women’s sport, and importantly, women’s achievements are being recognised in the media. I am increasingly seeing the triumphs of sportswomen decorating the headlines. The live coverage of female sport is also increasing. For example, the BBC will show every England game in the run up to the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer. I am slowly seeing more female presenters appear in mainstream sports programmes, such as Alex Scott, who made history as the first female pundit on Sky Sports’ Super Sunday.
Such examples point towards a shift in the culture of the sport industry; increasingly gender stereotypes are being challenged and women’s sport is overcoming the naive perception, held by some, of being slow and unexciting…but we are far from the finish line. A report by Women in Sport called “Where are all the Women?” published in 2018 found that during the peak sporting period of July/August 2017, 10% of coverage was women’s sport, 11% mixed and 79% men’s coverage. The report summarised the painful truth, “women’s sport media coverage lags significantly behind that for men’s sport.”
Step away from the bright lights of the media and those women working within the sports industry tell a similar story, in particular at boardroom level. As Ruth Holdaway, departing CEO of Women in Sport said:
“For there to be equality we must have equality in places that power lies”.
A 2016 report by Women in Sport called “Beyond 30%. Female Leadership in Sport” (the “2016 Report“) highlighted the absence of women on sport’s governing boards. It audited the number of women on the board and in senior leadership roles within the National Governing Bodies (“NGBs“) of sport in England and Wales, and any NGBs that operate within the UK that are funded by UK Sport only. The audit revealed that an average of 30% of board positions for Sport England funded NGBs were held by women, and there had been a fall in the percentage of women in Senior Leadership roles from its height of 42% in 2014, to 36% in 2016. Despite these declining figures, we must remain positive as momentous change is within our reach. In a world where a female can be named as chief executive of the Premier League, anything seems possible (despite her subsequent withdrawal from the role).
Further, under the UK Code for Sports Governance (the “Code“), to receive funding from UK Sport or Sport England, each organisation is required to:
2.1 (A) adopt a target of, and take all appropriate actions to encourage, a minimum of 30% of each gender of its Board.
The 2016 Report found that 33 of the 68 NGBs receiving funding from Sport England/ UK Sport did not meet the Code’s target. As a result, they had to explain the ways in which they were trying to achieve it in order to maintain funding. Just over two years on from the 2016 Report we have seen incremental change as, for example, the Football Association has increased the number of women on their board from 1 of 12 to 3 of 10. Improvements such as this are welcome, but it would be good to see NGBs go beyond the 30% figure mandated by the Code and move towards greater female representation on their boards.
It is difficult not to be pessimistic when considering the statistics. The truth is, women in sport still have a long way to go. However, they have experienced great success and if women don’t celebrate such success, who will? Who will celebrate the achievements of female athletes despite their limited funding? Who will celebrate the landmark commitments made by Visa and Adidas regarding the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer? Who will celebrate NGBs’ success stories such as England Netball’s biggest ever UK women’s sport sponsorship? Women in sport need this momentum to continue and despondence will risk preventing this. Women in sport still have a long journey ahead, but let’s try to enjoy it.