8th March, is International Women’s Day (“IWD”). Observed in one form or another since the early 1900s, IWD is a “a collective day of global celebration and a call for gender parity”. IWD can be traced back to 1908, when a group of women marched in New York, demanding better pay and voting rights. Today, it is a global movement, supported by a number of the most recognisable global brands and world leaders, and it is a national holiday in many countries. IWD aims to celebrate women’s achievements on a global stage, whilst calling for gender parity.
In the UK, in relation to sport specifically, organisations such as Women In Sport and This Girl Can are making noticeable strides towards promoting and improving the participation of girls and women at all levels. The mission of Women In Sport is “to champion the right of every woman and girl in the UK to take part in, and benefit from, sport: from the field of play to the boardroom, from early years and throughout her life.”, whilst Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign (launched in 2015) has helped increase female participation in sport by around 2.8 million in its first year.
Yet the issue of gender inequality still manifests itself in sport at all levels, from grassroots to professional, on the pitch, in the media and in the boardroom.
Unequal prize money remains one of the most tangible examples of gender disparity in sport, with many sports yet to close the gap and many having only done so in recent years (Wimbledon, for example, only introduced equal prize money in 2007, British Cycling have just announced equal prize money for the National Women’s Road Series, and sports like golf have yet to do so). From a purely commercial perspective, it can be argued that prize money is simply reflective of the commercial clout of an event. Indeed there can be no doubt that men’s sport continues to draw more crowds and therefore generates more revenue. However, this is part of a wider problem with the way we talk about women’s sport in the media and other social platforms which influence the way people think about women’s sport: John Inverdale, for example, was famously criticised for focussing his comments on female athletes’ looks rather than their ability, and the stereotype that women’s sport is “uncool” continues to be perpetuated in a way that is potentially damaging to the prospects of increased participation, for example by Guardian journalist Morwenna Ferrier, whose recent piece on Netball (one of the most popular women’s and girls’ sports in the UK), following the announcement of a significant increase in public funding for the sport, professed that it would always be “uncool” regardless (Ferrier bases this on the fact that she plays it every week but “goes to great lengths to avoid admitting it”).
At a governance level, IWD this year coincided with a report by Women In Sport which suggested that the number of women in senior roles within UK sport bodies is in fact declining. This is notwithstanding the release, in October 2016, of UK Sport and Sport England’s new Code For Sport Governance and the noticeable media focus on the 30% gender balance target included within the code, in particular on organisations such as the FA, which has this week announced a raft of reforms including measures designed to increase female representation within its governing organs.
Whilst it is clear that progress is being made, the pace is slow – both in sport and more widely (the World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap will not close until 2086 – probably not within this author’s lifetime).
It is nonetheless heartening on IWD to see the media and prominent organisations celebrating the achievements of women in sport. The BBC and Sky, amongst others have profiled some of the most impressive achievements of women in sport – from Iran’s first female triathlete, to special coverage of memorable moments in the last year of women’s sport – and Nike has announced the release of a new line of “Nike Pro-hijab”, designed to tackle performance problems which can result from competing in a traditional hijab and with the aim of inspiring women who face barriers in sport.
This author, for one, hopes that some of the momentum from IWD will carry forward beyond the day itself.