Sport is about creating a level playing field and then allowing the best athlete to win.
Unfortunately though, a level playing field does not exist among both genders. As is well
documented, male athletes are paid significantly more, and garner significantly more
media attention than their female equivalents. But why is this the case?
One reason is that society is more ready to pay to see men play sport. It is often argued
that at the elite level, men tend to be superior athletes, and this often translates to a
more thrilling spectacle. However, just because Usain Bolt is faster than Shelley-Anne
Fraser-Price (the female 100m world champion) does not mean that men’s sport is by
definition ‘better’. What makes for great sport is subjective, so simply saying that men
are better at sport – regardless of whether or not one agrees with this statement – does
not get to the heart of the issue.
A secondary societal explanation as to why women’s sport is less popular is the more
odious one; the vague but ever-present notion that somehow, women do not quite
belong in sport, or at the very least, are less deserving of our admiration. For example,
even women who have ‘arrived’ in their particular field can find respect hard to come
by. Tennis is one sport where women and men share the limelight, though some of the
top female players still face frustrating moments. For instance, when Canadian teen
Eugenie Bouchard stormed her way into the Australian Open semi-finals this year, one
of the questions she faced during her on-court interview was this: “if you could date
anyone in the world of sport, movies…who would you date?” It is hard to imagine the
same being asked of say, Djokovic or Nadal after a similar triumph of their own.
These instances suggest that society has yet to fully reconcile the notion of women
playing sport, and reflect a general misogyny that should be combated with great
vigilance. How we do this is a difficult question, but it probably needs to be a bottom-up
cultural change if it is to have a lasting impact. That is not to say that we all need to
dramatically alter the way we consume sport, because it is unrealistic and not a real fix.
The solution is not to simply know as much about Meg Lanning as we do Michael Clarke,
though it would be a good start. AFL’s showcase event, the Brownlow medal also does no favours to the women
involved. Wives and girlfriends are trotted out like decorations while the men get to the
serious business of sorting out who among them is the best.
Even the highly successful AFL Footy Show is guilty of exhibiting an ugly mindset
towards women, most notably during the annual ‘player review’. Every grand final
episode, a number of footballers perform choreographed dance moves with varying
levels of skill. Dancing alongside the footballers is a bevy of scantily clad ladies (who are
actually professional dancers), parading around in sexualised poses for the
entertainment of an audience we can safely presume is overwhelmingly dominated by
men. That we accept this unflinchingly reinforces the macho culture that permeates so
much team sport, and it’s troubling.
The commentary world is another example of women being pushed to the periphery.
There seems to be an exponential growth in talk shows about the AFL, very much
dominated by men. To an extent, this is to be expected, because many are former
players who can provide a unique insight. However, the rest of the commentators are
merely good journalists with a passion for the sport, and one wonders why women
cannot do this as well as men – especially since AFL is popular with women. Beyond
Caroline Wilson (who experiences negative public feedback despite being regarded as a
respected journalist), Kelli Underwood (who was banished to boundary riding following
a brief stint in the commentary box) and Samantha Lane, the stock of well-known
female commentators and panellists is depressingly thin.
So, what can be done to fix the problem? Firstly, society is in need of a reality check. It is
unlikely that female athletes will ever earn as much as the men. Sport is business, and
where the fans go the money will follow. This means that because society tends to
associate men with sport before women, male sport enjoys financial dominance. As
such, until a significant shift in community focus occurs, male athletes will likely
continue to reap far greater rewards, because habits are hard to break.
Although the reduced earning capacity of sportswomen is a serious issue, it is really just
a by-product of the preferential treatment enjoyed by the men. What most needs to
happen is a broad cultural shift that leads us to applaud great accomplishments when they occur, whether by men or women.
If we respected male and female sport equally,the male-dominant view would fade, coverage and popularity of women’s sport would
grow and only then could the pay gap realistically be bridged. But in a society where we
so readily identify elite sport with men, it is unlikely that full equality between the
genders will be achieved any time soon. Still, we should call out unfairness where we
see it because it is important to at least correct the imbalance. Hopefully, this could
precipitate a fairer sporting arena for all concerned.