Monday, April 29, 2013

Your Gender: A Drawback in Professional Sport?

In 1918, Irish women exercised their right to vote for the first time; in the same year, the nation elected the first woman to parliament, Constance Markievicz; and in 1990, Ireland elected its first female president, Mary Robinson. These are not only milestones in Irish history; they are also milestones on an elongated path towards gender equality. Ireland’s feminists however believe that women are still not pari passu to men despite the aforementioned female attainments. There is indeed veracity in their beliefs. In the past year, there has been a plethora of information published on the topic of the gender pay gap, whereby a report by the European Commission detailed a 17% gender pay gap in Ireland, and also political gender inequality, whereby only 15% of politicians in Dáil Éireann are female.  Such statistics suggest that a culture of gender inequality prevails. Yet one such area rarely alluded to in Irish literature or media is that of Gender Equality in Sport, or rather the lack thereof.  It is an issue of grave salience and one which must be tackled.
Does gender serve as a limitation in the pursuit of a professional sporting career?
Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip and Paul O’Connell are renowned full time professional rugby players, who also play at international level. Fiona Coghlan, Niamh Briggs, and Lynne Cantwell also represent their country at international level on the Irish Women’s Rugby Team. However, there is one major difference between the male and female Irish rugby teams, all male members of the Irish rugby team are full time professional rugby players, whereas the ladies rugby team are deemed amateur sportspeople. The Irish Times (2012) once described rugby as ‘just the day job’ for Jamie Heaslip, yet his female counterparts do not enjoy the same luxury, for them it is entirely amateur. Fiona Coghlan, Niamh Briggs and Lynne Cantwell have full-time careers off the rugby pitch, namely, teaching, the Gardaí, and physiotherapy respectively. So whilst their male counterparts can pursue rugby as a professional sporting career, females must maintain another career, and pursue rugby as a mere hobby. This is one such example of gender inequality in the sporting arena. Both groups train at the same level, compete at the same level, yet do not enjoy the same equality in terms of funding, media coverage, and appreciation.
In rugby in particular there remains gender inequality in Ireland. Fiona Coghlan*, Captain of the Irish Ladies Rugby team, said of this ‘It is not an option to be a professional female rugby player in Ireland. In other countries where women’s rugby is semi-professional or professional it is still incomparable to the men’s professional game, as the women’s wage for example would be far less than the men’s’. Quite simply if a female wants to pursue a professional career in rugby in Ireland it is not possible. The IRFU do not appear to be amending this status, they are merely amateurs, who choose to dedicate themselves to the cause at international level, whilst they must sustain their respective full-time jobs. Admirably, it is their wanting and hunger for success as a ladies team that sees them don the infamous green jersey, not the hefty wage or the lucrative sports deals unlike their male counterparts.
The role the media plays in the coverage of sports has also a significant impact on gender equality. Sports coverage, including both television and print, favour male sporting events. Dublin’s Sport and Recreational Council (2007) conducted an investigation into this matter in 2007. During their study, they counted the number of photographs of sportsmen and sports women in six prominent Irish National Newspapers over a 15 day time period. The chosen newspapers comprised The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, The Irish Independent, The Irish Star, The Irish Sun, and The Irish Mirror. The results illustrated that in 2007, 1.2% of the photos in the aforementioned Irish National Newspapers were that of sportswomen. This figure decreased considerably when compared to their previous study conducted in 2005, which noted 3.3% of photos were of women. In 2007, overall during the three week period sampled, there were 6,503 images of sportspeople in the National Newspapers; of these 6,425 were images of male sporting professionals, whereas a meagre 78 images were that of female sporting professionals. These figures highlight the injustice in the coverage of sport in the media, the inequality female sporting professionals must contend with despite their prowess in their chosen sports field. In their study, Dublin’s Sport and Recreational Council noted that the explanation for the underrepresentation of women in the sports pages of national newspapers was simply due to the fact that a greater proportion of men than women read the sports pages and so; they suggest newspapers tailor the material included in the sports pages to suit the readership.
In the United States, over 40% of men watch female sports (Massey, 2012). The same literature also referred to the fact that only three covers of Sports Illustrated were dedicated to women. Male professional sporting events dominate the airwaves, the internet, and television. The only women’s sports that are given major television coverage are generally tennis, and less frequently, golf. In their academic paper entitled, ‘Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlights Shows, 1989-2009, Messner and Cooky (June 2010) utilising the United States as their study, found that male sporting events received 96.3% of the airtime, whilst women’s sports received 1.6%, and gender neutral topics 2.1%. Their findings also demonstrated that ESPN’s nationally-televised programme, namely SportsCenter, allocated only 1.4% of its airtime to coverage of female sport. Another noteworthy indication of gender inequality within professional sport illustrated by this study was that 100% of the SportsCenter programmes and also, 100% of sports news shows in their sample study led with men’s sports story, as opposed to that of a female. In general it was observed that lead stories are among the lengthiest story in the broadcast, containing the highest production values. These statistics are indeed all indicators of gender inequality in the professional sporting arena.
When asked if she felt media coverage favoured men over women in the sports ground Coghlan made a well substantiated point; ‘Open any paper, turn on the sports news there is very little coverage of Women’s Sport.  I don’t necessarily just blame media outlets as society is to blame for this and how we respect Women in sport’.
The Irish Ladies Rugby Team won their first ever Grand Slam on March 17th, 2013, beating Italy 6 – 3 (The Irish Examiner, 2013). Social media, broadcast and print media went into overdrive. Suddenly we had a rugby team to be proud of. A mere two weeks previous they had been catapulted into the limelight with a victory over Scotland in the Six Nations Championship, when it was reported they were on track to win their first ever Grand Slam, and given the mediocre performance of the men’s side this year, all eyes turned to the ladies. The media wanted to report the success story, and so the women’s side began to fill the column inches and news bulletins for a number of weeks. RTÉ (2013) made the announcement that it would broadcast the Six Nations female clash between Ireland and Italy. This was the first time the state broadcaster had shown a live women’s rugby game. Prior to this, female rugby was not broadcast, and was largely unreported in the media, despite the international playing field upon which the ladies played.  Ryle Nugent, Head of RTÉ Sport, said of the decision to broadcast this game live, ‘This is a significant investment by RTÉ in the women’s game’. This is undoubtedly extremely offensive, and such an example emphasises the widespread nature of gender inequality in sports coverage, and indeed society’s perception of women in sport. Coghlan has potent opinions on this issue stating; ‘How many of Katie Taylor’s fights were broadcast prior to the Olympics, very few. How many women’s rugby games were broadcast prior to the Grand Slam decider this year, the answer is none. Now that we have achieved success will these events be broadcast in the future, probably not.’ Herein lies the saddening reality of gender inequality in sport. Our female sporting stars are unappreciated, unacknowledged, and largely unknown. They are representing our country remarkably with such sporting prowess and athletic ability, yet they will merely amount to onetime headlines, only when they attain the highest levels of success unlike their male counterparts who enjoy headlines on a daily basis.
The Irish Times (2004) published an article by Kevin Myers in 2004 which was an attempt to absolutely demolish the credibility of women in sport. His article was a reactive piece to a TD, namely Jimmy Deenihan, and his suggestion that the Irish media needed to cover women in sport more frequently. Myers, like previous studies alluded to earlier, pointed out that the only sporting events worldwide involving women which attract large crowds are those held in conjunction with men’s events, such as athletics and tennis. His scathing attack on women in sport went so far as to insult their sporting ability, stating ‘We don’t want to watch women playing sports because, generally speaking, they’re not very good. They’re small and they’re weak and they’re slow, and watching an average woman thrown an object is a deeply moving tragedy.’ It was Myers belief that the reason less images are dedicated to females in the sports pages of newspapers, because it was the truth, that men triumph in the sporting arena and so this should be showcased. Research conducted by Dublin’s Sport and Recreational Council revealed that this notion that men should dominate the sports pages has been subconsciously influenced by the reader’s perception of reality. Coghlan also alluded to the need for a change in mentality for gender equality to ensue, saying ‘we would need society to have a shift and respect Sport for Sport and don’t make it gender specific. This would take some time and I’m not sure it will ever happen.’

There is little academic literature available in the realm of Irish sporting professional salaries across both genders. The fact that female sports in Ireland remain amateur whereas their male counterparts play professionally, and thus experience immense wages for the same level of training and commitment may indeed explain the lack of research in this field. However, in the United States extensive research has been conducted in this area. It is unsurprising that the wage discrepancies are great. Massey (2012) identifies that a WNBA player in the 2005 season had a minimum salary of $31,000 and a maximum of $80,000. Their male counterparts in the NBA circuit during the same season enjoyed a minimum salary of $385,277 to a maximum of $15.3 million. In soccer in the U.S., the female team were given a salary of $25,000 each, whereas the men’s team received $200,000 each. Such statistics reveal that gender equality in sport, is but a utopian dream.

Kane (2011) denoted that a vast empirical body of evidence has been amassed over the past three decades which suggests that women are more likely to be portrayed in such a way as to accentuate their femininity and heterosexuality as opposed to their sporting proficiency. Academic research according to Kane, has suggested that the media’s fondness toward sexualising women’s sporting accomplishments reinforces their status as second class citizens. In doing so, this calls gender inequality universally in all aspects of life into question. The sexualising of media images of females in professional sport in fact suppresses interest in and respect for women’s sport. One notable example is that of Lindsey Vonn, an American Alpine Skier, who won gold at the Vancouver Winter Olympics 2010. Vonn was the first American woman to achieve such an accolade, and received the prestigious Sportswoman of the Year award from the US Olympic Committee. Sports Illustrated, as previously mentioned covers little female sports participation; however it decided to devote a cover to Vonn given her attainment in the Olympics. Instead of offering an illustration of Vonn as the incredible athlete she is, they depicted Vonn as a sexualised object, and spoke volumes about the rampant sexual representations of women athletes. This demeaning, derogative image indeed would not have been conveyed had Vonn been male; instead an image of strength and resilience would have been expressed.

Another such example is that of Irish female sporting hero, Katie Taylor, before winning gold at the London 2012 Olympic Games, faced adversity in her sport, boxing (Irish Times, 2013). Taylor determinedly campaigned for women’s boxing to be included in the 2012 Olympic Games. In the face of another sexist decision by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) Taylor stood tall condemning the decision to have women swap shorts for skirts to make boxing more attractive. Taylor threatened legal action if the issue were pursued, and rightly so. There now exists an option to wear either shorts or skirts. Imposing such a decision would have added a disparaging element to the sport, and belittle the female athletes having the AIBA utilising them for their nefarious ends, an attractive sexualised object.

From the evidence provided above it is undeniable that there exists a certain level of gender inequality in professional sport. Academic literature and media coverage both suggest that the road for men in pursuit of a professional sporting career is unquestionably easier, and appears to favour them in terms of opportunities, salaries, media coverage, respect, support and the perception the society has of their successes in the sporting field. For women the road is laden with obstacles, salaries are not on par to those of men, if they receive any salaries at all; they are unrepresented in the media, unappreciated, unknown, subject to sexual objectification on the grounds of their successes and in many cases, must multi-task and maintain two careers, as the option to pursue certain sports as a female professional simply does not exist.

Is your gender a drawback in professional sport? Without a doubt! The evidence compiled above confirms this. It saddens me to say, that men are indeed favoured over women, women do not enjoy gender equality in the sporting arena.

As Fiona Coghlan said, ‘respect Sport for Sport, don’t make it gender specific’; and one can only hope that in time society changes, as your gender should never limit your career choices.

For now, unfortunately, your gender is a drawback in professional sport.

One can best conclude with the Beyoncé classic ‘If I were a boy....’

The Forgotten Irish Graduate, 29th April 2013 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Irish Politics: The 85/15 Gender Divide

Whilst women are no long chained to the kitchen sink, female participation in the Irish political arena is diminutive.
Half of the Irish population are female, yet our democratic society affords us a government in which only 15% of seats in Dáil Éireann are held by women. These statistics show that Irish women are still not pari passu to men in the political arena. Ironically, this meagre 15% constitutes a record high for women’s representation in Dáil Éireann. In the world rankings of women’s parliamentary representation, Ireland is now ranked in 109th place out of a possible 190 nations. In the EU, Ireland is ranked in 23rd place out of 27 EU member states.
Dáil Éireann has always been a predominantly male playing field. Like the ‘Yorkie’ chocolate bar, it too could boast the infamous ‘It’s not for girls’ slogan. In the history of the state, at least 85% of the government has always been male.
In 1918, Irish women exercised their right to vote for the first time, and in doing so, elected the first woman to parliament, Constance Markievicz. In the 95 years that have since passed, a mere 91 women have been elected to serve in Dáil Éireann. At present, there are no women TDs in 21 of the 43 constituencies.
Enough statistics! What is it that constrains women from entering the political sphere in Ireland?
Senator Ivana Bacik conducted a study in 2009 to find the barriers hindering women’s involvement in politics. Senator Bacik documented five reasons women choose not to actively engage in politics. They were cleverly coined the 5C’s.
Candidate selection: Political parties often act as gate-keepers in the selection of women candidates.
Care: A biased towards traditional gender roles still exist in Ireland.
Confidence: Despite Irish women having a higher educational success than men, they lack the confidence to enter the political forum.
Culture: In Ireland, a political culture of male dominance prevails.
Cash: The reigning gender pay gap ensures it is men that have access to greater financial resources.
Despite the waning influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, and a conscious move from a conservative to a more secular society, Article 41 of Bunreacht na hÉireann confined the role of the woman to the domestic domain. The notion of a woman as a ‘bread-winner’ was considered absurd, instead, their place was considered to be in the home. In 2012, the Central Statistics Offices released its 2011 figures revealing that the role of the carer in the home predominantly falls on the female; 500,000 women were looking after family compared with a minute 9,600 men.
The gender pay gap also lingers on in Ireland. A European Commission report released last year detailed that Irish women earn 17% less than their male counterparts. Discrimination against women, undervaluing of women’s skills, and a low number of women in senior and leadership positions were cited as reasons for this pay gap. These motivations also reflect why women refrain from entering politics.
President Michael D. Higgins, an advocate for progressive change on equal pay for women, alluded to the fact that women outperform men in educational attainment. The highest percentage of women graduates in Europe are Irish. Women, he asserted, should be given a greater role in the new economic model that is being built in Ireland to replace the one that has failed.
Consistent with his optimism for greater female political involvement, President Michael D. Higgins signed The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act into law on July, 28th 2012. This act tackles the under-representation of women in Irish politics. 30% of all party candidates must now be female at the time of the next general election; the figure increases to 40% seven years thereafter. The penalty for parties that fail to adhere to this act is a cut to their state funding.
Averil Power, a Senator in Seanad Éireann, provides an insight into the female mentality, saying “It simply never occurs to many women that running for election is something they could do”. It was the desire to achieve social change and tackle inequality that saw Senator Power enter politics.
 “The research shows that women need to be asked and encouraged to put themselves forward for election. Political parties in general have not been proactive enough rather than approaching potential female candidates and encouraging them to run”, Senator Power says when discussing the candidate selection.
A salient obstacle for women opting for a political career is the work-life balance. Unlike other employers, the pressures, the workload and working hours associated with a political career can be off-putting. “There is no entitlement to maternity leave for female TDs or Senators”, explains Senator Power. There is a lack of adequate support systems and facilities in place for women who are attempting to juggle family life with politics.
Sacrifices must be made at present if as a female you wish to pursue a career in politics. When Olwyn Enright, widely regarded as a successful politician, announced her decision to quit politics she cited family reasons as the main influence “With a young family, I will not be in a position to give enormous commitment required and that my constituents deserve”. Family reasons are never mentioned when a male politician steps down.
Without affirmative action Senator Power does not envisage that the number of women involved in politics will ever grow in the future to equal that of their male counterparts. Research conducted suggests that there is conviction in Senator Power’s outlook, as only five more women were elected in 2011 than in 1992. 
Evidence signals a positive element of female political involvement. Females active in politics very often become role models for other women. To them, they are confident figureheads, and many revere in their courage, strength and contributions to the political forum. Notable examples in Irish society include Constance Markievicz, Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Mary O’Rourke. Female political involvement must not be but a history lesson. Gender balance in the Irish government is gravely important for our country’s future.
Of the 4,744 Dáil seats filled since 1918, only 260 of those have been occupied by women, and only 86 women during this time have served in Seanad Éireann. These are not statistics to be proud of. It may be time the government reviewed the 85/15 Gender Divide that currently exists in Dáil Éireann.

The Forgotten Irish Graduate, 10 April 2013

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A mugging, Morrissey and the Sammon of knowledge: Ireland 2 – 2 Austria

What else would you expect from a World Cup Qualifying game? Maybe a draw and an inept manager where the Irish are concerned; undoubtedly the Ireland v Austria clash was eventful both on and off the pitch.
It wasn’t the ‘Céad Mile Failte’ two unsuspecting Austrian fans were expecting when they arrived into Dublin yesterday, a mugging. Like any good tourists, the two Austrians were on route to the Guinness Storehouse, only to have their wallets (which contained their match tickets) snatched on the streets of Dublin 8.   Their plight was quickly highlighted by the marvel that is the social network forums; Twitter and Facebook erupted. Whilst the public conveyed their sheer disgust at the actions of their fellow citizens, the story came to the attention of the Irish fan forum Not only did the FAI offer replacement tickets for the two Austrian fans, but in true Irish football fan style (Sure who can forget the Irish fans in Poznan during Euro 2012?) organised a collection for the two unfortunate victims, and donations were made by fans to reimburse their losses. The heroic Irish football fans to the rescue once more.... #YBIG I’m sure the Austrians had holiday insurance... but ye didn’t think of that YBIG, now did you?  
And then the unbelievable happened; Robbie Keane arrived at the Aviva Stadium to watch the match accompanied by his cousin. OK, so Robbie Keane having a cousin isn’t quite unbelievable, but what is? His cousin is Morrissey, the former front man of The Smiths, and so Twitter went into overdrive once again. It was this story that for many was the highlight of the match; Robbie Keane has a famous cousin!
Lastly, there was the minor issue of the qualifying match, and Trapattoni’s Sammon of Knowledge (or lack thereof)! Conor Sammon was selected ahead of Kevin Doyle, the pandemonium that ensued was to some degree warranted. It appears Sammon isn’t all that knowledgeable on the football field, and has quite a lot to learn about the international arena. Quite simply he failed to make any real impact on the game. The Ireland side had quite a promising first half, and two Jon Walters goals before the break gave Ireland the lead. But then came our demise, in the second half Austria dominated possession and quite rightly deserved that equaliser, courtesy of David Alaba.
Full time Austria 2 – 2 Ireland .
And after a disappointing draw the inevitable happened, out emerged the finger of blame. Everyone points to the Italian. Trapattoni, when will you learn? But he remains insistent; when asked if it is now more difficult to qualify for the World Cup he replied “Why? We have the same table. The situation has not changed. No change. We have five games left and must play Sweden again”. Someone get the man a translator, I fear he didn’t quite understand the question.
Dunphy denounced Trapattoni, “Trap has no faith in Ireland”. Well he wouldn’t be the first now would he? But alas, Dunphy’s invaluable contribution came when he announced at the end of the night, “Trap doesn’t get our football culture”. Well if I’m honest, I didn’t realise we actually had one!
Oh, and did I mention, Robbie Keane has a famous cousin... Morrissey for god sakes, Morrissey! 
The Forgotten Irish Graduate, 27 March 2013

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Conor Niland: ‘If it was a regular tour event I wouldn’t have played; but I needed it’

 “Djokovic man”
 It was the text Conor Niland had been waiting for. His 2011 US Open Round 1 opponent had been revealed, Novak Djokovic. Whilst others would shudder at the thought of such an encounter, Niland relished at the opportunity to learn from the world number one. “I was delighted” says the man who was the highest ranked Irish Tennis Player during his seven year professional career. The delight however, was short lived, as a mere two days later Niland was struck down with food poisoning. He sighs, “It was just back luck”.
“There were four of us at dinner, and I was the only one who got sick” he says recounting the now infamous food poisoning saga. Surely there were moments of self pity? “Yes, loads, before, during and after. It was unbelievable. I felt like for god sake for all days for this to have to happen”.
Niland knew the platform Arthur Ashe stadium, US Open 2011, afforded him. “If it was a regular tour event I wouldn’t have played, but I needed it” he says poignantly, aware that had he chosen not to play, he’d have never officially played in the main draw of the US Open, despite qualifying. At 0-6, 1-5, Niland’s body began to fail, he retired the match, “I knew I wasn’t doing myself justice.  I felt terrible.”
Niland was destined to play tennis. The youngest of four, his parents moved to Birmingham before his birth. They lived across the road from a tennis court, where his sister Gina began to play. When the family relocated to Limerick, his dad built a tennis court at their house to enable Gina to progress, and so Conor played too. “So that’s how it all started, a tennis court in Birmingham before I was born” he says.
Niland claimed the Israeli Open title and the ATP Salzburg Indoors title in 2010, which were largely unreported. These wins however, lifted Niland to his highest world ranking, 129. With such a ranking, surely he deserved a wild card into Wimbledon 2011? It didn’t happen. “I was expecting them to give me one” he says, but admits “it worked out perfectly that I got in myself”.
“I do take pride in the fact that Ireland got interested in tennis for at least a week or two” he says of his career highlight, Wimbledon 2011. The saddening reality in Ireland is that sports coverage favours other sports, and tennis is but a mere sub-headline in a news bulletin if an Irish player progresses to a Grand Slam. “It would be great to see more tennis on TV. I felt I was always playing good tennis in quite obscure places unlike the GAA or rugby players who are always able to showcase what they can do every Saturday in their home town” says Conor, in a rather disenchanted tone.
Wimbledon was the stage on which he ached to showcase his talent; saying “Wimbledon is really what people in Ireland take notice of. People will always have a context for my tennis career. ‘Oh, you played in Wimbledon - then you must have been a legitimate professional’”. His first round match in Wimbledon against Frenchman Adrian Mannanon was a gripping match. The pair had met previously in 2006. In the deciding fifth set, Niland had a 4-1 lead but then began his demise. “I made a lot of silly errors. I should have won it in the end”. Niland lost the final set and match 6-4. Mannanon proceeded to face Federer in centre court. Referring to this loss, Niland says “That’s tennis, you lose loads of close tennis matches as a tennis player, so you have to shrug off loses”. And that he did, Niland qualified to the 2011 US Open shortly afterwards.
Niland also trained with the reining US Open champion, Andy Murray, several times in 2010. “It’s great to play with someone that highly ranked” Niland said of the experience. Murray respected Niland. When Murray heard that Niland was suffering from food poisoning at the US Open, he sent his physiologist to Niland’s hotel to rehydrate him before his match. The personable side of tennis, a side widely unreported.
On his journey home, from a harrowing defeat in the qualifying stages of the 2010 Australian Open, Niland read the Andre Agassi autobiography. He could empathise with Agassi, “It’s definitely not a natural way to live.” Whilst Agassi hated tennis, Niland best describes it as “a game when you’re a kid, but then it becomes your job. It takes over your life. It’s about keeping the balance and not resenting it”. On returning home, Niland turned to a sports psychologist for help. He proceeded to have the best two years of his career; this was by no means a coincidence.
Sadly, after these two awe-inspiring years of tennis, Conor Niland announced his retirement from professional tennis in April 2012; “It was a decision my body made for me really. It was my hips; they were bothering me for about a year”. Conor has since made the transition from player to coach and is currently coaching full time at the national academy in DCU. In the past month, Conor has undergone surgery on his hips, and says he’s “feeling good now”. He aims to finish all the required coaching courses, and when his hips clear up, he hopes to “get back into tennis a bit more from a playing stand point”.
“When I finished, I thought I’d never do anything as well as I did being a tennis player”, he says but it seems like Conor Niland will continue to shape the future of Irish tennis by successfully coaching our nation’s future tennis professionals, after all, as he himself  says “it’s my element, the tennis court”. 
The Forgotten Irish Graduate, 26th March 2013
 A recent interview I conducted with Conor Niland, at The Westin Hotel, Dublin