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