The fight for gender equality
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Celebrating Women’s History Month, here are seven battles sportswomen have been fighting, against gender-based discrimination in sport.

The inherent masculine nature of sport often makes gender-based discrimination a common feature in it. Women’s participation in sports was restricted for a long time, and even today, women face multiple barriers to participation. Indeed, women are still struggling to compete on an equal playing field. 

Nevertheless, women in sport have been persistent in questioning the gender-based disparities and inequalities. Here are some of the battles that women in sport have been fighting, to challenge the sexism within sport. 

The fight for equal pay

Dipika Pallikal, one of India’s top-ranked squash players, refused to compete in four consecutive national championships, starting in 2012, due to the pay disparity between male and female players. Pallikal made a comeback only after prize money was equalised by the organisers of the championship. She received flak from many for abandoning the championship for four years, as it was not seen in sync with the ‘sportsmanship spirit’. The criticism did not stop Pallikal from demanding equal pay and she was successful in bringing change for women in squash. 

Many other sportswomen around the world have been lobbying for equal pay. The recent landmark settlement between the US National Women’s Soccer Team, against the US Soccer Federation, is a historic win for women’s sport and will pave the way for many other women demanding their right to equal pay. 

The fight for maternity benefits

Maternity benefits are rarely provided to female athletes. This causes them to lose out on sponsorship and brand deals, often shortening their careers. The lack of maternity leave policies in sport federations has forced many sportswomen to choose between their careers and motherhood.

In January 2022, after negotiating new contracts, women footballers across 24 clubs in England were granted maternity benefits. This move, which was approved by the Professional Football Association (PFA), is an example of sportswomen negotiating equal labour rights in their professions. 

This move is part of a growing wave of sportswomen negotiating maternity benefits for themselves and other female athletes. In 2020, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) announced a new collective bargaining agreement, which increased salaries and provided fully paid maternity leave. In the same year, FIFA also approved a 14-week maternity leave for all players and declared that all football clubs would be obligated to integrate the players after their pregnancy. 

The fight against gender testing

Sport federations often use sex testing as a tool to control which women can participate; using questionable scientific evidence as their basis, federations claim that high levels of testosterone give some women a competitive advantage. This is a highly contested claim which excludes some women from participating, often leaving them with no choice but to suppress their naturally occurring hormones, which can have a long-term impact on their bodies. Further, these rules have often been used disproportionately against women of colour, limiting their access to competitive sport. 

Caster Semanya, a two-time Olympic gold medalist from South Africa, has been fighting a battle against World Athletics since 2019. In 2018, World Athletics banned Semanya from competing in races between 400 and 1600 metres, due to her naturally high levels of testosterone. They ruled that she could only participate if she medically suppresses her testosterone or undergoes surgery.

Since then, Semanya has legally challenged World Athletics’ discriminatory rules in three different courts. Though she has lost the appeals made to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court in 2019 and 2020, she has not given up her fight. In February 2021, she took her case to the European Court of Human Rights. Despite her persistent efforts, Semanya was not allowed to participate in the 800 metre race at the Tokyo Olympics held in 2021. 

Semenya is not alone in this battle. Dutee Chand, who has also faced the brunt of these rules, has been supportive of Semenya and Olympic champion and American gymnast Simone Biles has also been a vocal supporter. However, Semenya has commented on the lack of support from other female athletes and how she has had to often deal with rude comments from her competitors. 

The fight for participation 

When Bobbi Gibb decided to run the Boston Marathon in 1966, it was an all-male event, with women not allowed to participate. Indeed, at the time, women were not allowed to participate in any running events over 1.5 miles, due to the misperception that women were not physically able to run long distances. Despite being denied entry to the marathon, Gibb did not give up - she hid in the bushes and disguised herself, as she mustered the courage to break the rules and complete the marathon, stunning and impressing the audience. She was eventually disqualified from the race because she was a woman.

 A year later, in 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially participate in the Boston Marathon - in her registration form, she signed using her initials, and it was not apparent that she was a woman. However, the race co-director Jack Semple, was furious at her participation, and he disrupted the race as he attempted to remove her bib. Unperturbed, she persevered and completed the race. 

It still took five more years for the Boston Marathon to officially allow women to participate in the event - in 1972, eight women participated in the Marathon, and Nina Kuscsik became the first female champion of the event. By 2015, the number of female participants at the Boston Marathon had grown to 14,000.

Gibb and Switzer were pioneers for women’s participation in long distance running. Switzer also played a pivotal role in getting the women’s marathon into the Olympic Games, and the first-ever women’s marathon at the Olympics was held at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. 

The fight against gender roles

Hassiba Boulmerka is a former athlete from Algeria, who became a role-model for many female athletes in Africa. She began to run at the age of 10, later specialising in the 800 and 1500 metre races. Her breakthrough achievement came in 1991, when she became the first African woman to have won a World Athletics title. 

Her journey, however, was not easy. Boulmerka was often targeted by radical religious groups for showing too much skin while competing. Due to the constant threats she received, including threats to her life, she was forced to move to  Berlin in 1992. In defiance of these threats, she continued to run, and won a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Boulmerka’s fearless battle against restrictive gender norms and stereotypes was a step forward for women in sports, especially African women. 

The fight against mandated uniforms

During the 2021 European Beach Handball Championship held in Bulgaria, the Norwegian Women’s Beach Handball Team protested against the uniform mandated by the European Handball Federation. The team wore shorts, as opposed to bikini bottoms, the uniform fixed by the federation. The team’s refusal to abide by the clothing rules was not received well by the federation, and they were fined $1500 for the offence. However, the Norwegian Handball Federation backed the team and supported their stance on the mandated dress code. 

It has been a long fight against mandated uniforms for women in sport, which are often rooted in sexism. Often, uniforms can be a reason which limits the participation of women and girls in sports. This is why it is important for sports federations and organisations to ensure that all women and girls are able to participate and compete in sport in those clothes which make them feel comfortable. 

In this fight against mandated uniforms, it is important to recognise those women that have fought for their right to wear the hijab while participating in sports. The gains made in this battle are recent - in 2016, Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first American Muslim to compete at an Olympics while wearing a hijab, and the FIFA ban against headscarves was only lifted in 20143. 

Women are starting to take control of the narratives on their bodies and comfort. These recent wins are indicative of a growing movement towards increasing women’s comfort (and hence participation) in sport. 

The fight against sexual harassment

In November 2021, Peng Shui, a Chinese tennis player, accused China’s former vice-sexually harassing her. The Chinese media, however, suppressed the news and Shui disappeared from public view soon after sharing her story. Shui is considered a pioneer in women’s sport for speaking out against sexual harassment, especially against a powerful man. 

Shui is not alone in this fight against sexual harassment. Perhaps one of the most visible cases of sexual harassment against female athletes came in 2016, when over 250 American female gymnasts, including Olympians McKayla Maroney and Simone Biles, accused US Gymanstics’ doctor Larry Nasser of sexually abusing them. 

For sport to be a safe space for women, it is important that strict measures are taken against sexual harassment, to ensure that they are protected. Without such safeguarding, women will not be able to participate in sport freely. 

The battles ahead

These are only a few of the battles against gender-based inequalities that female athletes have had to fight. Though there have been significant moves towards equality, many battles lie ahead. 

This is also not an exhaustive list of all the brave sportswomen who have been fighting for equality. In this long journey towards gender-based equality, no small group of women are responsible for the changes that we have witnessed - indeed, the wins are the culmination of the hard work of many changemakers who have challenged misogyny in sports. And today, with many more female athletes speaking up against discrmination and for gender equality, the tides are certainly changing in sport.