Is this the year for women’s sport?
Women’s journey in sport has not been easy – it has been characterised by the struggles women have endured, due to societal perceptions of gender. Though the struggles continue, 2022 is shaping up to be an important year for advances in women’s sport across the world, paving the way towards equity.
Equality in labour rights
While women that play sports have to deal with society’s gender expectations, professional female athletes also have to contend with discriminatory labour laws.
One of the earliest wins this year for women’s sport came in January when new contracts for professional female footballers in England covered their right to maternity leave and long-term sickness benefits. For the first time in history, players at the 24 clubs in the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship are guaranteed such benefits.
But perhaps one of the biggest wins came after a six-year legal battle between the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) and the US Soccer Federation (USSF) on equal pay was settled for $24 million. The settlement includes a $22 million lump sum payment to the players. An additional $2 million will be put into an account towards players’ post-career goals and for charitable efforts in women’s and girls’ soccer. Further, the USSF has committed to equal pay for men’s and women’s national teams in all future tournaments.
The determination and perseverance shown by the USWNT has been inspiring. While the fight for equal pay in sport continues, this landmark settlement will pave the way for similar battles being fought by women across different sports. Other sports will now have to step up their game in making tangible changes to bring about gender equality.
Women excel in their game
This year has already seen women make and break many sporting records.
2022 marked 100 years of women’s participation in the Australian Open. The tournament began in 1905 but did not allow women to participate until 1922. The last 100 years have seen some excellent tennis by women at the tournament where many have broken records and made history. Upon winning the 2022 women’s title, Australian Ash Barty brought the trophy back home for the first time since 1978, becoming only the second Aboriginal woman to win.
At the Beijing Winter Olympics, Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst made Olympic history when she won a gold medal at her fifth Games. She is the first athlete in history to win individual gold medals at five Olympic Games. The Games were also the most gender-equal Olympics to date, with 45% of the athletes being female. Other notable history-making women from these Games included New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski Synnott, America’s Erin Jackson and China’s Eileen Gu.
More history is yet to be made
With the Women’s Cricket World Cup and the Beijing Paralympics currently taking place, and the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 and Women’s Rugby World Cup slated for later this year, more history is yet to be made.
Women’s cricket has seen considerable growth in the five years since the last World Cup, including in prize money. This year, the prize money has been increased to $3.5 million, up from $2 million in 2017, with the winners taking $1.32 million home. Though the prize money is not close to the $10 million of the men’s tournament, the increase is indicative of the growing popularity and sponsorship of women’s sport.
The UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 is getting ready to host a record number of fans across nine cities in England in July. The football tournament is also expected to be watched by over 250 million people at home, across the world, aiming to be one of the biggest European women’s sporting events to date.
This year’s cricket and rugby world cups and next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup are taking place in New Zealand. The country’s sport and recreation minister, Grant Robertson, is excited for this opportunity to host the best sportswomen from across the world and inspire the next generation.
Though many gains have been made, many more challenges still lie ahead.
The USWNT landmark settlement is a step in the right direction in the battle for equal pay, but much work remains to be done in this area – indeed, many female professional athletes still do not get paid any money to participate in sport, compared to their male counterparts.
Diversity within women’s sport also remains a relevant issue. As Manchester United’s manager Casey Stone has noted, the Women’s Super League is “very white and has to change.” The fight for gender equality cannot be won if we leave behind women who are also racial minorities. To inspire the next generation of girls and young women with strong female role models, we need to ensure that women from all different walks of life are represented.
There is an ongoing battle against trans women’s representation and participation in sport, with many, including Australia and states in the US, trying to lay down laws to bar trans women from competitive sport. Not only do such rules reduce women’s sporting abilities and achievements to their biological sex, they are also an affront to trans women’s human rights, as they deny them the right to participate in sport.
Kamila Valieva’s doping scandal at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics has highlighted the issue of the safety and security of minor girls in elite sport. We need to ensure that sport is safe for all, especially minor girls, who are susceptible to physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of coaches, administrators, doctors, and others.
Further, there is still work to be done regarding women’s sport in the media. Women’s sport receives only a fraction of the coverage that men’s sport does. When it does get covered, it lacks the production value, energy and excitement of coverage of men’s sport. Part of the problem is that women themselves are grossly underrepresented in sports media. Until women’s sport is given an equal voice and space in our daily lives, more advancements cannot be made.
Finally, there is a persistent gap between the participation of girls and boys in grassroots sport, which only increases in the teenage years. A new study by Women in Sport, funded by Sport England, found that 43% of girls disengage from sport after primary school. The reasons come as no surprise – while some girls noted the prevalent narrative that girls are not as sporty as boys, others mentioned safety, harassment and a lack of self-esteem as major reasons for dropping out of sport.
Though these are major structural challenges, they have to be overcome in order to support more girls’ participation in sport and to continue to inspire the next generation of sportswomen, leaders and changemakers. With so many gains already made in 2022, we need to continue supporting the waves being made in sport and gender equality so that this can be the year for women’s sport.