This is a week when it is difficult to ignore that fact that some patriarchal dinosaurs in sport are still overwhelmingly uncomfortable with women. Whether we are playing sport, sitting on boards governing sports, or indeed writing or talking about sport, women are still too often ostracised by small-minded pockets of society. When it becomes clear those misogynistic niches are operating in the upper echelons of sport itself, sport has a big problem.
And that is abundantly apparent in football, as the FA inquiry into Heather Rabbatts shows. Her crime? Speaking her mind about the “major concerns” she has regarding the disciplinary procedures undertaken – or arguably not undertaken – by the FA against Jose Mourinho in the Dr Eva Carnerio case. Rabbatts is the only female FA board member and head of the organisation’s inclusion advisory panel. If this is the treatment she is suffering at the very top of the biggest sport in the world, what does this say to society? How representative is it of what is happening at grassroots level?
Women have every right to be involved in sport, whether they are on the pitch or in the boardroom. But interestingly even Facebook, that beacon of modernity, seems to have trouble expressing this.
I was shocked when I saw their latest advertisement about the power of sport broadcast during a break in a Rugby World Cup quarter-final match. This was prime-time viewing for a company worth $245 billion. By my count there are 72 men featured in this advert and only eight women. Eight. One ninth of the number of men.
Yet if we account for around 50 per cent of population, and indeed also play and excel in sport in abundance, why are women so appallingly under-represented? And not only are those women in the advert relatively invisible, they are also overwhelmingly passive within it. The boys and the men are the doers and the actors, playing, celebrating, commiserating and cheering. They are in the gym and playing on the rugby fields and on the football pitches.
The women almost seem like afterthoughts perched inconspicuously in the background, celebrating in a pub or a train station, or even worse, stationary figures. Even double Olympic champion Kelly Holmes, who makes a star appearance, remains still. Two swimmers diving into a pool, in a shot which barely lasts a moment, is as much action as a female figure gets in the entire 60-second advert.
You may think: “Come on, why does this matter? It’s just an advert, there are bigger problems. Stop nit-picking.” Yet the world of advertising is a billion-pound industry and Facebook is one of the most powerful companies on the planet. What does this 60-second clip tell girls and women? What tired, old stereotypes does it reinforce? Should women be passive, as the FA want Heather Rabbatts to be, while men do and play and speak and act? Are we just mere accessories to sport?
It has never been more essential to give girls sporting role models to look up to. It is crucial for them to understand that their worth does not need to be measured by the latest fashion accessory or nail varnish or boyfriend, but by a tenacity of spirit and a depth in character that is so often honed and encouraged by sport.
With the awards season fast approaching – Sports Personality of the Year, BT Action Woman of the Year, Sky Sportswomen of the Year – we will be reminded of the achievements and the impact female athletes have made over the past 12 months. There is a stellar line-up of sporting heroes to admire, from Jess Ennis-Hill, Laura Trott, Lizzie Armitstead to the Lionesses. Their glorious sporting triumphs should be duly recognised and celebrated, and they should inspire and motivate the next generation of girls.
So why are women and girls in sport so invisible to Facebook? This advert could have been wonderful. The power of sport – some would say there isn’t a more powerful force in the world. But for women? It appears we are sidelined, silenced, ignored and undervalued. Again. And why on earth did no one stop and say: “Er, hang on a minute, where are all the women?” Facebook has an extraordinary power to do good in this area. It would be a significant step if they had a rethink.
Sport is evolving. Men love women’s sport, too. It’s not a gender war. Let the advertisers reflect our times.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and was part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve.
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