Sarah Shephard, whose latest book, Kicking Off: How Women in Sport are Changing the Game, is published this week, says her research suggests there is still a veritable mountain to climb, but recognition for women’s sport is moving apace
First, a confession: when I started work as a sports journalist ten years ago, my knowledge of women’s sport was dismal. I knew very little about women’s football, even less of women’s rugby and if you’d told me there was a Women’s Boat Race I’d have been straight on to Google for concrete proof.
These days I’m embarrassed at my former lack of awareness. But I also ask myself how it was that I – a sports fanatic who spent school play-times kicking a football around with the boys and university break-times reading the Daily Mirror’s sports pages – knew so little about women’s sport? The simple answer is that it just wasn’t there. It wasn’t on the television that introduced me to WWF wrestling (a childhood obsession I grew out of, much to my mother’s relief) and Arsenal (a passion I think I’m probably stuck with). Nor was it in the newspapers I read religiously between lectures.
Over the last ten years, my eyes have been opened to some of the reasons why women’s sport has stayed so invisible for so long. Working at Sport magazine has given me the opportunity to look ‘behind the scenes’ and understand the size of the battle women’s sport is facing.
My first real glimpse came in 2009, when Sport tried to launch a quarterly bonus section called Sport Woman. I was in charge of the content and found it an easy task. Sponsors were keen to put their athletes forward for interview and brands were eager for their products to feature. But in other respects Sport Woman was a real challenge. Being a free publication means that Sport magazine is reliant on advertising to survive and the cost of the extra pages required to make room for Sport Woman meant extra adverts needed to come in.
It hadn’t occurred to me that this would be a problem. After all, where else would brands have access to a large female audience so in tune with sport and fitness? But it turned out to be a near-impossible task. Hardly anyone was willing to back their words of enthusiasm for women’s sport with cold hard cash. It confused me, frustrated me and left me wondering how things would ever change.
The seeds for Kicking Off were sown then, but the timing wasn’t right. Publishers were unsure a book on women’s sport would sell. They also feared booksellers would be confused about where to place it – in the sport section or the women’s section? After months of conversations that led nowhere I put the proposals away and got on with my day job.
That was until 2012 and women’s sport enjoyed a summer like no other before. The London Olympics opened people’s eyes to the fact that sportswomen are just as deserving of the spotlight as their male counterparts. It also proved that women’s sport is equally able to entertain, to enthral and, crucially, to sell tickets – some 80,203 in the case of the women’s football final at Wembley Stadium.
As time passed, though, and sport returned to its regularly scheduled programming (i.e. mostly football, cricket and rugby), the women whose success united the nation during the Games were shifted out of the spotlight. Once again, they became background noise. But the difference was that this time, people were less willing to accept it. After the Olympics I noticed a marked increase in the number of frustrated voices speaking up, usually via Twitter, to point out the inequalities still circling women’s sport. Suddenly, those who spoke up weren’t lone voices anymore, they were part of an ever growing movement pushing for change. It was all the encouragement I needed to dust off my book proposal. And when Bloomsbury came on board in 2014 I was more convinced than ever that things were changing for the better.
But then I started digging. And the deeper into my book research I went, the more dirt I found. From the very first chapter I wrote called “Who’s that girl?”, looking at why sportswomen struggle to attain the same levels of recognition as their male counterparts, to later research on body image, school sport for girls and the thorny issue of prize money, I discovered there was still a veritable mountain to climb.
There have of course been some positives. The launch of the FAWSL has brought women’s football up from obscurity; the work done by the ECB has advanced women’s cricket impressively far in a relatively short space of time (it wasn’t all that long ago, I discovered, that the England team were playing in skirts and paying for their own travel); and in 2015 the Women’s Boat Race finally emerged from the shadows to take its rightful place alongside the men.
The aim for Kicking Off was to establish a state of play for women in sport in 2016. Are things improving? What areas still require the most work? And will we ever reach a time when ‘sports for boys’ and ‘sports for girls’ no longer exist, leaving sport as something for everyone? The research, the observations and the writing I have done for the book over the last two years leads me to believe that while progress has been painfully slow we now have the perfect opportunity to kick it into a higher gear.
More than ever before, supporters of women’s sport can now have their voices heard. Keep talking, keep asking the important questions and keep women’s sport in the spotlight. It’s the only way we can ensure that future generations of girls and boys are free to follow their sporting dreams, whatever they may be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Shephard is features editor at Sport magazine, where she has worked since October 2006, joining the staff initially as a writer. In December 2012 she was named Writer of the Year at the UTV Media Awards. The following year she ghosted the autobiography of British gymnast, Louis Smith. Her second book, Kicking Off: How Women in Sport are Changing the Game, is published by Bloomsbury on March 10 2016. Sarah’s latest articles