Why women’s R and A membership isn’t enough

Robert Chadwick on the next steps for women in sport…


There has always been gender inequality in sport. Ever since the first caveman challenged his missus to a throwing contest and realised he had been born with a slight physical advantage, the history of sport has been very much a one horse race. Men invented sport, men played sport, and then, in their retirement, men got to sit in the BBC studio and talk about sport. All the while, women have been sat on the side-lines, twiddling their thumbs, and wondering when they might get their turn.

There are evident signs however, that this male grip on sport is coming undone. In 1998, women were admitted to the prestigious Marylebone Cricket Club for the first time and, more recently, the members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews voted to admit women. These small advances will nonetheless be hollow victories if there isn’t a shift in the way women’s sport is viewed by society as a whole. In her recent speech to the UN General Assembly, Emma Watson described how many of her pals dropped out of their beloved sports teams for fear of the judgement they would receive from others. There is undoubtedly a major double standard at grassroots level – the boy with the best close control of a football in the playground is invariably popular, but a girl who can hit a ball a long way is at best ignored and at worst ridiculed for being weird and butch – and this has to change.

Male sports figures, automatically it seems, hold the respect and reverence of the international community. Fantastically well paid, they are coveted as the role models and heroes of the common people. Men can identify with these sporting heroes on an intrinsic level, and it is not only socially acceptable for a young boy to wish to play professional sport, but it is, in fact, encouraged. While, for young men, making a career out of sport appears to be an appealing and relatively accessible goal, sadly, the opposite is true for young women. There are far fewer heroes from whom they can take inspiration, and, consequently, the path to becoming a professional sportswoman can appear rather unappetizing. Furthermore, those women who are in the media spotlight are often sexualised and treated poorly. A mockery is made of their professionalism as attention is shifted away from their sporting talents and onto their looks, legs or backside. During the Wimbledon 2013, for instance, one commentator even mused on air whether or not French tennis star Marion Bartoli’s father had ever told her she was ugly (no such speculation was made about Andy Murray). It is for reasons such as these that interest in sport is dominated by men – not, as some would state, because men are bigger, stronger and more likely to be naturally better at sport. To truly advance the case for gender equality in sport, a combined effort from the media, sporting institutions and schools is required to break the taboo that women playing sport at the elite level is somehow unattractive and to help create sporting stars to whom women can relate.

The example of England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is, in my view, perhaps the best example to follow in the fight to advance gender equality in sport. In recent years, the ECB have pumped huge sums of money into women’s cricket, investing in the women’s game at grassroots level whilst also creating the first professional women’s cricket team. Female participation in cricket has soared, with numerous amateur clubs now fielding women’s teams for the first time. Young women cricketers have prolific heroes with whom they can identify. England captain Charlotte Edwards, for example, is a household name for any cricket fan. This not only a result of her plentiful achievements on the cricket field, but also thanks to her tireless promotion of women’s grassroots cricket through the Chance to Shine charity. For young girls interested in cricket, making a career out of the sport is fast becoming an appetising and accessible goal.

Through the increased reporting of women’s cricket in magazines such as The Cricketer and the emergence of female pundits at the highest level, there are comparably few negative connotations with female participation in the sport. Listeners of Test Match Special this summer were treated as Alison Mitchell, the first regular female member of the commentary team, shared regular commentary stints with the brash and uncompromising Geoffrey Boycott. The fact that she not only stood up to his unwavering criticism of her analysis of the game but even regularly exposed deficiencies in his line of thought highlights the absurdity of the idea that elite sport is the realm of men. Of course, cricket isn’t the finished article, and the fact that the likes of Boycott are still so dominant shows that there is a long way to go. In a relatively short space of time, however, women’s cricket has gone from something on the periphery of the ECB’s agenda to commanding a focus equal to that of the men’s game. It is an example that could and should be followed by other team sports so totally dominated by men.

Image credit: Jim Bain, via Wikimedia Commons