This year’s theme for International Women’s Day encourages us all to #ChoosetoChallenge gender inequality. This feels quite every day for us, given that Women in Sport was set up in 1984 to challenge the way women and girls are excluded from sport.
Today I read that the ruling political party in Japan has just allowed women to attend their cabinet meetings. Great news! Oh, but they (women) are not allowed to speak, only to listen, and can submit comments in writing afterwards.
Subtle pervasive cultural behaviours and expectations continue to hold girls and women back from sport and exercise. Across every age, from as early as 5 years old, we are often excluded from sport’s joy, fulfilment, and its lifelong health benefits.
This last extraordinary year has lifted a lid on many inequalities, not least in our world of sport and exercise. After 12 brutal months of a global pandemic, the Choose to Challenge theme does carry increased significance.
In 2020 women’s elite sport all but disappeared from view just as it had been emerging into the light with the 2019 world cups for football and netball. In the first panic of lockdown, major sports bodies, broadcasters and sponsors focused hard on the big money, and that inevitably did not involve the women. Sadly, the global sporting events which feature men and women almost equally like Wimbledon and the Olympics were also postponed. Whilst every effort was made to get the men’s matches played to meet broadcasters’ and sponsors’ needs, the women were left behind.
Added to this, as poorly paid cousins of the men, elite women athletes did not have the access to training equipment at home and were often working part time, sometimes at the frontline of the pandemic in our hospitals.
Our elite sportswomen had to be more patient than their male counterparts for their comeback and as The Telegraph’s Fiona Thomas wrote in her column this week after the Women’s Rugby World Cup became the latest women’s sport competition to be postponed, “Here’s hoping it will be worth the wait, something female athletes are becoming increasingly good at.”
Why does elite sport matter? It matters because it speaks volumes about women’s place in society. So too does the greater impact on women of the economic carnage of 2020 due to their having more zero-hours contracts and part-time work. And if all this was not enough, women have borne the majority of home-schooling and caring responsibilities even in apparently equal and modern relationships.
However, there is a positive coming out of the last year. The pandemic has given unavoidable exposure to the whole range of inequalities that blight our society – whether in terms of gender, health, race or economics. The crisis has changed the mood, made us more collectively empathetic, more apparently alert to right and wrong. It was no wonder there was such public outrage to the previous President of the Tokyo Olympics who said what he did about “women speaking too much in meetings”.
As a woman I choose to challenge this by deliberately being true to myself and speaking more frequently but briefly, aiming to draw out a real conversation so we can collaborate. Despite sometimes getting into trouble in meetings, I’m in good company. Former Republic of Ireland President Mary Robinson has said, “Women are actually more inclined towards that more modern leadership, which is a collaborative problem-solving, enabling, consultative, not just trying to assert a kind of hierarchical power.”
There is a palpable sense that the old normal is no longer acceptable within both the workplace of sport and within the participation of sport. For us to succeed as a society, women in all our diversity must be central and equal in decision making. As part of this, sports organisations are recommitting to their women’s games and sponsors are showing unprecedented interest in backing women’s sport.
So, we can’t stop challenging after today, the 8th of March.
We have to keep challenging for equal access to high quality green space, to clean, safe and affordable facilities for swimming and exercise classes, for inclusive grassroots programmes, and for equal visibility and pay for our top sportswomen.
We must also challenge – and we hope our male allies will challenge – the culture that says it’s OK for “boys to be boys” whilst women shoulder the majority of care for children and the elderly, and of housework as well as paid work. We are challenging this and saying its time girls should be allowed to be girls – to be energetic and playful and seek adventure; and women should be women – which means being able to feel energised through exercise or sport and find time for themselves, together with others.
But we need your support. Whether you are sponsors, broadcasters, hosting events or running social media campaigns, we need the support of fathers, husbands, brothers – we need everyone to stand up and challenge gender inequality.
The charity Women in Sport will keep challenging and we hope you will also find the courage to Choose to Challenge throughout 2021.