Where have all the women gone?

June 2020

Our 2018 report Where are all the women?’ highlighted that women made up between 4% and 10% of sports media coverage in the UK.  We worked with European partners to compare women’s sports coverage and the picture was no better elsewhere.  Occasional anomalies arose such as in Romania where tennis legend Simona Halep was making the country too proud to be ignored.  But if you google “Romanian tennis legends” her name is hard to find. Instead up pops Ilia Nastase who won two grand slam singles titles in 1972 and 1973.  Simona won two grand slam single titles in 2018 and 2019.

Historically the sporting world has been too accepting of this shocking imbalance, but speaking to a number of CEOs of national governing bodies in the last few weeks my sense is that there is a genuine will to change.

Thank goodness, because after all, this is not just about sport, it speaks volumes about attitudes to women and girls across society and the stubborn gender stereotypes that risk holding back half our population.  What people see in the media affects lives.  Seeing is believing and it allows young girls to dream of making their country and their friends and family proud.  Seeing great women’s sport makes it normal for women and girls to be active, to be skilful, gritty and determined.  I am not convinced the mainstream media feels the same sense of responsibility that the governing bodies do – with a few notable exceptions.

Our question “Where are all the women?” was just beginning to be answered pre-lockdown. Women’s football, netball and cricket suddenly moved on to our screens in 2018 and 2019.

Last year, 28 million people watched the BBC’s coverage of the Fifa Women’s World Cup, with women and men from all walks of life experiencing this together as a nation.  Visibility matters for participation.  England’s fabulous netball gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games sparked a surge in participation and before lockdown 320,000 women were playing netball fortnightly.

But just as suddenly as sportswomen arrived on our screens they disappeared again.  A global pandemic ensured that.  The Covid-19 crisis has of course made men’s sport invisible as well and the pandemic is not yet over, but as sport begins to creep out from where it was sheltering what are we seeing?

We partnered with Goodform, and asked fans what they felt.  We spoke to nearly 2,000 existing sports fans, two thirds of whom were men.  We found 69% felt there was a risk of women’s sport suffering more than men’s as a result of the pandemic and 79% said that it was important that the momentum in women’s sport continued.

So now is the time for the genuinely committed leaders in this sector to re-commit and we’re keen to support them with that.  We know the solutions are not straight forward.  We’re dealing with a complex mix of forces and each sport is different as I’ve learnt when speaking to sports bosses.  Their financial challenges are determined by the balance between sponsorship deals, broadcasting revenues, ticket and merchandise sales, hospitality income, membership fees and government support.  Some, like cricket, depend heavily on international competition.  Others, like rugby, have big income streams around hospitality. England Netball has been so good at reducing its dependency on government support it is particularly badly affected.

I’ve been greatly encouraged so far that leaders in sport are committed to winning gender equality.  Most say the future of their businesses lie in the growth of their women’s games BUT their current business models are working against the restart of women’s sport.

Women’s golf is the first women’s professional sport to return since Covid-19 lockdown. It’s taken golfer Justin Rose and his wife Kate to sponsor a series of seven golf tournaments to do this.   Justin and Kate are providing the prize money, the golf course giving their facilities free of charge and Sky covering the tournament. Why do this?  They saw it as unfair that Justin would return two months ahead of his female counterparts.

Last week, Kelly Simmons, the Football Association’s Director of the Women’s Professional Game, said that the organisation was giving the Women’s FA Cup “every chance” of returning and being completed this season.  There has been real commitment from the top of the FA and there are true advocates within the organisation, but the scale of change is substantial.

The England and Wales Cricket Board has shown real commitment from the top and is gutted it has had to cancel its long planned and gender-equal Hundred.  It is great however that it is investing substantial sums to secure a tri-series against India and South Africa in September.

Our survey with Goodform showed many men as well as women fans want to see women’s sport return.  Women in Sport is looking to broadcasters, sponsors, businesses who run hospitality events, and of course to fans, to commit to seizing this moment for change.

The whole sporting ecosystem must work in synchrony to realise the value of women’s sport for the long term so that a nation of women and girls are inspired and can draw the joy, fulfilment and lifelong benefits sport can bring.