3 athletes on what needs to change to make sport more equal

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With the pandemic having hit particularly hard and gender inequality still rife across all disciplines, we spoke to three women with first-hand experience to find out what can be done to change women’s sport for the better…

After a year in which Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on women’s sport, yesterday’s relaxing of the rules around outdoor activities will come as a huge relief to a nation of women champing at the bit to get back on the pitch.

But even before the pandemic struck, sport in the UK has been plagued by gender inequality, a challenge that has had a profound effect on both this generation of sportswomen and the next one to come.

Sports Direct recently commissioned a new study as part of its Equal Play initiative aimed at driving gender equality in sport, with results indicating that 40% of 16 to 24-year-old women in the UK feel that society perceives women’s sport as less important.

46% said that if they were able to watch high-profile women’s sports it would encourage them to do more sport, but in 2018, only 4% of UK broadcast coverage was dedicated to female contests.

As a result, only half as many girls as boys said they dreamed of going on to become an elite athlete, a profoundly depressing statistic for a modern society.

With that in mind we spoke to three women currently working in sport to find out what they would change to redress the balance and make for a more even playing field…

  • Lucy Monkman, aka DJ. Monki, Radio 1 DJ and grassroots footballer for Dulwich Hamlet Women

    “When I was young, I took part in my first football camp with an established local club, and I was the only girl. They didn’t expect any girls to turn up, so the changing rooms were an issue. They ended up finding me an empty room to change in.

    Even into adulthood when I started playing again at a grassroots level, I would turn up to clubs that didn’t have female changing rooms, and there would be naked men walking around, in and out of their changing rooms. Our coach would have to stand outside where we were changing to make sure no one just walked in.

    It goes to show how much needs to happen in terms of normalising, promoting and investing in women athletes – not just financially but in terms of time. If we’re talking about football specifically, the men’s game didn’t get so advanced overnight. People need to give the same patience to the women’s game.

    A good place to start would be better representation in the media. Even though women like me can play, very few are given a platform to be the ‘expert’ and for their voices to be heard at all levels.

    This is so important in helping to encourage change. For girls to get into sport, they need someone to look up to, to know girls like them can be whatever they want and see that this isn’t just a man’s game any more.” 

    Lucy Monkman is the face of all football content on Sports Direct’s channels and a Sports Direct Equal Play ambassador, encouraging female voices to become experts in the industry, not just players.

  • Revee Walcott-Nolan, Team GB track athlete

    “My main worry as a female athlete has always been the thought of having children in the future and the impact that it would have on my career.

    For a long time, there has been the message to women in athletics that if you get pregnant, your contract will come to an end or you’ll lose sponsorship money.

    The sports industry allows for men to have a full career, and this has not always been the case for women, but people are speaking up, and changes are slowly starting to be made by sponsors regarding contracts and pregnancy.

    There’s also a definite lack of understanding of the female body around the topic of periods.

    I find that the time of the month really has an effect on my training, and I’ve definitely had experiences in the past with male coaches having a lack of understanding or knowledge of how to aid me during those times.

    We definitely need better media representation, but aside from that, the biggest thing people can do to support women’s sport is to encourage the females in their life to participate or continue participating in sport.

    The dropout rate of women in sport is much higher than it is with men, so encouragement and support is vital.”

  • Hattie Jones, grassroots footballer for Forest Green Rovers Women FC

    “Being a woman in the sporting world, there is an obvious and undeniable disadvantage. Not being taken seriously is a big one. I’m asked things like how short my shorts are, if we play less minutes, if we even play the offside rule, etc.

    Then there’s access to facilities. When I tore my MCL playing soccer at a division one college in America, my trainer did an excellent job, but access to equipment and treatment beds was usually prioritised for male athletes, despite my need.

    Better funding for training and game day gear is vital, while equal pay is obviously a huge fight for female athletes. It’s no secret that women are paid a great deal less than men in sport.

    The biggest thing that people outside the game can do is to advocate. Sharing social media posts, writing to local papers/councils, signing petitions and sharing news by word of mouth does more than people think.

    Donating money where possible to local female teams and offering sponsorship is another way to increase support, spread awareness and, in turn, level the playing field.”

Sports Direct is committed to supporting women in all sports through Equal Play, a four-year programme to use the brand’s scale, knowledge and passion to close the gender gap. Find out more about Equal Play here, and head over to Instagram to join the conversation.

Revee Walcott-Nolan hero image courtesy of Paul Calver.