Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill on why we need to invest in female athletes

Posted by for Life

Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill was the face of London 2012, but eight years later, women in sport still aren’t getting the attention they deserve. So she’s backing Stylist’s Fair Game campaign to finally right this wrong.

“In 2012, it was my first time at the Olympics, we were in London, and all everyone was talking about was the female athletes. Weren’t they amazing? Weren’t they, dare we say it, better than the men? Eight years later, women in sport have gained more momentum than ever before. Think of the success of the English women’s netball team at the Commonwealth Games in 2018, winning gold for the first time in history.

Or organisations such as W Series, in its second year of life, which gives a platform to female racing drivers – and is hugely needed. There are currently no female drivers in Formula 1, and in its sister series, the FIA Formula 2 Championship, there is just one – 27-year-old Tatiana Calderón of Colombia. Seeing women in these positions creates role models that young girls can work to emulate. It suddenly seems achievable. But it also helps address a problem many female athletes still struggle with: funding. In 2020, female athletes still don’t get the attention, opportunities and, consequently, sponsorship that so many men do by default.

Jessic ennis hill stylist cover
Our London 2012 special issue with Jessica Ennis-Hill.

Financial support makes such a huge difference to their growth. Whether this translates into having the resources to invest in proper medical care and physio or just being able to concentrate solely on sport, without working other jobs to support yourself. But if they’re not seen: on television, in magazines, in campaigns, then they’ll be overlooked and considered a risky investment by brands. This has to change. We have to give more females opportunities and invest in talent from the beginning.

The 2020 Olympics will be a time to see women at their best. This year, climbing, a new sport for the Olympics, will showcase the talents of Shauna Coxsey, who’s also based in Sheffield, my home city, and is fantastic. Skateboarding, which is another new addition to the Olympics programme, has 11-year-old Sky Brown on their team. While I’ll be keeping my eyes on the brilliant Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson.

So tune in, pay attention and know that your support matters. Not just because they are women, but because they are incredible. That’s why I’m fully behind Stylist’s Fair Game campaign. Read on to learn more…”

Eight years ago, as the capital excitedly prepared for the arrival of the world’s best athletes at Stratford’s Olympic Village ahead of London 2012, we decided we had to take a stand. The reason? While interviewing female athletes ahead of the Games, we heard story after story of the rampant sexism and discrimination they faced while trying to achieve their dream. Of how many were forced to work day jobs to subsidise their measly pay, despite gruelling training schedules.

Back then, a pathetic 2% of mainstream sports coverage was dedicated to women’s sports, and, according to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, just 0.5% of all sponsorship cash ploughed into UK sport went to women. It seemed grossly unfair. So we launched our Fair Game campaign and boldly asked for big changes. 

Backed by the then-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Clare Balding, our campaign pledged to increase the coverage of sportswomen in the national media and online and inflate badly needed levels of sponsorship. We tackled it head on, hosting the Fair Game Awards that offered £40,000 worth of kit and equipment to 10 amateur teams, as well as a £2,000 bursary to five up-and-coming athletes. We received an astounding 25,000 entries.

Lionesses england women's football team
The Lionesses at the World Cup in 2019.

London 2012 was a giddy success with British athletes bringing home 65 Olympic and 120 Paralympic medals. So many amazing women broke records: Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won the first Olympic gold for British women’s rowing. Sarah Storey became one of our most successful Paralympians ever, winning four gold medals, while Ellie Simmonds and Hannah Cockroft won two golds apiece. And who could forget Jessica Ennis-Hill’s gold in the heptathlon on that extraordinary Super Saturday?

Fair Game was a success, too. We put sportswomen, including Dina Asher-Smith, Vicky Fleetwood and Nicola Adams on our covers, helping to make these brilliant athletes household names. We got support from the government, with published essays from Maria Miller, the secretary for culture, media and sport, and Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman. 

And the women who were awarded our bursaries went on to have international victories: judoka Nekoda Smythe-Davis won gold at the 2014 World Championships and made her Olympic debut two years later. Footballer Alex Greenwood was part of the hugely successful England squad at the 2015 and 2019 Women’s World Cups. Runner Adelle Tracey came second in the 800m in the 2018 Athletics World, and is hoping to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

Today, a total of 83% of sports now award men and women equal prize money. Over 11.7 million in the UK watched England’s Lionesses play the USA in the World Cup semi-final last August – the highest peak television audience of the year. That’s phenomenal when you consider where we were a few years ago.

But the finish line is far from in sight. While Fifa doubled the total prize money in last year’s Women’s World Cup to $30million, it’s still a fraction of the $400million awarded to men. And even though half of sports stories on selected media pages were about women last August (according to Women’s Sport Trust), the average industry coverage outside of that summer’s packed schedule of women’s sporting events still remains at a measly 4-7%. 

Then there’s the degrading, patronising or insulting headlines that female athletes continue to face. A Unesco report summed it up by saying that female sports players are treated as “women first and athletes second” by the press. Looking at the focus on motherhood, age, marital status, clothing and emotions within these stories proves that point. So yes, as Jess said, lots more needs to be done.

The facts are simple: we still need to invest in female athletes, to realise they train and play just as hard, if not harder, than men, and to give them the respect they deserve in media coverage and society in general. Which is why we were so adamant our 500th issue should champion female Olympians and Paralympians. We want to ensure that Stylist continues to cover the country’s most exciting sportswomen in what’s shaping up to be the biggest year for them yet.

After her memorable gold medal at London 2012, Jessica won gold again at the 2015 World Championships, 13 months after having a baby, and silver at Rio 2016. Back at home in Sheffield, her top tip for brunch is Made by Jonty.

Photography: Tom Van Schelven, Getty

Share this article

Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the features writer at Stylist magazine.

Recommended by Hannah Keegan