Gen­der play gap: In­equal­ity per­sists around women’s sport

Ire­land’s hockey team suc­cess un­der­lines strides made in re­cent years to boost women’s sports, but pay and spon­sor­ship have not kept pace with in­creased en­thu­si­asm, writes JOHN MEAGHER

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - AGENDA - IN­NO­VA­TIVE SPON­SOR­SHIP

It was the first time an Ir­ish field sport team had reached a World Cup fi­nal and if the ca­pac­ity at London’s Lee Val­ley sta­dium was limited to 10,000, there was an im­pres­sively large au­di­ence back home watch­ing the ex­ploits of the Ir­ish women’s hockey team. Some 41pc of the avail­able tele­vi­sion au­di­ence last Sun­day af­ter­noon tuned into RTÉ’s cover­age with more watch­ing on BT Sport. As RTÉ’s press of­fice boasted, the peak view­er­ship of 439,000 was the high­est fig­ure to watch a sport­ing event since Katie Tay­lor’s hero­ics in the London Olympics of 2012 — once the mar­quee GAA, soc­cer and rugby matches are taken out of the equa­tion.

For Ni­amh Briggs, one of the best known of Ire­land’s cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of rugby in­ter­na­tion­als, the in­ter­est gen­er­ated by the hockey team demon­strated how far women’s sport has come in Ire­land. “You used to hear peo­ple in the past say­ing that peo­ple wouldn’t watch women play­ing sport in re­ally big num­bers, but the fig­ures from Sun­day show that’s not the case at all. Suc­cess helps, of course, but there is huge in­ter­est in women’s sport now, and it’s grow­ing all the time.” The Water­ford na­tive should know. When she started play­ing rugby in the mid2000s, the idea of a women’s code be­mused many, in­clud­ing some of those ob­sessed with the oval ball game. But fol­low­ing Six Na­tions cham­pi­onships wins in 2013 and 2015 and Ire­land’s host­ing of the Women’s Rugby World Cup last year, the likes of Briggs and for­mer team­mate Fiona

Steed are names that are fa­mil­iar to sports lovers coun­try­wide.

“It’s nor­malised now and peo­ple don’t give you the looks they used to when you said you played rugby. The more peo­ple see it and read about it, the more ac­cepted it is.

“And I can see that now with the young girls that I’d meet. Some of the 18-year-olds com­ing through now have skills that I just didn’t have at that age and I’m not sure, if I was that age now, I’d be able to get into the team.”

Stephanie Roche also watched the ex­ploits of the hockey team with great in­ter­est. “I know noth­ing about hockey, but it was great for women’s sport and for Ir­ish sport,” she says. The Ire­land in­ter­na­tional foot­baller, who is seek­ing a new club af­ter the end of her con­tract with Sun­der­land Ladies, be­lieves “enor­mous strides” have been taken in re­cent years when it comes to both par­tic­i­pa­tion in and ac­cep­tance of women’s sport.

“The matches are on TV, the news­pa­pers are writ­ing about them and the at­ten­dances are go­ing up. We had a record crowd against Hol­land a few months back. There are a lot of young girls com­ing — and boys, too. It’s good that chil­dren of both gen­ders can see that foot­ball is a sport for all.”

The Dubliner en­joyed global ac­claim in 2014 when a won­der goal she scored for then club Peamount United was nom­i­nated for the pres­ti­gious Puskas Award — a prize that hon­ours the best goal scored in the world. She lost out to a goal scored by James Ro­dríguez in the World Cup but the recog­ni­tion im­me­di­ately put her on the radar of spon­sors. “When I was in pri­mary school, the foot­ball he­roes I looked up to were all men,” she says. “I didn’t re­ally know any­thing about women’s foot­ball un­til I was 15 or 16 and came to admire Olivia O’Toole and Emma Byrne, who played for Ire­land then.

But school­girls to­day can see Ir­ish fe­male foot­ballers with a high pro­file and that might en­cour­age them to keep up with sport for longer.”

Get­ting girls to con­tinue play­ing sport in their teenage years is key ac­cord­ing to Per­cent­age of spon­sor­ship spend al­lo­cated to women’s sport in H1 2018 Marie Mur­phy, pro­fes­sor of ex­er­cise and health at Ul­ster Univer­sity, Col­eraine. She points to re­search that shows that seven and eight-yearold boys are al­most twice as likely as girls to play sport and the drop-off rates for fe­males in­ten­si­fies in the early years of sec­ondary school. “There are many rea­sons for it,” she says, “in­clud­ing cul­tural ones where boys are seen to be sporty and girls not, and per­ceived body is­sues too, but there’s no doubt that the more ex­po­sure that women’s sports get, the greater the ac­cep­tance, es­pe­cially if those ath­letes or teams are suc­cess­ful.”

Mur­phy says many of Ire­land’s most prom­i­nent fe­male sports fig­ures show young girls that “be­ing fem­i­nine and into sport are not in­com­pat­i­ble” and notes that when she was grow­ing up in the 70s and 80s, such role mod­els were few and far be­tween. “It’s all about get­ting away from this idea of not be­ing the sporty type. Boys are far less likely to feel that.”

She says much can be learnt from the UK’s This Girl Can cam­paign that aims to in­crease fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion in sport. “They found out that a bar­rier to girls tak­ing part is fear — fear of be­ing judged by oth­ers and fear of not be­ing good enough. And the cam­paign tack­les that fear though ads and so­cial me­dia that shows women of all ages and shapes and sizes tak­ing part in sport not tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with fe­males. Chang­ing per­cep­tion is the key.” Emily Glen be­lieves per­cep­tions have shifted dra­mat­i­cally in less than a decade. An avid cy­clist and ul­tra-run­ner, she is the co-founder of the sportswomen-fo­cused Fairgame pod­cast. “There has been huge progress, even in the past five years or so,” she says, “and we’ve even seen this week about the pres­sure that’s been put on the Gov­ern­ment to al­lo­cate greater funds. And it’s not just teams, but ath­letes like Ciara Mageean and Natalya Coyle. “And there’s so much more me­dia cover­age on women’s sports than be­fore — and, in some cases, such as the hockey World Cup, it’s front page news, too. And that’s cer­tainly be­ing helped by the in­creased role of women in the me­dia. And it’s now nor­mal to no­tice when women’s sport isn’t cov­ered, or if pan­els [on TV and ra­dio] don’t fea­ture women. Look at the women’s strike in the foot­ball and the con­tro­ver­sies in rugby last year — there was a lot of dis­cus­sion on so­cial me­dia as a re­sult.” She be­lieves greater par­tic­i­pa­tion among girls and women in sport, not least in ath­let­ics and swim­ming, mir­rors that of so­ci­etal change in gen­eral where sig­nif­i­cant gen­der equal­ity progress has been made. Peak Ir­ish view­er­ship of last Sun­day’s Hockey World Cup fi­nal

It’s a view echoed by Marie Mur­phy, who points out that the coun­tries where there is the small­est gap in sports par­tic­i­pa­tion be­tween men and women — Sweden, Fin­land and Den­mark — are also the na­tions that have a lengthy and much-lauded track record when it comes to bridg­ing the gen­der gap in pay, em­ploy­ment and op­por­tu­ni­ties.

And, yet, de­spite all the steps for­ward, elite women ath­letes lag far be­hind the men when it comes to pay and spon­sor­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties. Ni­amh Briggs be­lieves that the play­ers that come af­ter her will en­joy a rea­son­able in­come but says — “in all hon­esty” — that she can’t see it match­ing what the men get. “The men’s game has had more

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