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10th February 2014

‘Equality isn’t competing with men; it’s collaborating with them’

Sport Editor Tom Dowler reviews UMSU’s ‘Women in Sport’ event, addressing the challenges facing women’s sport

Last Tuesday, Academy 2 in the Students’ Union welcomed a panel of experienced female sports stars and prominent journalists as part of the Women’s Voices amplified project to discuss and debate the issues women face in sport.

The distinguished panel included Shelley Alexander, the Editorial Lead on Women’s sport for the BBC, Rimla Akhtar, chair of the Women’s Sport Foundation, England Rugby Player Sarah Hunter, former Arsenal Ladies footballer and academic Lottie Birdsall and freelance journalist Jessica Creighton.

Jess Lishak, who chaired the panel, opened proceedings, with a condemning statistic about the vast inequalities in the sporting and journalistic world with regards to media coverage. Reportedly there is a staggeringly unfair ratio of 53:1 with regards to male to female sports coverage across all media platforms. Despite significant efforts to increase broadcasting of women’s sport, there is still much to achieve in terms of parity in coverage, sponsorship and respect across all sports.

Shelley Alexander kicked things off with a fascinating insight into her career in sports broadcasting. Her first major editorial role was on Football Focus and she later took on her role with the BBC. Shelley gave some poignant examples of the inequalities facing women’s sport, including how Team GB’s talented female road cyclists are woefully underfunded and previously have not been allowed to travel with the men’s team, yet were more successful in London 2012, with Lizzie Armitstead claiming a bronze, while Mark Cavendish and his highly-touted team didn’t make the medals podium.

The BBC has diversified its sport coverage and now 20 per cent of sporting output focuses on women’s sport. Now the Women’s Super League goals are televised and this has brought in two significant sponsors which can only help the game continue to grow. When Manchester City fell 1-0 to Chelsea at home, there was a booklet on offer showcasing City’s Women’s side – a clear sign of progress and a desire to increase exposure of the women’s game.

Rimla explained the importance of sport to her as she felt no one judged her for the colour of her skin or her religion on the sports field. As the head of Muslims in Sport Foundation, she appreciates the impact of sport on the lives of others and herself has had a fascinating experience in sport. She represented Team GB’s female Futsal team at the Muslim Games in Iran. Rimla asserted that participation and inclusivity are the vital aspects of sport for everyone. She envisaged more careers in sport for women and conceded that while improvements have been made, there is plenty more to accomplish.

England’s rugby star Sarah Hunter told the audience about her experience at her primary school that allowed her passion for sport to grow, while playing mixed games in P.E – her school encouraged mixed sports up to the age of 12. The Rugby Football Union has heavily invested in the women’s game. However, she highlighted the vast differences between the men and women’s national side even as recently as her first cap in 2007. Back then, the two sides had different sponsors, kit providers and even the traditional red rose was different, resembling a somewhat patronising un-blossomed rose!  Currently both sides share resources and the Women’s RFU has merged into one united RFU. Rugby leads the way in women’s sport, the 2010 World Cup on home soil was broadcast on Sky and the Twickenham Stoop was sold-out for the final (which England sadly lost); however, progress has been made. Perceptions have changed and supporters have noted the lack of aimless kicking in the men’s game compared to the desire to play expansive rugby in the women’s. The Women’s Six Nations is available on BBC, so be sure to keep an eye out for Sarah charging from the back of the scrum against Ireland on Saturday 22nd February on the BBC red button.

Lottie followed Sarah, with a fascinating insight into her work as an academic looking into gender inequality in sport at Cambridge University. The former Arsenal ladies player and England Youth Squad member spoke candidly about the need to increase funding in sport and cited the American example of spreading funds more evenly compared to the current fiscal situation in the UK. In America, there has been a 403 per cent increase in participation in women’s sport, which is a shining example for British sport to follow. For Lottie, the change in policy is vital and she has briefed ministers on ways to increase awareness, participation, and funding in the UK.

Finally, Jessica Creighton highlighted the vast inequalities in university sport based on financial resources, equipment and access to facilities and stated the lack of female sporting coverage in journalism and broadcasting as one of her major reasons for joining the sports journalism industry. Over the years, male attitudes to women’s sport have changed and the BBC and Sky have both contributed to this, with more coverage of women’s sport and dedicated programmes to increase awareness and encourage participation in sport. Women are no less able to play sport than men and that is the most damaging stereotype that needs to be eradicated for women’s sport to progress.

Afterwards there was a lively Q&A session discussing solutions to gender inequality in sport.

Have you encountered gender inequality in your sporting experience at university? Tell us about your experiences by tweeting @mancunion_sport.





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