Katie Lebel is an assistant professor of marketing at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University
The momentum of the #MeToo movement has inspired women in a variety of industries to come forward and share their stories of sexual harassment. As the issue has gained traction, we find ourselves amid a reignited conversation surrounding gender equality. But the world of sport has remained relatively silent on this matter. As a former athlete, a sport researcher and a new mother to a little girl, I can't help but ask: where's the #TimesUp reckoning in sport?
Professor Emeritus Garry Whannel once labelled sport "a deeply entrenched bastion of patriarchy." Indeed, sexism exists across all levels. Little girls are not groomed to participate in sport in the same ways young boys are. If they happen to excel in sport, they're often told "they're pretty good, for a girl." The uniqueness of being a female sport enthusiast is only magnified with age as opportunities become increasingly limited and societal expectations perpetuate sport as a male domain.
Story continues below advertisement
Among Canadians 15 years old and over, just one-sixth of women report regular sport participation, compared with a third of all men. If you're not actively participating in sport, it's unlikely you'll catch many female athletes in action on television.
Dr. Cheryl Cooky and her colleagues recently reported that women's sport receives just two per cent of total sport media coverage. When female athletes do receive media attention, research indicates it is often quite gendered. Female athletes tend to be framed around stories that focus on their femininity as opposed to their athletic ability and achievement. They also tend to be covered in a manner that conforms to conventional gender norms. Of critical importance is the fact that significantly less money is put into the promotion of women's sport. This generates less revenue and reinforces a common perception that women's sports are inherently less interesting and exciting, resulting in a frustrating cycle of self-perpetuation.
Just imagine if there were similar practices in place for men's sport. Consider the potential implications if hockey, for example, was not consistently available on Saturday nights with hours of lead-up coverage and hype. What if the colour commentators casually joined games already in progress and discussed the marital status of players, as opposed to the records they were breaking and the rivalries that were unfolding?
Sponsorship and pay inequalities among the professional ranks in sport speak even louder. The most recent Forbes' ranking of the World's 100 Highest Paid Athletes saw Serena Williams ranked 51st. She was the only female to make the list.
Elite-level sportswomen largely struggle to make a living due to stark pay inequities and slim sponsorship opportunities. The 2015 women's World Cup championship team received a US$2-million reward; the 2014 men's' World Cup champions were awarded US$35-million. The highest-paid player in the WNBA earns a salary that is roughly one-fifth of the NBA's lowest-paid player, according to calculations conducted by Newsweek.
Adding insult to injury, retired female athletes are generally left without a pension and sometimes housing. Options for contiuing their career once their playing days are over are exceedingly sparse. Female representation on National Olympic Committees is 16 per cent. It is little wonder there are not more aspiring young athletes clamouring for the financial insecurity linked with women's professional sport. In light of this, the dearth of visible female role models in sport becomes less of a mystery, as well.
Sport is something that people should be equally entitled to. What's more, female success in sport deserves to be celebrated – not treated as a threat to the institution. I was fortunate to be raised in a family that supported my passion. This paved the way for numerous opportunities in my life. I don't know a single woman in athletics, however, that doesn't have a story to tell around how they were in some way belittled as a result of their association with sport.
Story continues below advertisement
We should demand better than this as a society. We should want more for our next generation of little girls. At the end of the day, respecting women in sport is simply good business strategy. It's an untapped market, and the push for gender equality has never been more in vogue. The first step is to join together and agree #TimesUp in sport, too.