Women’s sport: less talk more action

New Zealand has made significant progress in diversifying sports governance but gender equality remains an aspiration rather than an actuality, writes the University of Auckland's Toni Bruce

Something is in the air, and it’s not just the smell of sweat and sexism. Over the last 12 months, issues of gender equality in sport have gained significant traction all around the world.

Just two weeks ago, the Canadian Government put $30 million dollars over three years into women’s sport and set a target of gender equality at all levels of sport by 2035. Norway decided to pay its national women’s and men’s football players the same wages. UNESCO dedicated World Radio Day to highlighting issues in media coverage of women’s sport.

And last night, New Zealand Minister for Sport Grant Robertson announced that promotion of women in sport is his number one priority. Explaining that sport was at the heart of New Zealand’s identity, he said, “if something is at the heart of our identity and we allow blatant sexism and underrepresentation of women to continue, then that will be at the heart of our identity as a country and none of us want that”.

He challenged New Zealanders to “step up and make sport the area where we express our identity as an inclusive, as a diverse country, and one that values everybody for they bring to the table.”

His aim was “huge progress on participation, on results, and the valuing of women in sport”.

His comments came as part of a joint announcement with the Minister for Women, Julie Anne Genter, that New Zealand had just won the bid to lead women’s sport internationally for the next four years, through hosting the International Working Group in Women and Sport (IWG) world conference in 2022 and the associated four-year IWG secretariat.

The cross-sector bid involved the Government, through Sport New Zealand and the Ministry for Women, the New Zealand Olympic Committee, Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development, and Women in Sport Aotearoa/Ngā Wāhine Hākinakina o Aotearoa (WISPA), New Zealand’s first national advocacy group for girls and women in sport. WISPA will run the Secretariat, whose job is to facilitate activities that will leave a lasting legacy for New Zealand and the world. WISPA co-chair Julie Paterson said, “to have the mandate internationally is an incredible privilege. We are continuing on our path to ensure women and girls are visible, valued and influential in sport”.

Thinking about his grand-daughter, Robertson said: “I think the legacy that we want to leave her and all the young girls in New Zealand is that we want them to be their own sporting heroes. We want them to be the leaders in our sports journalism, and in our sports administration. And we will do everything we can, not just to take away barriers but to actually encourage and support her to be who she wants to be.”

These words are exactly what women’s sport advocates want to hear, and the Minister appears seriously committed to real change. If he can put money as well as influence behind the push to gender equality, New Zealand might, indeed, be able to lead the world and achieve a lasting legacy.

New Zealand news media still generally ignores women’s sport, dishing out on average a paltry 10 percent to female athletes.

There’s no question that change is needed in a lot of areas. But first the good news.

New Zealand women punch far above their weight at the international level. Sponsors are increasingly seeking sportswomen ahead of sportsmen as brand representatives. Broadcasts of netball internationals attract hundreds of thousands of viewers.

We are making progress towards gender diversity on sports boards. By 2016, just over one-third of New Zealand sports had reached the NZOC target of 40 percent women on their boards. Overall, almost 60 percent had at least 33 percent women around the table.

Veteran sports commentator Melodie Robinson recently launched The Wonderful Group and the “It Takes Two” mentoring programme to increase the numbers of women in sports broadcasting.

Media coverage of New Zealand women during Olympic and Commonwealth Games is sometimes higher than for New Zealand men. During the 2016 Olympics, the women’s silver medal winning rugby Sevens team generated a lot of public interest, receiving 60 percent more comments on news stories than the men.

NZOC digital manager, Alex Spence, says the NZOC’s online stats prove that women are interested in Commonwealth Games and Olympic sport and want to engage. Over half of the New Zealand Olympic team’s Facebook fans are women, and women make up almost two-thirds of people who have engaged with the NZOC’s Olympic and Commonwealth Games content.

Yet the overall picture remains less than rosy, so the Minister and Sport New Zealand have plenty of opportunities to really make a difference. 

Girls drop out of sport at much higher rates than boys, and high school girls’ participation rates are persistently about five percent lower than boys. That trend continues among adults.

New Zealand news media still generally ignores women’s sport, dishing out on average a paltry 10 percent to female athletes. Even though the media pay a lot of attention to New Zealand female Olympians, if we look at coverage of all Olympic athletes, sportsmen still end up with twice the overall coverage, mostly because the media doesn’t pay attention to sportswomen from other countries. Recent NZOC research found that female Olympians were 20 percent more likely to be spoken for by their coach, nine times more likely to be pictured with a male spouse or partner, 67 percent less likely to be the lead story, and 39 percent more likely to be referred to as girls, especially by male journalists. 

Women don’t ring into sports radio talk shows, which is often interpreted as a lack of interest in sport. But Alex Spence says that’s not necessarily true. “Providing an atmosphere and using language which encourages females to share their thoughts and opinions is vital,” she says. “They may not feel comfortable ringing into a talk show because the show doesn’t cater to how they want to interact or use language which encourages them to pick up a phone.”

New Zealand has made significant progress in diversifying sports governance but gender equality remains an aspiration rather than an actuality. Homophobia remains a problem on the sports field and in the stands.

The Minister’s comments were a refreshing acknowledgement that New Zealand still has some way to go on gender equality in sport, and revealed a commitment to doing something about it.

Watch this space to see how rhetoric turns into reality.

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