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Another step towards gender equality: a call for ending structural sexism in the scheduling of sports events
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  1. Klaus Gebel1,2,
  2. Nanette Mutrie3,
  3. Ding Ding2
  1. 1 School of Public Health, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, New South Wales, Australia
  2. 2 Sydney School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Sydney, Camperdown, New South Wales, Australia
  3. 3 Physical Activity for Health Research Centre, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Klaus Gebel, School of Public Health, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, New South Wales, 2007, Australia; klaus.gebel{at}uts.edu.au

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Gender equality is a critical global issue, and one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Despite progress in many countries, challenges remain. For instance, women are under-represented in education, labour force participation, leadership positions at all levels and often paid less for the same work.1 This reinforces the reality of women being treated as ‘second-class citizens’.2

In sports, substantial progress has been made in gender equality. For instance, while women were not allowed to compete in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the proportion of female athletes at the Olympics gradually increased to reach an unprecedented 49% at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Over the last few decades, some sports and disciplines which were traditionally ‘men only’, such as football, marathon and pole vault, were opened to women. In tennis, the 1973 US Open became the first Grand Slam tournament that introduced equal prize money for women and men—the other three Grand Slam tournaments followed in the 2000s. Recently, several soccer federations introduced equal pay for their men’s and women’s national teams.

However, around the world, female athletes are still fighting for equality in various aspects of sport. Structural barriers are ubiquitous, such as sexist uniform mandates, rules that force women to choose between breast feeding and competing, sexual harassment and impropriety against female athletes,3 and lower representation of women in sports governance, coaching4 and journalism.5

Unequal scheduling perpetuates a gender hierarchy

In this editorial, we focus on one important, yet less discussed area where gender inequality persists: the scheduling of sports events. Women’s sports continue to receive far less media coverage than men’s sports.6 Organisers of major sporting events tend to favour male athletes by scheduling them to compete at TV ‘prime time’ or at better venues. In professional sports, better TV coverage generates higher revenues that impact player salaries and team resources dedicated to athletes, such as the number of medical and performance staff.

Prior to Tokyo 2020, this scheduling bias was substantial at the Olympic Games. For example, in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, 25 hours of competition were scheduled for men’s events on the last Sunday (prime broadcasting time), but only 2 hours for women’s events.7 In most previous Olympic Games, and nearly all other sporting events where men and women compete together, such as tennis, table tennis and beach volleyball, the last two events are the women’s and the men’s final—in that order. This perpetuates a gender hierarchy in which the women’s final is considered the ‘warm-up’ towards the supposed climax of the competition, the men’s final.

Structural sexism may impact sports participation

Such gender bias in scheduling, along with other previously mentioned challenges and obstacles faced by female athletes, demonstrates structural sexism, ‘systematic inequalities in power and resources’.8 These obstacles not only hold female athletes back from achieving their full potential and being celebrated as the pinnacle of their sports, but they might also hold back girls and women around the world from embracing sport and reaping the full benefits of an active lifestyle. Female athletes’ lower visibility perpetuates a vicious cycle of less funding, resources and opportunities. Globally, girls and women engage less in physical activity and exercise compared with boys and men,9 and encouraging gender equality in sport participation has been advocated as a critical strategy to achieve the WHO global target of reducing physical inactivity by 15% by 2030.10

Fortunately, there are signs of hope and progress. For example, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, organisers considered gender balance in event scheduling, and additional efforts, such as introducing new mixed-gender events, were made to improve gender diversity in sport.7

A call for change

We suggest one small, yet potentially impactful change. We call on the International Olympic Committee and all major sports federations around the world who run events in which both men and women compete, such as tennis, to alternate the order of the men’s and women’s finals between tournaments. Broadcasting rights are a main source of income of major sports events and, as previously mentioned, women’s sports usually receive far less media coverage than men’s sports.8 We contend that our proposed change is unlikely to affect total viewership. Taking Grand Slam tennis tournaments as an example, broadcasters usually show both the women’s and the men’s final live at the same time of day on consecutive days (usually both weekend days). Our proposal does not involve adding, dropping or replacing coverage, but only to alternate the order of these finals between tournaments which may have minimal impact on viewers.

It is time to challenge the gender hierarchy in sport and to explicitly and proudly demonstrate that the achievements of female athletes are as valued as those of male athletes. Until now, the final event in all Olympic Games has always been the men’s marathon. Wouldn't it be great if in every second future Olympic Games the last event was the women’s marathon? Wouldn't it be great if in the future in every second Wimbledon tournament, and all other Grand Slam events, the women’s final would be the finale? Changes like this would send an important message to girls and women around the world that female athletes are not second-class athletes and women are not second-class citizens.

We hope that through improving the visibility of women’s sport, as one component in a suite of strategies to address sexism in sport, we can advance social norms and improve the resources and opportunities for girls and women. Changing the gender hierarchy in sports will involve a long-term commitment from multisectoral stakeholders, such as sports, media, law and the community at large. Any progress is significant if it leads to more girls and women around the world engaging in physical activity and sport to cultivate their full potential on and off the sports field.

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Footnotes

  • Twitter @nanettemutrie, @DrMelodyDing

  • Contributors KG and DD conceptualised and wrote the editorial; all authors provided critical input during the writing and revision of the paper.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.