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Why is the media still erasing women’s achievement in sport?

Within sport, women athletes are finally gaining the professional recognition they deserve. Yet the media continues to assume that “the England team” is shorthand for “the men’s team”.  

England captain Charlotte Edwards poses with the Women's Ashes trophy in Australia in February. Photo: Getty
England captain Charlotte Edwards poses with the Women's Ashes trophy in Australia in February. Photo: Getty

Last night in the lavish Long Room at Lord’s in north-west London, the England cricketer of the year awards were announced.

Ian Bell has been widely reported as being this year’s “player of the year”, thanks to his valiant contributions with the bat against Australia, and this has been covered extensively in the media (including a lengthy interview in the Guardian with Vic Marks, tweets from the BBC’s highly respected Test Match Special last night, and a discussion on Radio 4 this morning).

Yet this wasn’t the award the England and Wales Cricket Board gave to Bell. 

They’re very clear – he’s “men’s player of the year”. Multi-Ashes-winning captain Charlotte Edwards was named “women’s player of the year” – yet she’s either ignored or relegated to a single sentence, as if her achievements are not even worth covering.

In fact, the ECB have been excellent at promoting and investing in women’s cricket. Earlier this summer, they announced they were awarding central contracts to their top players, enabling them to fundamentally be professional athletes instead of having to juggle a day job in order to subsidise their sport. And they’re also working to encourage girls and women at grassroots – their very successful Chance to Shine programme works with young people, and their new Club Open Days initiative is actively aiming to get more women involved as well.

The same curious media erasure of women’s prizes happened with the PFA player of the year awards – they make it extremely plain indeed that they’re giving prizes to their men’s player of the year and their women’s player of the year, but the media just reported on the chap – the ever-controversial Luis Suarez, ignoring the title-winning Lucy Bronze.

And that comes after the FA – not known for their gender innovations or historical promotion of women’s football, having only taken real control of it in the past 20 years – have rolled out a second division to their successful Women’s Super League. Meanwhile, England’s route to the World Cup – to be held in Canada next year – has been crushing so far: six games played, 33 goals scored, none conceded.

This phenomenon interests me particularly at the moment. It’s the timing that’s most interesting: it comes just after the entire Scudamore farrago in the Premier League, and Ernests Gulbis’s recent comments about women in tennis. It’s easy to wring hands about sport perpetuating gender stereotypes and offering outlets for lazy, unthinking sexism. And it’s easy to complain about governing bodies not promoting women’s sport, and blaming them for its low profile.

But that’s a very simplistic analysis of the problem – and it’s not accurate. Leaving aside nastily-worded emails sent by executives or the ridiculous hyperbole uttered in press conferences, there are equally significant dangers presented by more covert, insidious sexism – sexism that gets dismissed as “just the way things are”. 

For example, there’s a question-mark around how many women are going to Brazil to cover any aspect of the World Cup for a British newspaper (just two – Hadley Freeman of the Guardian and Donna Bowater of the Telegraph, according to Women in Journalism, although the Guardian’s Amy Lawrence is funding her own trip). This increased homogeneity of sports coverage is a real concern for anyone interested in a diverse media – and yet recently leading journalists have dismissed the idea that there’s any problem with white middle-class men’s domination of sports writing. 

And one of the potential problems of this male juggernaut is an utter lack of self-awareness. Without a broad range of people involved in the writing, editing and publication (or broadcast) process, the same tired sexism continues to be churned out.

Just look at the nasty undertone to some of the coverage of Maria Sharapova’s French Open win (with one broadsheet writer – who is usually excellent on women’s sport – referring to her modelling persona as playing the “bimbo”). 

And yes, as Charlotte Edwards has no doubt been long aware, there continues to be a quiet erasing of the achievements of elite female athletes, treating the men’s games as “normal” and women’s sport as add-ons: the Radio 4 debate said that England had a bad year of cricket – despite Edwards’ squad’s multiple series wins – because the shorthand is that “England” simply means “the men’s team”.

Perhaps the media should stop haranguing those within sport just for the time being – and better use their time by looking significantly closer to home when it comes to ingrained, endemic sexism.

Carrie Dunn is a writer and academic. Her book “Female Football Fans: Community, Identity and Sexism” is published by Palgrave

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