Women hit the headlines in sport – why aren’t there more writing about it?

Women hit the headlines in sport – why aren’t there more writing about it?

Women hit the headlines in sport – why aren’t there more writing about it? 150 150 CWESN

Suzanne Franks – www.theguardian.com

Two weeks of Olympic coverage are a rare time when sustained coverage of female sports stars hits the headlines. The airwaves are full of women running, jumping, cycling and riding.

Yet outside the period of major sporting festivals, evidence from the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation suggests that only 5% of total sports coverage relates to activities by women.

Women’s sport attracts a tiny proportion of the total sponsorship and, as is well known, the salaries and facilities are minuscule by comparison to men’s.

Yet it is not just women playing sport which is ignored, but women reporting and writing about it. In 2012 and 2013, my colleague Deidre O’Neill and I looked at bylines across UK newspapers and found that at no point in any of the periods we examined was the proportion of female bylines higher than 3%.

There were occasions where the female contribution on one newspaper for one week reached just over 4% (at the Guardian and the Daily Mail), but the averages were well below this.

Over all the periods we studied the average proportion of stories written by women was a mere 1.8%.

We have followed that survey up with interviews with the handful of female sports journalists in the UK’s national press and found that things appear to be changing at a glacial pace, if at all.

As the Sun’s Vikki Orvice said at a recent London Press Club event on getting into sports journalism:

“I thought when I started out in tabloids in 1995, there would be a trajectory of women starting to emerge in sports writing, but it has not been the case at all. In fact, it has got worse … Women in sports writing peaked in 2000 … The only females at the Sun are me and two secretaries.”

In recent years there has been some considerable progress regarding the visibility of women in broadcast sports journalism. The London Olympics and the starring role of presenters such as Clare Balding and Gabby Logan was a watershed for UK broadcasting, but there are still relatively few female sports writers in the newspaper industry, and sports journalism worldwide remains largely male-dominated.

Several of the reporters we spoke to raised the link between participation in sport and reporting it. Laura Williamson, who writes for the Daily Mail pointed out that a traditional route into reporting on sport is by playing it at top level:

“Fewer women have grown up with or played sport to the level where they might be encouraged to report on it.”

And, along with a number of other interviewees, she pointed out that the popularity of football can limit reporting opportunities for women:

“Men’s football is the dominant sport – and it is played, managed and run by men. This makes it more difficult for a young women to build contacts and network, simply because she belongs to a different demographic [there has never been a female chief football correspondent]. And the readership of sports media is overwhelmingly male, so they are more likely to regard sports reporting as a dream job.”

Martha Kelner, who writes for the Mail and was young sports writer of the year in 2012, agreed: “It’s more natural for men. [Lots of boys] want to be a footballer, and if they don’t make it, they may want to stay close to the sport by writing about it. Because fewer girls play football, this possibility is unlikely to even be on their radar.”

In addition, in the UK we have only seen women’s football taken more seriously and given better media coverage in the past couple of years. However, the popularity of women playing football has markedly increased at the same time. With the growing professionalisation of the women’s game, it is possible we may in future see more women who have played coming through as football sports journalists.

Alison Kervin’s appointment in 2013 at the Mail on Sunday as the first (and only) female sports editor of a UK national newspaper was a milestone. Around half of national newspaper sports desks have no women.

Kervin agrees with other female sports writers that there are still challenges which prevent more women breaking through, although she thinks things have improved since she first started and would file her reports from rugby matches as A Kervin, because she knew that using her first name would put editors off.

Yet she may have been unduly optimistic. Last year one of my students, a long-time rugby enthusiast called Andrea, applied for a paid internship reporting on the Rugby World Cup. In her application she called herself Andy and when she was appointed and then showed up, the editor of the site was visibly shocked to find she was not a man.

After her internship was over he told her that he had been pleasantly surprised at how good she had been – with the obvious implication that this was in spite of her gender.

Several women sports writers, such as Janine Self or Amy Lawrence, highlighted annoying attitudes which still persist. Other reporters emphasised the problem of declining local and regional papers, offering fewer entry roles for sports reporting, as well as the highly unsociable hours worked by sports reporting as off putting towomen.

Particularly worrying is the way that female sports journalists are treated on social media. As elsewhere they face sustained abuse not because of what they write, but because of who they are.

Frequent comments include “Get back in the kitchen” or much worse. Martha Kelner worries that things have deteriorated on Twitter:

“I have been called a slag and told I don’t know what I’m doing because I’m a woman. It’s more common when I write about (male dominated) football than a sport like athletics … There are people in darkened rooms spoiling for a fight. We may not get more online abuse than men, but it can be more vitriolic and insulting and our gender is often the first port of call for someone sending an abusive tweet.”

This atmosphere could be a further deterrent to aspiring female sportswriters. Yet despite such hurdles, at City University’s department of journalism we teach modules on sports reporting and an encouraging number of women take this class.

Many of them show boundless enthusiasm for sports writing of all kinds – from boxing to badminton. We are hoping to see their bylines on the back pages (and equivalent) before too long.