Last week, England’s opening game in the UEFA Women’s Euros saw recording breaking attendances, with 68,871 supporters turning up to cheers on the Lionesses. It was a landmark moment for football, and women’s sport in general.
As the interest grows, Rebecca Hargreaves, Head of Client Services at The Playbook, questions whether the way we communicate is moving forward too…
We recently held an event on gender bias to understand the responsibility on communications teams when navigating the bias in sport and business. With the summer of sport kicking off, I wanted to reflect on the event as we see women take centre stage at the Wimbledon Championships, UEFA Women's Euro 2022, Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games and beyond.
We hosted Kate Miller, Chief Diversity and Communications Office at the England & Wales Cricket Board and Helen Sauntson, Professor of English Language and Linguistics in the York St John University School of Languages and Linguistics and they were stark in their views of the very real gender crisis and the role language plays.
As we see more of women’s sport on the TV, and parity being chased by sports and sponsors, my view which was shared at the event, is often the real progress being made is not matched by how we talk about women’s sport. It feels like language is lagging behind because how we talk is a habit. But where is this showing up and why is it detrimental?
Language is a powerful thing that shapes cultures and forms opinions, but our words can also become dangerous when mis-used.
Regularity is one example. Men are talked about in the English language twice as much as women. In the Cambridge English Corpus – a study of the English language – ‘man’ or ‘men’ are referenced twice as often as ‘woman’ or ‘women’. When analysing discussion around sporting achievement, in the Sports Corpus men are mentioned almost three times more often than women.
This is a learnt behaviour, clearly rife in mainstream subconscious.
In present day, gender bias is seldom called out – but when it is, it is often on a large scale. Remember the infamous Andy Murray press conference where the tennis star corrected a reporter who referred to Murray’s opponent as the “first US player to reach a major semi-final since 2009” by simply responding “male player”? Serena Williams had won 12 Grand Slams since 2009.
Another example of gender bias perpetuated by media corporations is how the mental health struggles of sport stars such as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles were unfairly met with hostile commentary. In comparison, cricketer Ben Stokes was rightly applauded for highlighting his struggles and the spotlight he has shone on mental health conversations.
So how do we solve a historic problem, one so prevalent in today’s media? Check it. Challenge it. Call it out. The simple filter that came out from the event that I’ll be using with my teams - ‘would you say it the same way for men?’. That is a sure-fire way to stop language holding progress back.
If you would like to hear from Kate Miller, Chief Diversity and Communications Office at the England & Wales Cricket Board and Helen Sauntson, Professor of English Language and Linguistics in the York St John University School of Languages and Linguistics, then listen to White Swan our podcast from the event.