Op-Ed: How to be a male ally to women's sport

13 Sep 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

In an edited excerpt from her new book ‘Game On: The Unstoppable Rise of Women’s Sport’, Sue Anstiss - a founding trustee of the Women’s Sport Trust, Co-Founder of the Women’s Sport Collective and host of The Game Changers podcast - explores the concept of allyship. 

Anstiss is currently CEO of Fearless Women, a company driving positive change for women’s sport, and sits sits on the RFU’s Diversity and Inclusivity Advisory Group, as well as the Board of Lewes FC, the only football club in the world to invest equally in its male and female teams. Here, she outlines some of the ways men working in sport can be positive influences for the growth of women's sport.

‘Game On’ charts the unstoppable rise of women’s sport, with many trailblazing women leading the charge, but ultimately, having men onside will be essential if true equality in sport is ever to be achieved. 

For the last 150 years, men have held the power in sport, whether that’s making governance decisions in sports organisations, bringing money to the table as sponsors and investors or deciding what gets covered in the media. As women have discovered in many battles for equality throughout the decades, we can be hugely effective at creating change, but having men backing our cause will ultimately have the biggest impact.

In researching male allies in sport, I found the concept of a ‘continuum of allyship’ fascinating. At one end of the scale there are those men who absolutely appreciate why gender equity in sport is good for everyone and are happy to throw their weight behind positive change in this area. At the far end of the spectrum, are what might have been known as the ‘male, pale and stale brigade’, the men who strongly feel that sport is a male domain and women should be excluded and prevented from progress and influence. 

What can men do to be good allies and move themselves along this continuum? I’ve learnt so much from the Black Lives Matter movement recently and one of the things that’s powerfully resonated is the need to be anti-racist rather than non-racist. I think it’s the same for men encouraging women in sport. Good that you are non-sexist, but what we really need is more men in the sector who are anti-sexist. The word ally should be seen as a verb rather than a noun.

Sometimes simply giving women’s sport airtime can be a hugely powerful role of a male ally especially for those with a high profile. Whether that’s Andy Murray challenging sexist stereotypes in sport, David Beckham taking his daughter Harper to watch England Women play, Ugo Monye becoming a Trustee of the Women’s Sport Trust or Ian Wright calling out the treatment of female pundits – the support of these men can have significant impact. 

In the US, one of the highest profile male allies for female sport was former LA Laker Kobe Bryant. His advocacy and support for future and current WNBA athletes was much celebrated in the wake of his death in January 2020. It was very common to see the five-time NBA champion sitting courtside at WNBA games with his young daughter Gianna, who also aspired to play professionally, but so tragically died in the same helicopter accident as her dad and seven others.

What Bryant did most powerfully was to give credence to the women’s game. He created interest, making male sports fans curious to know why an all-time NBA star found so much joy and pleasure in women’s basketball. He spent time with WNBA players and treated them as equals. He would casually mention them in media interviews and on his Twitter and Instagram feeds, which prompted fans to want to find out more about these world-class athletes.

When you see the huge impact Kobe Bryant had as an advocate of the WNBA and its players, it does makes you question why more high-profile Premiership footballers don’t publicly support the women’s game – especially when they play for the same teams. We’ve just had the first weekend of the new Barclays FA WSL season with the likes of Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal competing. How many high-profile male players from those teams did you see actively support their female colleagues on social media? 

It’s not just high-profile sportsmen that can be powerful allies for women’s sport though. Men across the industry can use their influence to drive change. Whether that’s Nick Read at Vitality or Tom Corbett at Barclays leading the way in sponsorship; Adam Sills at The Telegraph or Jonathan Licht at Sky Sports ensuring better representation in the media or Sanjay Patel at The Hundred or Bill Sweeney at the RFU driving equality and access for their sports. 

Men at all levels in all roles can contribute to driving equality in sport – we all have influence in our day-to-day roles. So, what does it take to be a great ally in women’s sport? The Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport makes several great suggestions:

Be Vocal
-    speak up if you see inequity
-    celebrate female athletes and female leaders
-    create a culture that values and supports women

Educate yourself and others
-    Learn about the barriers girls and women face in sport
-    Review and question policies and practices
-    Reflect on and address your own personal bias (conscious and unconscious) 

Promote female leadership
-    Mentor, sponsor, champion and hire women
-    Invite women to apply and communicate opportunities
-    Use your power to advocate for women

To all the men in sport who are already making progress in their support for women – we thank you.

To the others, please do stand up and use your voice and influence to help bring equality to sport and ultimately to society.