Op-Ed: Visibility is key in changing stereotypes around women's sport

08 Mar 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

Lucy I’Anson, Communications Director, Mongoose Sports & Entertainment, looks at why sport needs to better understand female contribution in order to change the stereotypes that create barriers to entry.


While there is no doubt that across the last decade awareness of women’s roles in the sport ecosystem is growing, progress is being made and voices are being heard. Popularity for female sport has been rapidly evolving both from a participation and a fan base perspective, but the fact remains that there is still room for vast improvements when it comes to stereotyping and the negative perceptions surrounding the female contribution and participation in many sports. 

At a base level sport and exercise is a requirement for a nourishing life, being healthy and happy - not, as often is projected for women, image defining. Throughout the pandemic, there has been a huge focus on exercise; even if it is just for 30 minutes per day. It gives people the chance to leave their desks or homes, clear their heads and get in some daily exercise, something that the government as deemed essential for mental and physical well-being even as lockdown curtailed other freedoms. 

However, something that has been given little consideration is that this throughout the past 12 months, with all the challenges we have faced, the gender gap has only increased: because the virus has increased the burden of unpaid care for children, the elderly and the sick, which research shows is disproportionately taken on by women. Reports state that more women have lost their job than men during the pandemic with the weight of the unpaid care being a key contributary factor. This has become just one of the many barriers to women getting outside and exercising.

This is not just reflective of women who are just taking part in sport for their own leisure and fitness but also of professional sports women. The likes of boxer Natasha Jonas have voiced concerns about the uncertainty of when her next fight will be and the financial insecurity that brings without any contracts in place. The past year has seen her juggle training, work, and childcare as a single mum and when boxing was called off until at least the end of February, her next opportunity to fight was unknown. 

Pre-pandemic, women's sport in the UK was on an upward curve with the Lionesses winning the 2019 She Believes Cup, Fallon Sherrock's incredible run at the World Darts Championship, and England winning the Cricket World Cup. Popularity for women’s sport was on an upward trajectory across many sports.

There is evidence that some sports are still very much evolving and the pandemic hasn’t halted the future proofing of some female sport. As an example, for the first time ever, the ECB announced that the Hundred will kick off with a women’s game as the Manchester Originals face the Oval Invincibles. Sky Sports are targeting new audiences for women’s sport in 2021 by showcasing live action to a brand new audience via the Sky Sports YouTube channel, making it more accessible by investing in new, original, women’s sport content and programming. So far, Sky Sports has broadcasted women’s cricket, netball, golf, rugby, and basketball and has promised to ensure it is represented across their output in rolling 24-hour coverage. 

But visibility of elite women's sport will only go so far in solving the problem. There is no doubt that the masculine stereotype remains in some sports due to the perception of required physicality. Some commercial sponsors are attempting to overcome this.

England Rugby Sevens player and former GB Bobsleigher, Heather Fisher was seen talking about rugby’s impact on her mind, sleep, heart, and weight in Simplyhealth’s Ruggerbox campaign in 2020. 

The North Face, meanwhile, is another brand encouraging women to step forward into the sporting world. Their most recent campaign urges women to ‘Never Stop’. The initiative was launched alongside their latest fashion collection, which was released alongside a campaign film and anthem voiced by global brand ambassador Jess Glynne. Aimed at pushing boundaries and celebrating trailblazing women, the campaign raises the voices of iconic women who motivate, inspire and engage their communities, including champion runner and human rights lawyer Stephanie Case, climber Ashima Shiraishi, and artist and activist Miramar Muhd.

Both rugby and traditional ‘outdoor sports’ that The North Face and Simplyhealth are involved with suffer from such masculine sterotypes, but this is an issues some are campaigning to change.

Brands, sports, broadcasters, governing bodies and governments need to hero female athletes and sports and provide them with a platform to tell their sporting stories on an equal basis with men’s sports. 

Commercial opportunities should never be about the women’s game being ‘bundled’ in with the men’s sponsorship as we have all so often heard, but should be championed alongside it. The fan base and the appetite for participation will only grow if the opportunity is given. We will only inspire young women and girls to achieve their sporting dreams with a collective push to break down the barriers women are facing in sports settings and with this, opportunities will become vastly greater for everyone.

The fact is people, everybody, not just women and girls, need to see, experience, and understand women in sport so it becomes the norm. Whether its to keep our nation healthy, inspire future athletes, or create game changers in the world of sport and beyond.