Is Sport in the UK suffering from a Cultural Hangover of Sexism?

Updated: Jul 10, 2018

BBC’s 100 Women initiative consists of a selected panel of 100 influential women who investigate gender inequality issues. Their time of looking at the topic of sexism within sport recently came to an end, and solutions were applied to the case of Brazilian football, where only 5.6% of women play the sport.

The issue was described as a ‘cultural hangover’ from a sexist past, as women were traditionally banned from playing football. This of course is a great shame, but how does their ‘cultural hangover’ relate to Sport in the UK? After all, the last time I checked, we are a nation that prides itself on striving for gender equality, and Britain hasn’t banned any women’s sports for generations.

At a first glance, the issue seems irrelevant to the way we address gender in sports. However, after reflecting on the problem further, I can’t help but notice that just as in Brazil, sexism in sport is hanging still around like a bad smell in the changing rooms of Britain.

‘Sexism Doesn’t Apply to Sports’

When it comes to the judging of gender equality in sport, the most obvious way to measure gender equal opportunity is by comparing male and female wages. It is no secret that the sport industry is receiving a free pass when it comes to gendered pay gaps, as women are heavily underpaid compared to men. Take football for example; female England Internationals earn roughly £16,000 a year, with their highest earning player Steph Houghton earning £35,000 a year, a tenth of what top male earner Wayne Rooney makes in a week. Let that sink in for a second. Furthermore, there are still a lot of female athletes that don’t get paid at all. The England Women’s National Rugby team are given modest training contracts based on upcoming tournaments, meaning that they often end up juggling full-time jobs, families and rugby commitments, whilst – as we all know – their male counterparts can comfortably dedicate their entire lives to the sport. The most recent controversy regarding this issue was when the Rugby Football Union decided not to renew the women’s contracts earlier this year, even with the knowledge that the contracts would cost roughly 0.252% of their annual budget.

Of course, there is a financial reason why we make an exception for athletes. Whilst other industries are able to adjust their wages, representation and recruitment to achieve gender equal working conditions, the sport industry relies heavily on sponsorship-based funding for its prize money and wages. This means that the players that bring in the most sponsorship, ticket sales, spectators and other sources of funding will ultimately receive the highest pay.

With our current broadcasting and sponsorship systems, this means that men’s sport attracts a lot more sponsorship than women’s. This is arguably due to men’s superior physical abilities making for more popular watching than women’s sports. In addition, the majority of the sport-watching population is made up of men – so if women have less physical ability and appetite for sport, maybe men should be left to it? Let’s take a look at some of the arguments supporting this...

‘Men Are Better at Sports’

We can start by considering the opinion that male sports are more enjoyable to watch due to a higher level of physical ability. Assets such as denser bones (for increased muscle support), longer proportional limbs, and a larger amount of oxygen-carrying blood cells, make men faster and stronger than women. It would be ridiculous to claim that men and women can play to the same standard, but only if we measure the standard according to male attributes. This is a little bit like measuring who is the more skilled animal out of a monkey and a bird, based only on their ability to fly. If we instead judged sports through a variation of elements, such as tactics, technique and agility, we would be able to appreciate women’s sport to an entirely different degree. For example, women’s football is slower than men’s, but in Laura Williamson’s opinion has ‘much more emphasis on agility and technical ability.’

Women's football should be more about technique and less about physical ability.

‘Men Love Watching Sports, and Women Don’t’

The second argument commonly made is that men inherently have a passion for sports, and women don’t. Yes, it is true that as it stands, the majority of people who watch sports are male. However – and I’m no scientist so please correct me if I’m wrong - I can say with some confidence that there is nothing in the male Y chromosome that particularly contributes to an interest in sports. Therefore, we can assume that the lack of interest for women is due to social influences. Factors such as upbringing, gender-division within sport, and a lack of positive exposure of female athlete role models that inspire young girls to play sports, all contribute to gender sway. Combine this with girls seeing how female athletes are being undervalued and underpaid in comparison to their male counterparts (if they are ‘lucky’ enough to get paid at all), as well as being objectified and criticised based on their appearance, on how little clothing they wear or how feminine they are, rather than on their sporting abilities.

This is further supported by the fact that women who choose to play more masculine sports receive next to no media attention or sponsorship opportunities – after all, how many female rugby players can you name? There seems to be less of a pull for women to watch and engage in sports, and especially less ‘feminine’ sports, than there is for their male counterparts.

‘The Public Only Wants to Watch Men’s Sports’

Another important aspect of engaging girls and women in sports, and to provide women’s sport with a larger platform for funding, is the idea of increasing broadcasting and media coverage. Indeed, a lot has been done in the industry to address the gender pay gap in recent years; we are seeing more and more women in the roles of sports presenters, large media hubs such as Sky are investing in Women’s Netball, and female players are receiving increased public recognition resulting in the occasional training contract. However, the statistics don’t necessarily reflect this, with the latest report on media coverage by Women In Sport demonstrating concerning numbers:

  • Women’s Sport makes up 7% of all sports media coverage in the UK

  • Just over 10% of televised sports coverage is dedicated to women’s sport

  • 2% of national newspaper sports coverage is dedicated to women’s sport

  • 5% of radio sports coverage is dedicated to women’s sport

  • 4% of online sports coverage is dedicated to women’s sport

In addition, publicly-funded broadcaster BBC dedicated a shocking 93% of its Wimbledon coverage to men’s tennis in 2016, showing less than half of Serena Williams’s first two matches.

The only positive to come out of the situation was that the BBC received a lot of negative backlash, as especially when a broadcaster is publicly funded, there is no excuse as to why it’s not investing in women’s sports. The BBC should be representing the interests of the public, and, you know, the women in it. Furthermore, the publicly owned broadcaster isn’t ran based on sponsorship and profit in the same way as privately-owned businesses, meaning that the financial argument doesn’t quite hold up.

With statistics such as these, it is no wonder that women’s sport receives less funding than men’s. After all, without coverage, how is the public meant to form an appreciation for women’s sport? If for example, women’s football was given more viewing time, and women were provided with a real platform to showcase their game, our societal attitude towards women’s football would change and funding would increase. We can see this clearly in several examples of women’s sport coverage leading to increased public attention, an improved understanding and respect, and most importantly more funding and sponsorship. In the case of the Women’s World Cup in 2015, the excitement and talent of the England team was picked up by a huge amount of football fans. The total viewing UK audience went from 5.1 million in 2011 to 12.4 million in 2015, a huge increase that would not have been possible without proper broadcasting and media coverage. It is no coincidence that this was the first ever time that the BBC chose to broadcast the entire tournament live, and women’s football received more positive press and public appreciation than ever before.

This certainly makes me wonder what other fantastic tournaments and competitions we have missed out on within women’s sport, simply because we haven’t been able to access them. And if we had, would women’s sport be at a completely different level today?

In terms of coverage, there is potential for the vicious cycle of women in sport to turn virtuous, as increased coverage leads to increased viewings, resulting in more sponsors and funding. This then results in more money being invested into the quality of the sport, from coaches to pitches and wages, allowing female players to train full-time at a higher level than before. In addition, with female players achieving more positive media attention that goes beyond their looks and ‘short shorts’, and instead focuses on their sporting abilities, young girls would be provided with the successful role models that men have had for centuries. This would show them that a career in sports is financially viable, respectable and free of objectification and scrutiny. With more girls pursuing sport as a prosperous career, the female status within the football industry would be raised, and we can easily imagine how the cycle of funding, respect and engagement would grow in the same way that men’s football has.


It seems that the real issue is not in physical ability, but with the UK suffering from a cultural hangover of sexism within sport. This becomes even more evident when we look at other countries that have managed to address these issues in various ways; for example, in the US it is the law for college sports to receive equal funding for men and women. The US national football team tends to both ‘outsell the men’s in gate receipts, and outperform them when it comes to incoming revenue’ – Kessell. With more financial investment at grassroots and college levels, women’s football is of high quality, considered with respect, and as a result fills out arenas. The funding from gate receipts and sponsorship are then fueled into improving the game further, and we can easily how the vicious cycle is becoming a virtuous one. This shows plenty of exciting potential for women’s sports in the UK, and with increased pressure put on broadcasters such as the BBC, in combination with pushing for more funding at a lower level, women in sport have a real chance at eventually getting the respect, recognition and wages that they deserve.