How to Win at Gender-Equal Sports Reporting in 5 Easy Steps!
By Rachael Alexander, University of Strathclyde
It likely comes as no surprise that women’s football faces an uphill battle to assert its value, even in 2019. Even now, at the start of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, there is still a huge gulf between the attention and respect given to the men’s and women’s games.
This is due in no small part to the representation of women’s football – and women’s sport more generally – in the media. On this, the first day of the tournament in France, we’ve put together a handy how-to guide for gender-equal reporting on women’s sports. Throughout the World Cup, we’ll be keeping an eye on the coverage so if you see any particularly good (or bad) examples, send them to us. Thanks to all on Twitter who sent in their suggestions, we hope you find them useful!
STEP 1 - COVER IT, AND COVER IT EQUALLY
This may seem a little obvious, but unbelievably it still needs to be said. The very first step in gender-equal sports reporting is to cover women’s sport. We know that women’s football gets far less coverage than men’s. But the next steps can’t be followed if this one step is missed, so take note.
Once you’ve followed this step, we can then think about covering women’s sport equally. Following the Scotland V Jamaica friendly, the Daily Record’s sports page had a thin sliver on Scotland’s win and record attendance next to a disproportionately large piece on the men’s team. The men’s team hadn’t played a game since March. Don’t just give women’s sport space, give it the space it deserves.
STEP 2 – COVER THE ATHLETE
Of course, it’s not just the quantity but the content that matters when we’re trying to win at gender-equal sports reporting. We’ve borrowed this step from the #CoverTheAthlete campaign, which highlighted the gendered media treatment of women in sport.
Far too often media focus is placed on things that have nothing to do with women as athletes, including appearance, relationships, and sexuality. Would a man who won the Ballon d’Or be asked to twerk on stage? Ada Hegerberg, winner of the first ever women’s Ballon d’Or, was.
To win at this step, asking the right questions is key. If it doesn’t relate to the sport, then it’s not relevant.
STEP 3 – MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
Following right along from this is being careful to use equal language to talk about women’s sports. Talking about ‘football’ and ‘women’s football’, for example, subordinates women’s football by implying that the default is male. This is referred to as ‘gender marking’. When the male is accepted as the default, it leads to the sort of journalistic nightmare seen in the video below.
This is an easy one to fix, though. If you’re saying, ‘women’s football’, simply use the logical counterpart ‘men’s football’. You should also keep in mind that sort of distinction isn’t always necessary, as demonstrated by Motherwell FC’s recent decision to remove ‘Ladies’ from the name of the women’s team and assert that all players play for Motherwell FC.
Equal language should always be used, for example only say ‘girls’ if you would also say ‘boys’. Likewise with ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ (and how often do any of us say ‘gentlemen’. Mismatching these – using ‘girls’ and ‘men’ – can contribute to the infantalising of women athletes. Making sure that the language used is equal avoids the subordination of women’s sports, a key step on the way to gender-equal reporting.
STEP 4 – USE APPROPRIATE NAMING
This step is linked to step 3, but it deserves its own focus. Paying attention to how you name and refer to women in sports reporting is essential. Are you using their first or surname, and is this consistent with the way you name men?
This addresses an issue which goes far beyond sports reporting but is no less crucial in this context. Calling women by their first names is overly familiar and infantalising. It undermines their role as professionals. There are exceptions to this rule, for example in the case of Venus and Serena Williams where use of their first names was necessary for clarity. These exceptions are very rare, so use surnames wherever possible to ensure your naming practices remain gender-equal.
Appropriate naming comes into play when referring to women in other ways too, like Shelley Kerr being referred to as ‘Scotland’s Iron Lady’. Ask yourself about the wider implications before taking the plunge.
STEP 5 - USE THE RIGHT IMAGES
The 5th and final step is to make sure the right images are used to accompany the text. It should be clear by now that sports are often viewed through a gendered lens, with a disproportionate amount of attention dedicated to women athletes’ appearance in a manner that often sexualises them. JD Sports’ decision to advertise the women’s Scotland strip paired with ripped jeans, worn by a model in a seductive pose, did not occur in a vacuum.
Women athletes are often pictured in passive rather than active poses, when compared to men. Consistently images of women in sport fail to represent the realities of women’s sport performance. Using the right images (like the one below), of women performing as athletes, is crucial in gender-equal sports reporting.