Hopes were high that momentum from the Women’s World Cup would herald a new era for women’s sport. But the infamous ‘KissGate’ incident, as former Matilda and FIFA Council member Moya Dodd told the Women in Media Conference, shows there’s a long way to go in challenging sexism, and men still dominate the governance of the game. That’s also the case in sports media, expert and Siren co-founder Kirby Fenwick explains. Now some of the leading women working in the area are joining together to push for change.
Words by Kirby Fenwick
The groundswell of interest in the FIFA Women’s World Cup propelled the Matildas to the front pages of newspapers across the country.
Suddenly, discussions of gender equity in sport were front-page news.
But most of that discussion did not extend to gender equity in sports media. While the number of women working in media has been growing steadily, that upswing has not been reflected in sports coverage.
Women sports journalists and commentators know the challenges all too well, however there’s also increasing optimism that collective support, programs and partnerships could deliver a shift in this influential area.
Sport dominates our media landscape, according to the 2023 Women in Media Gender Scorecard. For every story on health or banking or politics, there’ll be three on sport. Of the nearly 20,000 press, radio and TV news reports collected, 23% were categorised as sport. And more than 80% of those sports stories were authored by men; women sports journalists authored only 18% of sports stories.
There’s plenty of historical context that goes some way to explaining this discrepancy. Sport has deep patriarchal foundations; it’s why you know who Don Bradman is, but you might not know who Betty Wilson is. Those patriarchal foundations also exist in sports media; it’s why coverage of women’s sport rarely rises above 10% of all sports coverage and why the ABC didn’t hire a full-time female sports broadcaster until 1984.
“You're prone to feelings of being an imposter,” says Kate O’Halloran, digital journalist with ABC Sport.
“I think there’s an assumption of legitimacy which is granted to men … whereas for women there’s a constant fight for this sense of belonging, legitimacy, respect.”
It’s a fight Lisa Sthalekar recognises. The former cricketer and Australian captain and now commentator recalled feeling the weight of responsibility early in her sports media career when she was invited to cover the Indian Premier League alongside Isa Guha, Mel Jones and Anjum Chopra in 2015.
“One thing we were certainly aware of was, yes, we were the first and we needed to make sure that we were good the first year, otherwise females in general would have been labelled terrible commentators,” Lisa says. “Not ‘Lisa Sthalekar is terrible’, or ‘Mel Jones is terrible’, it would be ‘females shouldn't be broadcasting male cricket’.”
In my own research on women in sports media in Australia, the women that I spoke with identified a slew of challenges, some related to broader complexities in the media landscape but many of these issues were indelibly linked to being a woman in a male dominated space. They used words like ‘outnumbered’ and ‘outsider’ and they spoke about feeling that they had to work harder to be taken seriously. Then there was the sexual harassment, the pay gap, and critiques of their appearance.
Building community is one way that women navigate such a complicated landscape. Back in 2015, Lisa and her pioneering colleagues started a group chat. There’s now more than 30 women in that chat.
“It’s a group chat for us to express some positivity because sometimes there’s a hell of a lot of negative comments that fly around for a lot of us,” Lisa says.
Sarah Burt is a digital sports reporter with Channel 7. She says finding a “cohort of like-minded women” has been invaluable.
“When you feel like you’re the only woman in the room and it’s just all a bit too much, knowing that there’s other people around that you can chat to, bounce ideas off, have a whinge to. You know that they're just at the other end of the phone if you need them.”
The promise of a more equitable future helps too. While Lisa says she hopes there’ll be more and more women in the commentary box and that “the next generation find it easier”, for Kate, it was seeing the change at the Women's World Cup that helps her feel positive about that future.
“There were more women in the room and a greater diversity of women, in the sense that there were lots of queer women [and] women of colour covering that tournament, than I had seen at any other tournament.”
Initiatives like the ABC’s 50:50 Equality Project are aiming to make that equitable future a reality.
Launched in 2018, the 50:50 Equality Project initially tracked gender across ABC content. Today, it also tracks representation of First Nations people, culturally and linguistically diverse communities and disabled people.
Amanda Shalala is Deputy Editor of ABC Sport and co-lead of the 50:50 Equality Project. She says while increasing the coverage of women in sport aligns with the aims of the project, it’s not just about the numbers.
“One part is the coverage, what we're putting out there. The second part is internally and our workforce,” Amanda says.
The 50:50 Equality Project does not currently track the bylines on stories, but it has been the catalyst for several initiatives aimed at increasing access to training, mentoring and opportunity for women and non-binary people in sports media.
Those initiatives include a paid internship program specifically for women and non-binary people with disability, a partnership with Football Australia, a partnership with Siren Sport, and a collaboration with ABC International Development and their Women in News and Sport program for women in the Asia Pacific region.
“We can't do it all on our own,” Amanda says.
“I believe in the power of working with other like-minded people and like-minded organisations to get to where we want to go.”
Amanda says she is hopeful that the work the ABC is doing will have a broader impact for women in sports media.
“We want people from all different backgrounds to work for us, but we only have so many jobs. So, if we can help create an ecosystem where we're training people, nurturing, and mentoring people, who then are able to go out and flourish elsewhere at other organisations, that's great.”
“It's an evolving journey and a continuing journey. We still have a long way to go. But I think the important thing is that we are on the journey.”
Women in Media is excited to be speaking about sport, women, and media, at the inaugural SXSW Sydney - October 15-22, 2023, and we encourage you to come along.
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