By Ella Fenwick | Sport Editor
Inequality based on gender within sport has always been an underlying issue, even before lockdown women’s sport was still battling to receive the same respect as men’s sport in many different aspects, but has overcome leaps and bounds over the last year. Although both were at risk to be largely affected by the coronavirus outbreak, it seems that men’s sport could move on breezily after the lockdown. On the other hand women’s sport has been left undervalued and underfunded in its return, after a financial plummet from the pandemic.
The pandemic has forced us to take a look at the way in which we value women’s sport and address the deep-rooted issue of inequality and how it should be tackled if faced with another national lockdown.
Effect of lockdown on women’s sport
After closing a large gender gap in the general female participation in sport over the last five years, many are scared of the long term impact the pandemic could have on women’s sport.
In a recent report launched by the organization Women in Sport, a survey of 100 women in lockdown across the UK found women’s participation in exercise was disproportionately affected due to the reality of juggling childcare and working from home.
It was found that 32% of women couldn’t prioritise exercise during lockdown because they found they had too much to do for others.
Even though lockdown affected the general participation of women in sport, it was seen that 61% stated that they will be keen to put more effort into engaging in sport post lockdown.
Stephanie Hilborne, CEO of WiS, stated “Whilst this research points to negatives for women in lockdown, the great opportunity is that exercise and sport has now grown into importance- we heard that women are changing their mindsets and wanting to prioritise sport and exercise.”
From this we can take away a positive outlook on how we can move forward with general participation in women’s sport to make the sporting community thrive again, progressing from the negatives of the pandemic.
Effects on women’s leagues
With the relaxation of governmental guidelines in June, men’s sport was seen to return promptly with rescheduled matches in a majority of sport to remain behind closed doors.
Women’s sport however was left on the bench, with it arguably being deemed an “invisible” summer for female athletes, after the abandonment of matches and leagues across the board of sport including football, jeopardizing a healthy and equal return of women’s sport.
The cancellation of the women’s football leagues is just one example of how women’s sport has been neglected post-pandemic, halting the previous momentum made over the last year by the success of women’s sports teams.
Professional men’s football made a swift return in July, with the continuation of all 92 remaining Premier League matches as well as all EFL fixtures. The stalling of women’s football leagues was becoming very apparent. In May 2020, both the FA Women’s Super League and Championship were ended with immediate effect, drawing the season to an abrupt close. WSL winners Chelsea and Women’s Championship winners Aston Villa were crowned on a point per game basis, after casting it aside the FA found it to be a satisfactory finish to the season despite abandoning the leftover games of leagues.
After an increase of interest in women’s football since the Women’s World Cup followed by the cancellation of the women’s 2019/20 football leagues in the space of a year, it can be discouraging that one step forward has been followed by three steps back.
Women’s football wasn’t the only sport that seemed to take a hit from coronavirus, with the Vitality Netball SuperLeague having all their matches voided for the 2019/20 season, finding themselves on the brink of financial collapse, desperately looking for funding to make a strong return, turning to fans for support.
Was there a prioritization of men’s sport post lockdown?
Where there have been conscious efforts to generate excess funding for male sports, the same cannot be said about the women’s.
Women’s sport has found itself as being part of the financial cut being sacrificed to benefit and fund men’s sport. It seems that short term gains have been put above a long-term shift.
All sports have felt the detrimental effects of broadcast deals on the future of their teams and funding, with the Premier League recently under fire for the Pay Per View services of matches. This demand and popularity for broadcasting men’s sport has given them the advantage to be granted funds and access to continue training, however many female athletes have been left behind in this process.
Despite many of these professional sports clubs beginning to gain funding, the neighbouring female teams have been disregarded and have been failed by their male cohorts for not providing a helping hand in their return to competing.
It has been proven now more than ever that media coverage of women’s sports should be increased to help keep it afloat. With the beginning of the new season, this opens up a window of opportunity for women’s sport organisations to encourage a growth in the broadcasting of women’s sport.
Returning as an elite athlete
The majority of elite female athletes have found themselves having to work a job alongside their sporting career and are unable to rely solely on their involvement in professional sport as a yearly income.
Lockdown has not been negative for all athletes, despite the loss of motivation many have battled through and used it as a drive to push themselves towards new goals.
One athlete in particular is Welsh national rugby player Cerys Hale.
Hale, like many athletes found herself building goals to work towards for the return of training post lockdown, but sometimes found herself struggling with motivation; “I think for me personally it really has given me something to focus on, over lockdown I enjoyed working from home and enjoyed having more freedom to train and recover properly, but towards the end of that period I was getting quite fed up and it is hard really to stay motivated when you don’t know when you are going back or what date you will be returning to training.”
The only goal Hale has found herself focused on is the Rugby World Cup next year hosted by New Zealand, helping her strive for new fitness goals and getting into the best shape possible. “During lockdown I really focused on getting myself into a good physical shape ready for the World Cup next year. The World Cup is next year in 2021 and as a group it is something we are really focused on, we have already qualified. I just want to go to that World Cup now, peak fitness and do all I can now in the next 12 months to be one of the best athletes there.”
“Hopefully with this pandemic and a bit of downtime it has given me a clear motivation and an opportunity to get me into a better shape and not have to juggle so many things and that should pay off.”
In the preparation for the Six Nations match Hale returned to training, but will continue to train to get back into the headspace ready for future games and to achieve her target; “Going back to training has done so much for my well-being and helped me really focus on something to get me out of the house. I am very grateful that I have the opportunity to have the evenings training and doing something I love during this pandemic.”
As a female elite athlete Hale was grateful for being able to return to play in the Six Nations game on November 1, especially with the Welsh national lockdown rules in place. Hale discussed the return of women’s sport, in particular rugby and the difference of return for the male athletes giving an equal insight to the current argument.
“Yes there has been a lot of talk in the media about the difference between men and women’s sport and I can understand both sides of it. Obviously, women have probably been impacted by it a bit more because we are so reliant on a thriving community at the moment because we don’t get as much income from sponsors and all of that.”
“I can understand as well because we have professions alongside rugby we are naturally at a higher risk. With men you can say this is their job and you are going home you need to be safe, where as I for example go into school and teach and I just think that it does bring a greater risk. Although I do believe women’s sport in general needs a bit of extra support now transitioning back into this new norm, I can also see the extra risks associated with the women’s sport.”
Hale believes that we should use this time wisely to help encourage the viewership of women’s sport and to get the sporting community working together to bring a positive start to the new season of women’s leagues across the board.
“We can probably really capitalize on people being at home more, so if we got more television broadcasting because people are naturally sat more in front of their TVs at the moment. I think that is quite a good window for us to try and get a better following, on top of that as well it is more of an opportunity for us to be more active on social media just to keep something to focus on and to look at. Different age groups interacting with them, I think that will just keep us going a bit.”
Where do we go from here?
The outbreak of the pandemic has been a hurdle for the sporting world and with the return of a new season the encouragement to evaluate how we prioritize gender in sports should be on the horizon.
How we chose to move on from this point, will have a large effect on the future of women’s sport, especially in these unprecedented times where another national lockdown could be sprung upon us.
Now that women’s sport is beginning to make a comeback after months of silence, it looks like there has been positive to the start of the 2020/21 season. With fixtures being held weekly for the women’s football leagues and also the rescheduling of the Women’s Six Nations matches that took place on November 1, it will be exciting to see if this approach will continue and if women’s sport will come back stronger in the new season.