Modern Times: Uneven playing field

Horse racing receives more exposure on Australian television sports news than women’s sport. This reality is accepted, despite the success of our female Olympians and national women’s teams, and despite the growing level of participation in women’s sport.

If circumstances that can only lead to economic inequality are accepted as normal, inequality is the only possible outcome. Australian women won the majority of our medals at the London Olympics, but many returned to relative obscurity in Australia. Many successful female Olympic athletes live on modest incomes while their male counterparts, who achieve similar or inferior results, thrive. The source of this inequality is easy to identify: female athletes do not have the same earning capacity as males do in Australia because they are not afforded equal attention in the media. With few exceptions, our Olympic athletes rely on media exposure and sponsorship to achieve an income level which their achievements merit. A recent report, Towards a Level Playing Field: Sport and Gender in Australian Media, showed that Australian television only dedicates seven percent of sports coverage to women’s sport and the situation is getting worse. The lack of mainstream exposure directly impacts on the earning capacity of Australian sportswomen. It is true that the most popular spectator sports are played by men, and greater spectator interest naturally brings higher salaries and more attention from corporate sponsors looking to promote their products. But there is no reason for gender inequality to exist within Olympic sports, such as athletics, hockey or swimming. At the last Olympics, a female swimmer became the equal most successful Australian in history in terms of medals won at a single Games (with five medals). Can you, dear reader, identify the swimmer? It is significant that James Magnussen is a household name but Alicia Coutts is not. Is Coutts – a remarkable athlete – too reserved, too uncontroversial, for the mainstream media? Should more have been done by Swimming Australia to promote Coutts and her historic achievements? In recent times, the highest profiles have been afforded to male swimmers – several of whom have in the past been accused or found guilty of common assault, assault on police officers, domestic violence, recreational druguse, or bullying. This would not, one would think, serve the interests of a sport which is attractive to corporate partners and parents of future athletes because of its healthy, safe image. Female athletes tend to be great role models. The lack of attention afforded to our female athletes appears the product of a broader inequality in Australian sport. It is likely that the vast majority of television executives responsible for sports programing, and editors of the television news, are men. The governing bodies of the respective sports are also dominated by men, despite efforts to remedy this situation. If decision-makers have a subconscious tendency towards a particular sport or discipline, important decisions will be compromised. In 2012, Australian Sports Commission announced that it would be mandatory for 40 percent of directors of sports organisations that receive Commonwealth funding to be female by 2015. Nine of 15 sports have failed to meet this obligation. Swimming Australia has only two women on its nine-person board – surprisingly an improvement on the situation preceding the London Olympics. Cycling, basketball and rowing also failed to meet this modest target. Until inequity within governing bodies and clubs is addressed, it is unlikely that the relative earning capacity of our female athletes will improve. The coverage of women’s sport on television and in the media will likely worsen in the coming years. The period on which the aforementioned report was based preceded the decision to cease broadcasting women’s basketball and soccer. We need strong leadership or collective action on the part of our female athletes, coaches and leaders. And only a superficial national pride will, every four years, bring these great athletes out from the shadows. To their detriment, and to ours. @AndrewHunter_