Women’s sport has come a long way in the ten years that I have led Sport NI. We continue to see incredible success women in sport on and off the pitch – as participants, elite athletes, as officials and as leaders in sports governing bodies and sports councils. And yet ten years later, we remain underrepresented in all aspects of the game.
Respect for women’s sport falls far short of where it should be. Female athletes and teams are often succeeding despite the barriers they face, so can we imagine what can be achieved with equal support and equal resources? Even when we are present in sport, women are not treated equally, with less support, unequal pay and unequal recognition. Off the pitches and courts, the position of women in decision-making roles can often mirror what our players and athletes experience. How many times have female leaders experienced offering a solution without response to hear it taken on board a moment later when repeated by a male colleague?
In the Forbes Highest Paid Athletes List 2022, only two women were represented, and both were from the same sport in tennis, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. Last summer, in the wake of English football’s most successful international campaign since 1966, media reports highlighted that women’s captain Leah Williamson earned in a year, what her male counterpart Harry Kane, would collect in a week.
At a grassroots level, in Northern Ireland, in 2021/22 over half of men (53%) have taken part in sport at least once, whereas for women that is slightly over a third (37%).
We must close these gaps. And, whilst statistics provide some context, it is critical that we go beyond participation numbers to consider power and privilege in addressing gender inequalities in sport.
When we consider the power of sport to change lives, unite communities and bring pride to nations, gender inequality provides a lost opportunity, not only for women and girls, but for society. Such institutionalised disadvantage reaches beyond women and girls, to other minority groups, including disabled people, members of Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, in particular Irish Travellers, and members of the LGTBQ+ community. On International Women’s Day, Sport NI is holding the spotlight on women and girls, recognizing that discrimination which affects one of us, diminishes all of us in society.
As Sport NI’s first female CEO, I feel a personal sense of responsibility to ensure Sport NI makes a difference for women in sport. During the last ten years, Sport NI has increased investment in women’s sport, increased the number of female athletes supported by our Sports Institute and increased support to sports governing bodies to drive female participation. Sport NI supported the participation of more female than male athletes competing in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games this year and our support to the female athletes resulted in more medals at the games. We have established a Women in Sport Panel to challenge us to do more to meet the needs of women in sport and we have appointed an excellent Chair, in Ulster and Ireland hockey legend Arlene Boyles to help shape and challenge our work in this area.
But we want to go further and faster. Over the last eight months, Sport NI has engaged with sports in our biggest ever conversation on National Lottery investment in sport. This investment reflects our ambition to transform how women and girls experience sport. This vital funding will come with a scrutiny and a challenge that will see through tokenism or lip-service. From our conversations we know that many sports are ready to embrace the next level for women in sport. Sport NI recognises we cannot do it alone, nor do we want to.
Michelle Obama once said, ‘As women, we must stand up for ourselves. We must stand up for each other. We must stand up for justice for all.’ On International Women’s day, let’s stand up for justice for all and stand together for women in sport.