Gender inequality still a problem in sport

Despite being the dominant player of her era, and one of the greatest female athletes of all time...
Despite being the dominant player of her era, and one of the greatest female athletes of all time, Serena Williams is not the highest-paid sportswoman in the world.

The issue of gender equality in sport is as old as sport itself.

Strides have been made, but sport remains an institution dominated by men.

Chris Gayle's flirtatious comments to Mel McLaughlin on live television reignited the debate this week. Were they another example of the "gender gap", or were they, as Gayle said, a "simple joke"?

In this instance it seems clear-cut. McLaughlin was a reporter trying to do her job. Gayle decided this was less important however, choosing to focus on her appearance during his answers to both questions.

In this he prevented her from doing the job well. Had it been a man interviewing him, it would not have happened.

And that is the problem. Whether the reporter is a man or woman should be irrelevant. They should be treated the same, just as a player or coach of either gender should be.

All a journalist, or anyone in any occupation, wants is a fair chance. You want to be judged on your work, regardless of whether that judgement be good or bad. Not only do Gayle's comments undermine McLaughlin's ability as a reporter, they do not even give her the chance to show what she can do.

Many comments on social media have passed it off as a joke, suggesting people are getting too politically correct. Either way you cannot ignore the wider issue at play.

In more cases than not, women remain the metaphorical "other" in the sporting environment.

Part of the spectacle of televised women's sports comes in superficial features which sees them objectified to please the target audience of males.

That is reflected in the incomes of various sportswomen. Maria Sharapova has topped Forbes' list of highest paid woman athletes in the world for the past 11 years, earning $US29.7 million according to the latest edition. It seems phenomenal that even in a year when she was rated outside of the top 100 in the world in her sport, Sharapova could still be the highest earner of all women athletes.

While she has had her successes, she has not even been the dominant player in her sport of her era. That honour goes to Serena Williams, one of the greatest female athletes of all time, who came in second on the 2015 list, despite her vastly superior record.

On the surface that is surprising. But really it is not. Prize money and salaries in women's sport pale in comparison to men's, making endorsement deals significant. In advertising, much of what counts for female athletes is fitting the "look" which will sell, not being the best.

Perform a search in Google Images for Sharapova, or Ana Kournikova for another example. Despite their successful tennis careers, there are few photos of them that are related to tennis. Imagine saying that about Richie McCaw or Brendon McCullum. Take nothing away from Sharapova. She has obviously made what she told Forbes were "smart [business] decisions", although it makes you wonder how things would be in a different environment.

However, that has spilled over to the sports themselves, as they have tried to incorporate features to make women more "attactive" while competing. Compare the attire worn in men's beach volleyball to that of women, or the way they are presented in gymnastics.

That is a problem. If we are talking about equality, the spectacle should be about the game and the participant's ability to play it. Superficial appearances should have nothing to do with it, yet having a certain look has become empowering. Of course if they want to pursue that in their own time, that is their call and if they do well from it, good on them. It is when it influences the sport itself that the issue arises.

Although even Sharapova pales in comparison to the top men's earnings, rating 26th overall. Floyd Mayweather leads the way with $US300 million and is followed by Manny Pacquiao, Cristiano Ronaldo, Roger Federer and LeBron James.

Not only are those men being paid more than every female athlete on the planet, they are all doing so on a more even terrain. While all marketable, they became marketable by being among the best to ever play their sports, for which they get extremely well-paid for before endorsements too. If female athletes had the same deal, would they still do everything else alongside their sporting exploits?

The pay difference seems a big issue, although stems from another. Some athletes make large sums of money for the organisations they play for. There is huge demand to watch these athletes and people will pay to do so, making it a profitable business. It is only fair that the athletes see some of this money then, given that without them, the industry would die.

There lies another problem. Television coverage of sport is still dominated by men, meaning men are making more money for their organisations.

That is largely because that is where the demand is. The crowds and viewing numbers for events such as the Rugby World Cup, the Ashes, the NBA and the English Premier League see the male versions dwarf their female counterparts. However it can also be argued that the media fuels the public's interest and over time, with more televised women's sport, perhaps demand would grow.

Things have improved. Athletes such as Lisa Carrington, Lydia Ko and Valerie Adams are now as high-profile as most in New Zealand and are recognised for their sporting achievements and character above all else. Four of the last eight Supreme Halberg winners have been women, an improvement on the overall 16 out of 66. The women's NPC rugby competition now has televised games, while the national sevens tournament includes a women's section.

Overseas we have seen leagues such as the women's Big Bash, the WNBA, the women's section of the UFC and international women's football begun and gain more attention. These types of sports - traditional male ones - are key and act as a marker.

It does create more questions though. Why does the women's version of the Big Bash have its gender in the title, while the men's is simply called the "Big Bash League"? It casts the women's league as the "other", suggesting it is the women's equivalent of the real thing, not the real thing itself.

Television coverage is improving, although women are still primarily used in sideline reporting roles. Why can a woman not fill the analyst's role in the commentary box, or even the lead commentators role? There is no reason why a woman could not have the best mind and analysis in cricket, rugby, football or anything other sport. They simply do not get a chance to show it.

Equality itself would imply banishing gendered sport altogether and having one game for all. That is probably not viable, although would work better in many sports than is given credit. If a woman is good enough, why should she not be able to compete at the level she is capable of, even if her opponents are men? Why should gender matter?

That last point is key. Gender should not matter. But, like it or not, in the sporting environment it still does. Whether it be as players, coaches or journalists, sport remains a male-dominated arena on so many levels.

While that is the case, incidents such as Gayle's interview remain significant.

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