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Gender Equality in Sport – My views and approaches to change

International Women’s Day – Friday 8th March 2019

The picture above is Norway’s male and female footballers signing a historic equal-pay agreement (Image: Getty) 

I believe there are many ways to cultivate and accelerate change. Here are 3:

  • One way is to complain about injustice….
  • Another is to ask difficult questions….
  • An alternative way is to tell stories…..

Billy Jean King was a pioneer of equal pay decades ago when she effectively changed the deal for women in tennis. She was courageous and did what she believed was the right thing – albeit that it wasn’t the easy thing. Today the Williams sisters stand up for more than just equal pay in their own unique way. My three daughters aged 10, 12 and 14 expect equality in work and life, and expect to be paid equally should they choose a career in sport or an alternative career path.

Some sports have been pioneers of equality and others are well documented as not having been so progressive. Clare Balding’s documentary, “When football banned women” shows how expectation and equality has shifted in 100 years. The Football Association may not be proud of banning women from playing football from 1921 for 50, yes 50 years. However, the Women’s Super League is now run and subsidized by the FA itself because it’s not yet commercially viable due to a lack of sponsors.

Manchester United, which Forbes listed as the most valuable football team in the world in 2017 has, in Sept 2018, started a professional women’s football team, albeit one where the women earn a tiny fraction of what the men do. Sadly inequality in football isn’t just about pay, it’s also about respect and attitude which Ada Hegerberg knows from her recent award winning experience.

Many sports fans love to bet, what odds might we get on equal pay for all British professional female football players in 3 years time? One British club, Lewes, has lead by example with equal budgets for their women’s and men’s teams. Who will follow to start a movement? Lewes are also now asking the FA difficult questions about the men’s and women’s FA Cup prize money.


If girls and women, perhaps inspired by This Girl Can or a parent/teacher/coach, want to be even more active or involved with sport there are endless opportunities to do so including the wildly successful and free Parkrun movement.

Ten years ago the number of girls aspiring to be professional sports people, athletes or coaches was low. The inspirational women’s teams of Hockey, Netball, Cricket, Football, Olympic Sport and Rugby Union used to be full of amateur women working part time even buying their own kit and shoes. They have made our nation proud and times have changed. Most are now fully professional and paid via rolling annual contracts or lottery funding through UK Sport. But pay and conditions/resources/attitudes/media coverage are not equal yet!

As I look globally, I see change in equality in sport accelerating at the same pace of change in general society…..these are stories we can all tell others with pride and envy:

Story has it, that closer to home, the female CEO of BNP Mellon agreed her organization would sponsor the Oxford vs Cambridge boat race on the proviso that the womens boat race would take place on the same day – which it did for the first time in 2015.

What are we doing?

If you’re asking “What more can we do?” here are my top 3 practical suggestions:

  • Participate! Activity and sport are great for physical and mental wellbeing and women and men have equal right to this. Lead by example.
  • Follow and support women’s sport. Buy merchandise, watch games and attend events. Consumer and sponsor demand is accelerating progress.
  • Ask the difficult questions where women are being treated differently in any way. Sports, Sponsors, Customers and Government sentiment is changing. Let’s continue and accelerate the spirit of Billy Jean, an inspiration to both women and men worldwide.

Sport inspired me as a kid and still inspires me today…

…even though I wasn’t that good at it. I grew up wanting to be like Daly Thompson.

I know there are as many people “put off” sport for life as are “captivated for life” when they’re young. Sport can inspire in many ways…..through supporting, participating, volunteering and competing.

It’s my belief that sport can lead the way and inspire even greater equality, diversity and inclusion in all parts of society.

Let’s focus on what isn’t happening yet and ask difficult questions. Plus, let’s all tell great stories about equality, talking about inspirational organisations like Lewes FC in England  – great stories can shame and inspire more individuals to do the right thing, not the easy thing.