THE magnitude of the moment was not up there with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, it wasn’t akin to the outlawing of slavery, was nowhere near as important as the success of the women’s suffragette movement and wasn’t even the biggest vote in the country that day, but Thursday’s decision by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews was still important and extremely positive, not just for the image of golf, but for sport as a whole.
It proved that times are changing, sport is evolving and that even some of the stuffiest, most sexist of dinosaurs are mellowing or, at the very least, wising up. Even if some of the 85 per cent who voted to end the 260-year-old ban on female members cast their vote while harbouring a secret wish that their club could have remained a male bastion, they were smart enough to recognise that the majority of sensible society no longer agreed. If they wanted to avoid a PR disaster, this was the only outcome.
The vote won’t turn the sport on its head. The fact is women were already allowed to play on the world famous Old Course, but now they will have a greater input into how the game is ruled. As much as anything, though, it is about perceptions and letting women who may be tempted to take up golf know that they are not seen as second-class citizens by the very people who control the game. It renders the sport more inclusive.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a man or woman, black or white, everyone should have equal opportunities to do anything they want, whether to join a golf club, or get a job,” said four-time major winner Rory McIllroy. It is a view that is still not reflected in the minds of everyone who follows him; probably not even every player or official who shares a course with him each week, but attitudes are changing and the R&A’s vote proves that.
There is still a long way to go, though. In so many sports, at the ruling level, in so much of the media, in the approach of sponsors and in the funding and the terms of support offered to athletes, men still have an advantage.
It is an issue the world’s elite are attempting to address. Not just by what they do in competition, but by the inspiration and education they provide in their down-time. At the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, the sports pages were awash with female winners. Getting that kind of publicity year round, in sports which can never compete with football in the UK psyche, is more difficult. That renders the need for proactive role models even more crucial to develop girls’ sport and provide hope that there is a pathway to the elite level regardless of gender.
People such as Commonwealth Games gold medallist Sarah Clark recognise that. The Olympic judoka is a coach and mentor and is one of many who gives up some of her spare time to head into schools and spread the word that sport isn’t just for boys. She offers young girls confidence to stand up against peer pressure and from those who want to judge “the fairer sex” purely on looks and accepted standards of femininity.
Rebecca Adlington has done much to publicise the ongoing battle. One of our most successful Olympians in the pool, she was reduced to tears as people preferred to focus on her body and facial features rather than her medals, her talent and the years of tremendous dedication needed to get to the top. And for some the journey is even more onerous when a lack of funding means that – unlike some of their male counterparts who already have access to more financial backing, greater prize money and sponsorship or compete in more established sport – they juggle training with full-time work. For some females there is the added responsibility of being a mother. On the whole, women remain the primary carers. For example, if a child is ill, it is rarely their dad who takes time off work. It is usually the mum who is trying to juggle the needs of their children.
As they are the first real guides in young people’s lives, studies show that having a mother interested in sport vastly increases the chances of that child – boy or girl – participating or also having an interest. So, why don’t we do more to cultivate female interest? That is more than sexist. It is shortsighted.
But it’s not all about stamping feet and whining: in some instances women have to take more responsibility, in others they simply need to face some truths. When it comes to tennis, why should women get the same prize money as men in grand slams when their three-set matches mean they are only doing 60 per cent of the work, compared to men’s five-set encounters?
The chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, Stacey Allaster, has stated that female tennis players are “ready, willing and able” to up their tournament workload to move in line with the men. If that is the case, until they actually do, men will be entitled to moan, but only at those staging the contests who have thus far refused to make the requisite changes to the rules and the scheduling to ensure parity.
And, when it comes to complaints that only the prettiest or the women with the best bodies make it into the papers, usually doing fashion shoots rather than talking sport, think about the build-up to major sporting events when women’s magazines temporarily jump on the bandwagon. Flick through the pages and it is fine physical specimens who are asked to strip off and flash their six packs.
It’s not the slightly lumpier, cauliflower-eared front rows who get the spotlight ahead of the Six Nations; it’s not Phil Mickelson who will be all blue steel and bulging biceps before the Ryder Cup or Open Championship.
Whether we admit it or not, women objectify men too, they just don’t do it in the sports pages. And it’s on those pages where decisions based on beauty are wrong, where it should always be about sporting prowess. We should be grown-up about our love of sport and what makes someone a star and role model.
Amelie Mauresmo’s appointment as Andy Murray’s coach or Shelley Kerr’s appointment as manager of Stirling University men’s Lowland League football team shows we are evolving. Even in the male-dominated world of football, the response was more positive than patronising, the isolated trolling suggesting Kerr should get back to the kitchen or the bedroom was relatively muted.
But, make no mistake, if things don’t work out for her or Mauresmo, pictured left, many will write off an entire gender’s ability to coach men in a way they never do when male coaches flounder.
The fact is that, slowly but surely, attitudes are changing. The R&A underlined that this week.
Whether they wanted to do it or were pressured into it by sensible society, the decision was made and that deserves praise and offers hope for all women in sport.