Women's sports under-reported and over-sexualised says new research

Amanda Jones, chair of the Scottish Women and Girls in Sport Advisory Board, says the media needs to do more to report on female sporting achievements.
Amanda Jones, chair of the Scottish Women and Girls in Sport Advisory Board, says the media needs to do more to report on female sporting achievements.
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Women's sporting achievements are under-reported by the media and when female events are covered, almost a quarter of reports use images which are sexualised, according to new research.

Analysis of how women's sports are represented in news, television and online coverage, reveals that even after major sporting events such as the FIFA Women's World Cup and the French Open women's tennis finals, women's sports are not covered equally.

The research carried out by Edinburgh University's Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research and Policy organisation, for the government's Scottish Women and Girls in Sport Advisory Board, found that as well as a lack of coverage, a "cause for concern" was how female athletes were presented.

As a result the Board has now recommended the Scottish Government hold a Scottish Sport Media Summit to discuss, review and challenge existing media coverage and content of Scottish sports, events and athletes "to hold the media to account" and agree an improved approach and commitment to improve balance between the sexes.

A further recommendation is the establishment of a "media body on gender equal representation" and for the Scottish Government to undertake longer term audit and research activities to "challenge gender stereotypes within sport."

Previous research has shown that 95 per cent of all coverage by the media is focused on men's sports.

In the report, published today to mark the start of Women and Girls in Sport Week, Amanda Jones, chair of the advisory board says the recommendations are "challenging" but should be adopted by the government.

She says: "When the Board was created, we were given the remit of providing advice to the Scottish Government on how to increase the participation of women and girls in sport and physical activity throughout Scotland.

"We thought it appropriate to focus on how we could impact the position at a macro level, by focusing on the areas of leadership which could influence real and significant change at all levels.

"We have examined how women and girls are portrayed in the media when they participate in activity and analysed afresh the barriers which prevent more women and girls becoming, staying or reconnecting with levels of physical activity which we know can improve mental health and physical fitness.

"We were careful to ensure that we not only considered participation in elite sport, although that is obviously important, but how women and girls interacted with sport and physical activity throughout their lives and in particular at key points where research tells us that there is a drop off of engagement levels."

The researchers conducted a "rapid evidence review and content analysis" of online coverage of five news sites - the BBC, Telegraph, Daily Mail, Sun and Mirror newspapers - and social media platforms Instagram and Twitter on two separate dates in the wake of major women's sporting events.

It found that women's sports remained under-represented, and that 22 per cent of the content of online news articles relating to women in sport "could be interpreted as sexualised articles or images" and that when "content is perceived in this way it can trivialise women’s contributions to sport and society."

Women had greater representation in social media than men, it discovered, but this was "predominantly across fitness themes with the most followed influencers focusing largely on weight loss or achieving a specific body image".

The report adds: "Many of these influencers posted what could be perceived as sexualised images of themselves and promoted an aspirational lifestyle.

"Some reporting of women by brands using social media challenged gender norms which is encouraging, while other brands perpetuated gender norms. It will be crucial to work with online news outlets to improve the representation and reporting of women and girls in sport.

"It was noted in particular that while some media outlets have already made commitments towards this important issue, one such media outlet featured zero per cent of women in the sport homepage on the first search date, suggesting that further work to improve equality of sports media representation is needed and that such commitment is patchy at best.

"It is accepted that addressing the representation of women and girls in sport and physical activity in social media may be challenging, however if real change is to be achieved it will be necessary to identify potential mechanisms of achieving change and methods of partnership working with those responsible for the representation."

Today, public health minister Joe FitzPatrick said the government would adopt the recommendations. He added: “Recent high profile sporting events such as FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Solheim Cup and the Vitality Netball World Cup have been watched, enjoyed and experienced by huge audiences. The increased visibility has not only shone a light on inspirational role models but has led to a rise in participation.

“There is much to be proud of and by accepting the Board’s recommendations we will work towards a level playing field where everyone is treated fairly and can achieve their full potential.”

Amanda Jones added: “We passionately believe that measures to increase activity levels of women and girls will make Scotland a better place to live for all.

“Our recommendations in this report are challenging but we commend them to the Scottish Government. The summer of 2019 was a momentous time for women’s sport both in Scotland and globally. It is important that we continue to build from that.”

The recommendations also ask for the development of guidance on approach and the embedding of a "culture of responsible reporting, diversity and inclusion across sports media coverage and content."

It is also recommended that media and social media outlets alongside potential commercial partners gather to discuss and commit to taking measurable steps to ensure improvement of gender balance in the Scottish media.

The report comes after other government research found that women were significantly less likely than men to meet physical activity guidelines with just 59 per cent women doing the recommended amount of activity per week, compared to 69 per cent of men; only 14 per cent of chief executive positions across Scotland’s national sports governing bodies are held by women; and 99 per cent of sponsorship investment and 95 per cent of media coverage is dedicated to men’s sport.