Gender inequality in sport affects us all

Economy & Politics | Education | Employment & Skills | National | Sport

women football

Written by Rachel Mapleston from HR provider MHR.

Women’s sport has a high profile this summer with the Women’s World Cup tournaments in football and T20 cricket seeing record viewing figures and media coverage. Yet every year we see gender equality issues in the major sporting events, in terms of both pay and value perception.

This idea that the value of certain work is linked to gender is just as relevant to those of us in the ‘real’ working world who aren’t professional athletes. So what can we learn from women in sport and their campaigns for equal money and equal respect this summer?

The goal is the same, but the prizes are lame

Behind the scenes of the Women’s Football World Cup, every member of the US national team is taking legal action against the US Soccer Federation for gender discrimination. Their claim not only covers the wage gap but the whole support system, from the quality of training facilities and kit to medical services.

They have the support of Serena Williams, who alongside her sister succeeded in equalling the prize pot for men and women at Wimbledon. If the US women win their world cup bid, they can expect only 7.5% of the total prize money awarded to their male counterparts.

As well as the stark difference in pay for actual gameplay and prize money, the average gender pay gap in football, cricket and rugby is huge. Most management and coaching roles are held by men, especially at top-flight level. Of course, this issue of gender disparity at management level is by no means unique – the gender pay gap is in favour of men in every sector of the UK economy, with construction, finance and insurance topping the league.

Are there still jobs for the boys and jobs for the girls?

There have been many excuses as to why women shouldn’t participate fully in sports over the years, including women being too emotional to compete, or being physically incapable of enduring a marathon, or that it would be too inappropriate for women to dress in a way that allows the full range of physical movement.

It’s even been difficult for women to gain respect for their opinions in certain fields. We’re starting to hear female sports pundits and commentators a little more often, but progress is slow. At the same time, various studies show that many women feel their voices matter less in majority male board room meetings.

So why do ideas persist that some types of jobs are more ‘suited’ to a particular gender? Far from being harmless stereotypes, these ideas can influence the subjects young women choose to study and the careers they then pursue. They can also have a negative impact on how we perceive masculinity and the roles that are appropriate for men– the classic example being nursing, which is only 10% male in the NHS.

Your business could lose out if you don’t fix gender equality

By failing to acknowledge and adjust gender imbalances, businesses could be missing out on a huge talent pool. This could leave vacancies unfilled and cause skill gaps in the workforce. It’s a particular problem in the technology sector where there’s an ever-growing demand for new skills in new areas.

Gender inequality in a business could also hinder its ability to align with changing consumer needs. Worldwide viewing figures for women’s sports are breaking records, with cricket and football leading the pack, while rugby is one of the fastest growing female sports in the UK. This shows a change in market demands as gender expectations improve and cultural perceptions shift. Could this be happening in other sectors?

HR can act to improve gender equality

HR has a valuable role to play in supporting gender equality in the workplace, from providing people analytics to shaping and implementing policy.

In any size of organisation, HR should be conducting current and historic pay audits to identify gender pay gaps, in addition to developing mentoring and management training programmes for women.

We know that gender stereotypes can take hold at a young age, so organisations should also consider reaching out to the local community. From primary schools to universities, female professionals can help inspire young women to pursue traditionally male-dominated subject areas.

The career of a sportswoman might seem like a far cry from the ‘ordinary’ jobs that most of us have, but the issues that surround gender inequality in the workplace are the same. We all have a responsibility to build a future where women can play hard on the pitch and in the boardroom with equal pay, opportunity and respect.

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