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Off mic: why women are still struggling to break football’s punditry glass ceiling

Off mic: why women are still struggling to break football’s punditry glass ceiling Eniola Aluko was one of the few female footballers to appear on a panel for ITV in this year’s World Cup television coverage (Image: James Boyes/Creative Commons)
31 Jul
While being a feminist is no longer taboo, women are still missing out on TV’s top sporting spots

The BBC’s 2018 Best Paid list names 12 men before it reaches its first woman. Forbes’ 2018 list for the 100 highest-paid sportspeople contains no females. The FIFA World Cup panels on the BBC and ITV this year seemed to be lacking in female voices, with the aptly-termed ‘man-els’ giving run downs of formations and footwork instead. It seems that women were, in the main, being kept on the subs bench during this year’s summer of sport.

The high-profile football enjoyed during the World Cup meant that it drew attention for this lack of diversity perhaps more than other televised sports. The debut of Vicki Sparks as a BBC live commentator for the Portugal versus Morocco match became a focus for public debate. Ex-Chelsea and Spurs footballer, Jason Cundy, declared on a live television interview that ‘a high-pitched tone isn’t really what I’d like to hear for 90 minutes’. His views were understandably matched and challenged; Women in Football – a network of women advocating for increased female involvement in the football industry – declared Sparks a ‘history-maker’, while the denizens of Twitter had a typically mixed response.

From an academic perspective, Dr Rebecca Olive, socio-cultural studies lecturer at the University of Queensland, sees this as an ongoing issue. She explains how ‘sexist ideas about women continue to pervade sport’, meaning women’s ‘appearance, voices and looks are under much more scrutiny than men’s, while their credentials for being able to comment with authority about sport is often questioned’. In a similar vein, Dr Jairo Lugo-Ocando, lecturer in media and communication at the University of Leeds, believes the key problem is ‘how the news media highlights men’s accomplishments but does not seem to acknowledge women’s achievements’. In the Sparks case, being awarded the role was almost overlooked, with many of the comments and criticism focused purely on her delivery rather than her being the first woman to take the microphone at such a high level.

Olive highlights the link between women’s place in playing sport, and their place in reporting it. She explains that ‘women are still seen as secondary to men, with their physical capacities and capabilities always assumed to be lesser.’ She uses a case involving Andy Murray when ‘in 2016, he was congratulated for being the first tennis player to win two Olympic gold medals. He pointed out to the presenter that the Williams sisters had already won four medals each.’ With females considered to perform at a lower standard, their opinions are subsequently considered in this same light.

The highly successful Williams sisters (Image: Leonard Zhukovsky)The highly successful Williams sisters (Image: Leonard Zhukovsky)

Nonetheless, Olive does not see this as an irreparable issue. She details how it is becoming increasingly common to find women ‘using alternative media spaces such as community radio, podcasts and blogs to give their voices space and airtime and to prove the popularity and the value of their contributions.’ While there is no podcast dedicated to women’s perspectives on football, female opinions are getting out there and an openness to female sporting involvement is also being noted. The UEFA Women’s Euro 2017 quarter-final broke records for the number of viewers; over three million tuned in to watch England beat France 1-0.

The voice of the feminists also appears to be gaining popularity and acceptance. ‘Feminism’ was Merriam-Webster’s 2017 word of the year, following a 70 per cent surge in searches of the term since 2016. Identification is up too: university feminist societies are reporting their largest memberships to date, with the Bristol University Intersectional Feminist Society hosting over 1,000 members on Facebook, while the Intersectional Feminist Society at King’s College, London at King’s College, London has over 500 supporters.

While there seems to be less of an issue with standing up for gender equality, women are still having to fight for equal time with the ball. Sparks’ achievement should have been a milestone in sports broadcasting according to Women in Football, yet instead it was used mainly as an opportunity for criticism and comparison. While England’s sporting women have made it to the final stages of international tournaments, it seems that women’s voices in sport aren’t there just yet.

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