Women's sports have seen phenomenal growth in popularity, revenues, and investments in the past decade and are now seen by many as valuable commercial assets. Despite the increased visibility and support, studies have shown that the majority of female athletes intend to retire prematurely. According to the International Federation of Professional Footballers' Associations (FIFPRO), which issued a global report on employment in women's football in 2017, 90% of athletes have considered leaving the game early, the main reason being the intention to start a family. The reality faced by female athletes is perhaps symptomatic of wider expectations - until recently, childbearing was never really considered in the development and organization of most sports.
Now, the tide seems to have turned. Many high-profile pregnant athletes have raised their voices in recent years to report discriminatory practices and ask sports organizations for better protection and support. Sports organizations thus have no choice but to ask themselves what they can do to better protect and empower female athletes who start a family during their careers.
Here are three actions that sports organizations should start with to achieve this goal.
1. Develop a full understanding of challenges during pregnancy and motherhood
Beyond the more obvious financial challenges – and possible loss of wages and benefits such as health insurance and bonuses, challenges faced by athlete mothers are much broader. Professional athletes have unique working conditions, including unusual schedules, frequent travel and the almost constant risk of being relocated to another geographical location. Moreover, physical demands on the athlete's body and the industry's expectations regarding physical appearance create extra challenges during pregnancy and postpartum.
2. Adopt clear policies to improve female athlete’s working conditions
With clarity over the holistic challenge faced by pregnant athletes and athlete mothers, action has to be taken. Though every sport faces their own unique reality, clear policies should be adopted for maternity leave, protections against dismissal and potentially the rights to alternate employment during pregnancy. Developing a system to allow for athletes to travel with young children can also be important, such as access to support people, and private rooms for breastfeeding. Special consideration should also be provided to adapted training regimes for pregnant athletes, and how – for individual sports - ranking systems can be adapted to support such athletes.
3. Share the experiences of athletes with children to shape new narratives
Because of the perceived clash between motherhood and professional sport, there is an urgent need to normalize the image of pregnant athletes and athletes with children through better exposure on multiple channels. All sports organizations have an opportunity to shine a greater light on athlete mothers to create a more inclusive culture in sport, through how these athletes are highlighted and portrayed. By actively listening to the athletes and their experiences, and sharing such experiences publicly, sports organizations can ensure that their efforts to create a more inclusive culture becomes an ongoing process and inspires others to do similar.
Championing motherhood in sport is not only the right thing to do – it is also the smart thing to do. It will enable female athletes to keep competing longer and will also show sports organizations as bodies that genuinely care about athletes and their wellbeing, at a time when this is questioned with concerns over scheduling, health and safety protocols and online abuse. The result? An organization which is more attractive to athletes, fans and commercial partners alike.