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Gender equality in sports – the key role of communicationsDecember 1, 2021

Gender equality in sport has really come to the foreground in recent years.

While significant progress has been made ‘on the field’, equality must mean far more than the same number of female athletes means their male counterparts. Increased female representation in governance is of course crucial, but true equality must also encompass the way that sport actors (IFs, media, clubs, leagues, etc..) communicate about their sports, the athletes and their performances.

The increased Instagram followership of Barcelona star Alexia Putellas following her Ballon d’Or success, from around 400,000 to just under million in hours, provides yet another example that the appetite for women’s sport is there – it just needs the fair platform. Sports coverage is a powerful tool that can influence people, in a positive and negative way, by shaping societal norms. But how can sports organisations best ensure they apply a bias-free communication?

Here are three recommendations you can apply to avoid falling into clichés and stereotypes when portraying athletes:

1) Give women’s and men’s sports events the same visibility

Women’s sport has, for much of the past century, been discriminated against. It is little wonder, then, that it often does not currently generate the same income as male sport today. But the mistakes of the past should not be justification for the future. For sports organizations, giving male and female sport an equal marketing and communications space to shine can be a very simple exercise – measuring, and improving, the space and visibility that women’s sport has on its communication platforms and in its communication campaigns.

2) Focus on the performance of the athlete

Sportswomen often do not want to be defined by their roles as a mother, or by their body image and some other gender-driven clichés. Communication must focus on the athlete’s accomplishment and results. You don’t want to ask the first ever female ballon d’or winner to twerk, right?

3) Use gender-neutral language

Using vocabulary that applies to males and females (e.g., strong, graceful, athletic, determined, athlete, sportsperson, etc..) will make your lives easier and help you to avoid gendered or sexist descriptions (e.g., girly, like a man, etc..).

Going further, sports should also consider whether we should continue making the difference when talking about men’s or female’s sports? Why do we refer to “women’s football”, for example, when we don’t do the same for the male equivalent? Several Federations have taken interesting steps in tackling this – and though it may seem trivial – the trickle down effect of these changes is real – it gives the message that sport is for everyone, not just males.

For sports organisations thinking moving about communicating in a more gender neutral manner, the following tools can be helpful:

  • UNESCO with its first ever sports media-focused gender equality Chrome extension called Her Headline
  • Eurovision sport with its 2021 publication on “Reimagining sport pathways to gender-balanced media coverage”
  • IOC with their “portrayal guidelines for gender balanced representation”

Women’s sport remains a huge opportunity for sports organisations across the world, both to increase revenues and inspire new segments of viewers and athletes. Communications must not be a be a passive bystander to this future growth, but a catalyst in itself.