Kicking Off: How Women in Sport Are Changing the Game
Women in sport are fighting for equality with more vigour than ever. But are they breaking down the barriers that stand in their way? Sarah Shephard looks behind the headlines to see if progress really is being made…
In her new book, ‘Kicking Off: How Women in Sport are Changing the Game’, Sport magazine features editor Sarah Shephard asks the questions at the forefront of the debate about women in sport. Why do the most successful female athletes earn less than their male counterparts? Why do so few elite sportswomen have the profile their talent deserves? And why are girls still growing up believing that sport is ‘for boys’?
She also interviews the ever-awesome Nicole Cooke, former international rugby star Maggie Alphonsi and the legendary Billie Jean King for their personal experiences of being a woman at the top of their sports.
Here, we chat to Sarah about her experience of writing the book, then share the inspirational foreword by Chrissie Wellington, four-time Ironman World Champion (pictured above).
We love Nicole Cooke at Casquette Towers. What stood out for you about her interview?
Wow, what doesn’t stand out about Nicole Cooke? I’d read her book before interviewing her and had previously interviewed her for Sport magazine ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But it was only once we sat down and spoke about her career as a whole that I fully understood the deep frustrations and huge obstacles she had faced throughout it. It was clear from the way she spoke that the battles she’d had to consistently fight had left their scars. I was left in awe at the way she was able to deal with the huge stresses she had off the bike while giving everything she could to her pursuits on it.
What do you think needs to be done to ensure women are on an equal footing when it comes to pay and profile?
I think one of the keys to lasting change is to ensure that there’s a joined-up approach from every side. That includes the media, governing bodies, education leaders, marketers, brands – they all need to be working towards the same ultimate aim of ensuring girls grow up believing there are no girls’ sports and boys’ sports. There is just sport. At the moment it feels as though these parties have the desire to change things but no idea how to go about it. Pooling resources, knowledge and experiences can only help to move things forward.
You interviewed some incredible women to make this book happen. Did anyone in particular stand out?
They all stand out for their own reasons, but if I had to pick one it would be Billie Jean King. She has been a driving force for change and equality for decades, yet remains as passionate about levelling the playing field for women in sport as she has ever been.
Are there any anecdotes that are particularly poignant from these interviews?
I really enjoyed speaking to rugby coach Giselle Mather about her journey to become the only Level 3 qualified female rugby coach in the country. She had a six-week-old baby at the time of a critical coaching course, so called the RFU [the sport’s governing body] to ask if it was okay to bring her child along to the course as she was still breastfeeding.
Given no woman had taken this course before, you can imagine that they weren’t really sure of the answer. They eventually agreed that it would be okay, but if the baby started crying she would have to leave. No pressure!
Mather also recalled one of the ‘practical’ sessions during which she was on the field surrounded by men (most of who were ex-rugby players). Not long into the session, one of her fellow coaching trainees literally picked her up and carried her over to the sidelines “for her own safety”. She agrees this was probably for the best!
Did the process of writing the book make you feel positive or depressed about the future of pro women’s sport?
A bit of both. Looking back highlighted how far we have come in some respects. Take the story of Roberta Gibb, who had to disguise herself as a man to run the 1966 Boston Marathon because women weren’t allowed to run marathons at that time. Seeing women running marathons and ultra marathons these days is the norm.
In other ways it showed me how much work there is left to do, particularly when looking at girls’ attitudes to sport and PE during school age.
How can it be that in 2016 girls are still growing up believing that sport is for boys? I meet so many women who suddenly ‘discover’ sport in their 30s or even later, after years of believing it’s not something for them. I don’t want future generations to echo that journey. I want them to be able to enjoy sport and all the benefits it can bring from as young an age as possible.
Foreword to 'Kicking Off' by Chrissie Wellington, four-time Ironman world champion
Overall I feel that I am one of the lucky ones. While, yes, there have been hurdles to overcome, I feel that my gender has never held me back from achieving my dreams. As an athlete I was fortunate to take part in a sport that, despite its faults, is relatively egalitarian from a gender perspective. Women race on the same day and over the same course as men. At the professional level, the prize purse is the same for men and women, opportunities for sponsorship and media coverage are, in my view, equal between the sexes, and the ratio of men to women (at the shorter races and within triathlon clubs) is becoming increasingly even…
As this thought-provoking book shows, we have a wealth of athletes at the elite level who have helped to create this platform of opportunity for athletes like me. We see pioneers like Billie Jean King and Roberta Gibb who paved the way for women to have an opportunity to take part, both at an amateur level and professionally. We have women who are carving out a path in male-dominated arenas such as cycling, football and cricket. We see those who are challenging stereotypes and cultural barriers simply by taking part. These women are leaving a legacy that goes far beyond times or medals. It’s a legacy that will endure and help change the face of the global sporting landscape.
However, despite the rays of light, we know that the overall picture is far from rosy and we see many sports that are languishing far behind in terms of equality in governance, participation, event and race opportunities, and commercial sponsorship.
Ask yourselves... How can it be right for the champion of the most prestigious multi-stage female cycling race, the 10-day Giro Rosa, to be awarded €525 when the winner of the Tour de France pockets €450,000? How can it be right to have to search with a fine-tooth comb to see a story on a sportswoman on the back pages of a mainstream newspaper? How can it be right that only 27 per cent of the boards of national governing bodies for sport in the UK are female?
The impact of these rules and traditions are grave, and go far beyond the professional sporting sphere. This book casts a thorough, much-needed eye on many of these questions. It is only by having such a spotlight shone on this subject that we can begin to find lasting solutions.
Let us not look back in 10 or 20 years’ time and rue the day that we did not strive to change the status quo. When it was normal for women to be told, as the former managing director of Birmingham City FC, Karren Brady, was, that: ‘You are going to have to be twice as good as the men to be considered even half as good.’ Or a time when we rested on our laurels and looked around us saying that ‘this isn’t a problem’, or ‘this isn’t my problem’.
We all have a role to play – elite athletes, the general public, government, national governing bodies, the media, sports managers and agents, facility providers, event organisers and other delivery bodies.
As Sarah so eloquently shows in 'Kicking Off', we can turn the tide. We can all make a difference. And we must all strive towards a situation when we no longer need a book about ‘women in sport’ to raise awareness about this hugely important issue and are able to look around and see a playing field that truly is level and open to all.
This brilliant book curates the stories of sporting legends, including Billie Jean King, Nicole Cooke and Chrissie Wellington to highlight the challenges women face at every level of sport. Kicking Off: How Women in Sport are Changing the Game by Sarah Shephard (Bloomsbury, £12.99 paperback/£10.99 eBook)