The Grass Ceiling: Gender, Sports, and the Importance of Representation

19 May 2016 | By Sign Salad

With both the UEFA European Championship in France and the 31st Summer Olympics in Rio just around the corner, 2016 is gearing up for a big year in sports. Both FIFA and the International Olympics Committee have made international headlines already: 2016 is also gearing up to redefine the relationship between sports and gender. With international sporting events providing major marketing opportunities, global ad spending is forecast to grow by 4,6% this year. If brand owners are smart, they’ll be paying close attention to the current conversation about the shifting cultural codes surrounding sports and gender – A conversation which may have been long overdue.

Following the scandal-ridden, “women should wear hotpants to make women’s football more marketable” reign of Sepp Blatter over FIFA, newly elected president Gianni Infantino recently called women “part of the solution for the future of football,” advocating for more representation of women in football both on the field and in executive positions. Back in February, the IOC announced new guidelines on the inclusion of transgender athletes, allowing for the first time the participation of trans athletes in international sporting events without having completed gender-reassignment surgery. Both announcements were widely celebrated as a step in the right direction to bridge the gap of gender inequality in sports.

Gender equality and sports have long had a complicated and not always amicable relationship. In Ancient Greece, the cradle of all global international sports events, women were banned outright from competing in the sporting arena. When the Olympic Games were revived for the Modern Era in 1894, Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the IOC, had initially hoped to adhere to this tradition. To Coubertin, “an Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper.”

As early as the 1900 Olympics held in Paris, however – and much to Coubertin’s dismay – 22 out of 997 competing athletes were women, scoring four gold medals in five disciplines – only two of which offered women-only competitions. It would take another 112 years until women would eventually be admitted to all disciplines held at the Games. Nicola Adams eventually became the first female boxer to win a gold medal during the London Olympics in 2012, a mere four years ago. Athleticism has a long history of being culturally defined in what were historically deemed male terms: Notions of muscular strength, competitive fervour, speed and physical exertion contradicted dominant cultural constructs of femininity cultivated in Europe over centuries. Sports for women, if at all, were only seen as a ladylike activity if they highlighted their gentle and graceful qualities.

These limitations notwithstanding, women in 2016 have reached an unprecedented visibility in the world of sports. Last year, more than 750 Million viewers watched the FIFA women’s world cup. The final between the USA and Japan alone broke records in several countries around the world. With almost 23 Million television viewers, it is the most-watched football match in US history.

And yet, women are still a long shot away from breaking the grass ceiling. Even the most decorated female athletes lag behind their male peers in pay, endorsement deals, exposure, and reputability. Only this March, Indian Wells Tennis Garden CEO Raymond Moore went on record saying “if I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have,” and went on to laud female tennis players for being physically attractive. His remarks promptly received international media outrage, forcing Moore to resign a mere day later.

As Moore’s comments and the immediate media backlash prove, the days of sports as a boys club aren’t quite over, but tides are changing. What for centuries were considered objective truths about gender, are now understood as harmful and oppressive cultural constructs – and the sports industry is catching up. The number of women in positions of power within the sports industry is slowly but steadily growing – from Kathryn Smith being appointed as the first female full-time coach in the history of he NFL, to Michele Roberts serving as the first female president of the NBA Players Association. As a recent study conducted by Repucom suggests, the numbers of women as a sports audience and consumers are on the rise as well.

For brands, this cultural shift marks a huge opportunity to play a part in an ongoing and vital conversation about sports and gender representation, and to champion women and gender minorities as elite athletes, fighters, and empowered players in the world of sports and beyond. But in order to do so successfully, brands must make an active effort to understand how and why these codes are being updated.


Aesthetically pleasing, playful, and graceful vs. athletically driven, serious, and competitive – female athletes in the The WTA’s Strong is Beautiful campaign from 2011 and Lidl Ireland’s #SeriousSupport campaign from 2016

Back in 2011, the Women’s Tennis Association landed itself in hot water when it launched its Strong is Beautiful campaign. The adverts featured many of the WTA’s star players wearing billowing designer dresses, surrounded by colourful fog and glitter, all captured in beautiful slow motion cinematography reminiscient of a perfume or fashion advert. While the campaign was meant to raise female tennis players’ profiles, many critics felt that it achieved the exact opposite.

Rather than presenting them as strong and successful competitors and viable athletes, the visual imagery signalled these often record-breaking athletes as graceful, soft, and otherworldly creatures, thus inadvertently tapping into positively Victorian stereotypes of femininity and the female athlete. As Ms. Magazine editor Michele Kort observed at the time, foregrounding female athletes’ physical attractiveness in sports advertising could easily be read as perpetuating the notion “that women have to prove their femininity off court, while men can prove their masculinity on court.”

The fact that representations such as these can be part of the problem was highlighted effectively – and to much social media attention – in Lidl Ireland’s #SeriousSupport campaign which featured the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association. The campaign followed a widely circulated, celebrity-endorsed – and ultimately fake – cross-media campaign promoting the “Ladyball,” a pink football made for “a woman’s ability” and “a woman’s style,” parodying the tone of voice of gendered sports advertising. A twitter handle further tapped into the codes of faux-empowerment with tweets like “Don’t break a nail, break boundaries with #Ladyball”.

When the actual campaign was revealed a few days later, it scrapped the notion that female athletes had to be always beautiful, graceful, or even pleasant. Instead, it featured female players actively engaged in their sport, withstanding wind and weather, getting bruised, getting back up on their feet, and fighting for the win. It is a portrayal of athleticism long reserved for men, but an equal playing field seems finally within reach.

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