Changing the Game with Women’s Sports

“We could see – as sports fans, parents, people in the world – the huge difference that female players, women’s games and girls teams received. Our culture was so deeply ingrained with this long-term subliminal bias that it wasn’t as valuable, as skilled or as successful. It didn’t occupy the same space in our hearts and minds as men’s sport. We didn’t respond to it culturally in the same way.” These are the words of Sarah Colgan, founder of the 20×20 movement. 

Sports coverage is hugely powerful in shaping norms and stereotypes about gender. The media has the ability to challenge these norms. It can prompt a balanced coverage of men’s and women’s sport, as well as a good portrayal of sportspeople, regardless of gender. 

The representations of sports and athletes can contribute to the event of harmful gender stereotypes. Women athletes tend to be represented as women first and athletes second. References to appearance, age or family life commonly dominate the coverage of women in sports, whereas men are depicted as powerful, independent, dominating and valued as athletes. 

In a recent survey by students of TU Dublin, those between 20-25  were asked via social media if they agreed or disagreed that women’s sport receives the recognition and media coverage it deserves. The survey was made up of 39 women and 13 men. 6% of participants agreed with this statement, while 75% disagreed. 

Forms response chart. Question title: Women's sport receives the recognition and media coverage it deserves. Number of responses: 52 responses.

Survey results. Graphic courtesy of Samantha Dempsey 

The weeks of the Olympics are a rare time when sustained coverage of female sports stars hits the headlines. However, outside of the time frame of major sporting events, statistics claim that women’s sports receive only around 4% of all sports media coverage, despite the fact that 40% of all sports participants are women. Of that limited coverage, women are often objectified or degraded. 

In October 2018, the 20×20 initiative was born. It became the first movement of its kind in Ireland championing women and girls in sports so they are seen as strong, valuable and worth celebrating. After all, “if she can’t see it, she can’t be it”, the project highlights. 

Sarah Colgan and Heather Thornton, of the creative agency ‘Along Came A Spider’, came up with the original concept for the initiative and got the backing of the Federation of Irish Sport and five major brands. These included KPMG, AIG, Investec, Lidl and Three.

 Unfortunately, the findings on its achievements are skewed due to the cancellation of most sports due to the pandemic. This meant that only the years 2018 and 2019 could be measured. 

Forms response chart. Question title: Have you heard of the 20x20 movement?. Number of responses: 52 responses.

While 69% of respondents were involved in organised sport in Ireland, the survey showed that 63% of them had no knowledge of the 20×20 movement, in which over 600 clubs across 45 sports representing every county in Ireland pledged to support women and girls in their communities to become more involved in sport by signing the 20×20 Clubs Charter. 

Sarah Colgan said, “The main objective of 20×20 was to make a dent in culturally shifting our perception and making people aware of it. The three main targets set were participation, attendance and media coverage.”

Despite the survey results, research commissioned by the campaign found that 75% of men surveyed said that 20×20 had changed their mindset positively towards women’s sport. There was also success on the participation scale, with 42% of women surveyed saying they are participating in more sports and physical activity as a result of the movement. 

Colgan is “really happy with the progress made in 2018 and 2019”. She said, “Even though sport had to stop in 2020 in terms of training, physical fitness and fixtures, we shifted our messaging to physical activity with the hashtag ‘No Proving Just Moving’, with women showing 20-minute snippets of things to get yourself going again and that was very successful.”

She said there was a 50% increase in the coverage of women’s sport in online media in the first year of the campaign alone, but this was coming from a very low base. In 2018, women in sport accounted for only 4% of all sports coverage in online media. In 2019, when they were only halfway through the campaign, it accounted for 6%, but “it should still never be that low”.

“It was really encouraging in terms of the increase and it was very frustrating that sport stopped, because it wasn’t as easy for media to cover it, it wasn’t as easy to attend and it wasn’t as easy to play. The number of articles on women’s sport showed a 20% increase in the same time period,” Colgan said. 

As a result of the 20×20 movement, there was a 53% increase in women’s sport in print media. Colgan was delighted with this, “because print tends to give the excuse of having a finite amount of space”. She said, “Before 20×20, the coverage of women’s sport accounted for 3% of all sports coverage in print media and in 2019, it accounted for 5%. It’s a low percentage but the number of articles on women’s sport saw a 60% increase from 2018-2019.”

Campaign research showed that there was an overall increase in the number of women’s sport articles generated since 2018, and an increase in the amount of space dedicated to women in sport. This means that the articles that are featured are taking up more space than they did in 2018. However, television coverage declined while audience figures increased. 

In terms of the future of the 20×20 campaign, Colgan emphasised that, for her, “what’s going to be an ongoing mission is looking at purpose-led and having a positive social impact”. She said, “What would have been the plan would be to continue 20×20 beyond the two years, but we didn’t have the funding, it was a blood sweat and tears mission over them two years, but I think the pandemic had an impact on that.”

Colgan continued, “I hope it can come back and will come back someday but the aspects around it need to go bigger again. I would want to do it only if it was set up in the right way. It is something that is a huge personal passion of mine so I can’t imagine that as something ever dwindling away.”

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