We had an overwhelming response when we teamed up with Women in Football for a discussion on women in sports journalism. ‘How to Level the Playing Field’, held in the imposing BBC Council Chamber at Broadcasting House. Top female talent in what is still very much a man’s world, in print journalism especially, shared their thoughts and experiences under Chatham House Rules so that they could speak freely.
No one will care about your career as much as you do, so be dogged and determined. That was the message from last week’s joint WIJ and WIF event that stuck with me. I was glad to be reminded. Sports journalism can be tough, it has its unique challenges, and the women who made up our panel of experts knew all about them.
The audience wanted to know what it was like to be a sports journalist, how they got into it.
We heard that sports journalism is inherently unsocial. You are often asked to do things and go places at a moment’s notice. That motherhood could stand in your way, and that efforts to balance the demands of life in the home with those of work can be the biggest obstacle. ‘Saying yes to a late night call asking you to travel abroad first thing in the morning becomes impossible,’ one contributor said. ‘It’s a constant juggling act with the ever-present fear of failure. You don’t want to show that it affects you, but it does.’
It’s a field dominated by men. Some editors are gender-neutral which helps, but not enough to make a difference. There’s a tendency to shift the blame, to view sexual harassment as someone else’s problem and that things are unlikely to improve so long as women are expected to work in unsafe working environments.
Then there are the put-downs, the cliched attempts at diminishing. One contributor described being constantly asked if she ‘even liked sport’ and ‘if she could explain the off-side rule’.
We heard, depressingly, that there were not enough women sports journalists coming through print journalism, but things were improving for broadcast sport, more likely because women’s sport is often sold as part of a package. It puts an obligation on broadcasters to improve coverage, and there are no such pressures in print journalism.
Sponsorship for women’s sport is still a massive challenge with everything resting on coverage. ‘It’s a chicken and egg situation,’ someone said. ‘They can’t break the cycle because the press won’t give them exposure.’
On a positive note, some felt the nature of coverage had shifted slightly: fewer fluff pieces, that terrible infantilisation that says ‘look she runs, she cooks’ has moved to a focus on actual sporting achievement. Not everyone was convinced.
So what do we do?
The panel’s advice was to use the early part of your career to take those late night calls. ‘Throw everything at it. Build the blocks that put you to the next level before you become a mother, so you have something solid to go back to.’
And don’t give up. The critical mass needed to make a difference might be a generation away. In the meantime, keep tackling the barriers, network constantly, be collegiate and join forces. Good stories help and shine a light on women in high-profile media roles because ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’