Women have a Long Way to Go Before They Reach Gender Parity in Sport
2022 is lauded the banner year for women’s sport. The women’s Euros have packed out stadiums, with 68,871 spectators attending the opening game at Old Trafford – far surpassing the 41,301 who watched Germany beat Norway in the 2013 final in Sweden.
Likewise, the Women’s Cricket World Cup, which was held in New Zealand between March and April, broke viewing records of its own. And the first ever Tour de France Femmes, which starts in Paris on July 24th, is set to draw an unparalleled audience.
It is clear women’s sport has come a long way. However, even to this day, the top 100 female athletes make only about 80 per cent of the prize money their male counterparts do. Meanwhile, research commissioned by The Daily Telegraph found that 54 per cent of sportswomen say they have suffered gender discrimination, almost three-quarters feel judged on how they look, and more than a third have been subjected to sexist comments. Throughout my boxing career, I’ve seen these issues first-hand, with many young women entering the sport explaining that body image concerns have made them feel less confident. It is important we have regulation to ensure sports clothing and equipment are designed with performance in mind, and not appearance, to ensure women feel comfortable taking part. A case in point is the controversy that was stirred when the Women’s Norwegian Beach Handball Team was fined for wearing shorts instead of the revealing regulation bikinis. The women’s team eventually prevailed, forcing a change in rules that was both symbolic and real.
Inequality in sport is not only evident at the elite level but also among youngsters. Sports England found that girls’ participation in team sports is only 41 per cent, compared to 63 per cent for boys, with girls dropping out of sport at two times the rate of boys by age 14. It is clear we must do more to encourage women and girls to take up sport, with team games and physical activity servicing as a catalyst for social mobility.
As the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development affirms, ‘We recognise the growing contribution of sport… to the empowerment of women and of young people, individuals, and communities as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.’
Sport can help to break gender stereotypes, encouraging girls to defy social norms by building confidence, speaking up, and strengthening leadership skills. Placing themselves on an equal footing with boys, sport also by its very nature demands dedication, discipline, and teamwork, helping to nurture essential skills for future success. And crucially, sport helps women to develop a more positive body image by valuing qualities such as strength.
Despite all the flaws in the system, it appears the tide is now turning in women’s sport. For one, funding has accelerated. In 2018, UEFA promised a 50% funding increase for women’s football, while FIFA announced a strategy to double women’s participation in football by 2026.
Similarly, other sports such as boxing are making great strides, with organisations such as BoxWise – the flagship initiative of the Nick Maughan Foundation – driving change by encouraging more women and girls into the ring.
Recognising women as vastly underrepresented in boxing, BoxWise, which is founded by Nick Maughan and Rick Ogden, offers female-led coaching classes to help more young women discover the infinite benefits of the sport. Providing a safe haven for women to develop their skills and talents, BoxWise’s free ten-week programme helps disadvantaged and vulnerable communities maximise all opportunities around them.
As a member of the BoxWise Advisory Board, I was incredibly proud to support the launch of BoxWise’s programme in South Africa. Travelling to Cape Town, I helped BoxWise roll out two 10-week programmes – one that seeks to empower young people, and another female-only which is specifically designed for women at risk of gender-based violence.
The female-only programme helps vulnerable people rebuild their lives after trauma by supporting women to develop confidence and self-belief, while also providing an essential support network. The programme also offers practical advice and progression routes to help its graduates enter employment or further education.
By joining the BoxWise team in South Africa, I felt honoured to help inspire the women to believe in themselves. Telling my story, I could see the women understand that anything is possible with dedication and hard work, and in only a matter of days, we could see the programme making a real difference.
It is clear sport holds an unparalleled ability to change lives, particularly for women and girls. However, while we are seeing progress with women’s sport, this progress is not enough. While there is an increased focus on the gender balance of athletes competing in sporting events such as the Euros, there is still too little attention on the other pieces in the puzzle. To truly widen access to sport, the issue must be addressed holistically, with work beginning early and at a grassroots level.