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Sports journalism – women’s final frontier?

According to an SJA survey, less than 10% of British sports journalists are women. Odette Butson tries to find the reasons why

“Our journalists are nearly all men. We mostly cover football and rugby.” So that’s alright then.

The response was not untypical of some of the answers received in a straw poll conducted for the SJA’s website to get a clearer picture of the number of women working in sports journalism in Britain. The poll was done by ringing sports desks and reviewing websites, so statistically is entirely unreliable, but it largely confirmed what ought to be quite clear: there are very few full-time female sports journalists working in this country.

The editors of The Sun, the Sunday Mirror, the Sunday Telegraph and the London Evening Standard are all women. The Daily Express, Independent and Independent on Sunday have all had women editors in their time. Yet there has yet to be a woman sports editor of a national newspaper in Britain.

Indeed, according to our research, less than 10 per cent of sports journalists in Britain – writers, subs, photographers and broadcasters – are women.

Some of the anecdotal reactions we received when interviewing women sports journalists offered probably the strongest explanations as to why this might be.

“Women must be prepared to be isolated and to be met with resistance.”

“Women need to be better than men to succeed. On average, we are paid less, too.”

“The lack of job security might account for why women are less likely to take a risk.”

Hardly the sort of stuff to inspire confidence for women with aspirations to try to emulate the likes of Sue Mott, Clare Balding  or Eileen Langsley.

The bare facts established from our ring-round confirmed the consensus view.

The Yorkshire Post and South London Press have no full-time female journalists working on their sports desks at all. The Daily Mail, Daily Express and Observer have one each. The dailies Telegraph and Times laid claim to five each, while The Sun, still the country’s largest selling daily, is thought to be have just two. In the Scottish newspapers, there are about half a dozen women writing about sport full-time, all of whom are employed within the broadsheets.

A rule of thumb figure can be taken from the SJA itself, where less than 10 per cent of the (voluntary) membership of our organisation are women, several of whom are PR specialists.

Other, harder statistics can be gleaned from accreditation figures: at the England v Holland women’s World Cup qualifying match staged at Charlton last week, 40 per cent of the accredited journalists were women. Yet there were just 20 journalists present to cover this crucial match for an England team, about one-fifth of the number present when the England men’s team took on the might of Andorra at Old Trafford two days later.

At this year’s football World Cup, there was a solitary woman journalist accredited to write for a British paper. Yet according to the BBC, 50 per cent of its audience for the matches was female.

Making inroads in sports broadcasting
It is in broadcasting that women journalists have tended to make greater inroads in sport. The BBC estimates that a quarter of their sports staff are women, including Jacqui Oatley, the first female football commentator for Radio 5 Live, and Shelley Alexander, assistant editor of Football Focus.

In athletics, the BBC’s recent coverage of the European Championships was hosted by Sue Barker and Hazel Irvine, and there continues to be several women members of the behind-the-scenes production staff. But despite female athletes’ high profiles, no woman has yet joined the BBC’s all-male commentary box full-time alongside the Crams, Storeys and Dickensons.

While it was common 30 or 40 years ago to see disparity between the genders, this is no longer the case in areas such as medicine and law nor, judging by the number of women in senior positions elsewhere in the newsroom, in journalism. Except when it comes to the sports desk. So why are there so few women working in the sports media?

Statistics from the United States might offer some further insight. In June, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida released the results of a study commissioned by the Associated Press sports editors, surveying more than 300 newspapers across America.

It found that in the US, women make up 12.6 per cent of newspaper sports staff. Yet women now outnumber men on journalism courses at American universities – in some notable cases by a ratio of 3 to 1. According to the American research, many of these women are going into sports journalism when they graduate, but work and family issues see a large proportion of them quit the profession before they turn 30.

“One of the really major factors that people kind of nibble around the edges at is the lifestyle factor in sports media,” according to Vicki Michaelis, the president of the Association of Women in Sports Media. “This is not a profession that lends itself to family relationships very easily.”

Another study, published in the winter 2005 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication found that most women working in the sports media have faced obstacles to career progression, sexual discrimination and verbal abuse.

Thick skins required – regardless of gender
Natasha Woods is living proof that women can survive and thrive in sports journalism. Woods is the chief sports correspondent at the Sunday Herald: there can be few more male-orientated territories than covering sport in Glasgow. “Maybe it is not quite as simple as ‘if you can do the job, you get the proper respect’,” Woods says, “but in truth if you are talented, hard working and not too sensitive – this is an environment for thick skins, regardless of gender – you will succeed.”

Jacquelin Magnay holds a similarly prestigious position on one of Australia’s top newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald. She relishes what she calls the best job in the world and, despite her family commitments as a mother, says she loves the unpredictability of the work.

But Magnay knows only too well the discrimination experienced by some female journalists. In 1994, she took a case to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission which resulted in all journalists having equal access to all sporting dressing rooms.

However, as recently as 2002 she wrote about “the desperation of men to keep the game a male only domain” and a “culture of harassment to women journalists who cover rugby league”.

Too many other female sports journalists spoken to would only talk off the record, and likened the world of sports media to that of a school playground, with inner circles, territorialism and isolation.

Karina Hoskyns, a top sports photographer, says that there are advantages as well as disadvantages to being a woman in a male-dominated world. “Most of the time I don’t feel too different to my male colleagues, but obviously there are differences. Sometimes it can work in your favour, for example stewards tend to be more helpful when it comes to car park spaces or access to photo positions.

“On the other hand I do find it physically very hard carrying around the heavy lenses. I also used to find myself stuck on practice grounds on the first couple of days at golf tournaments doing the head shots, as it was thought the players would be less likely to refuse the request coming from a girl.”

The BBC’s Shelley Alexander describes her experiences as positive and extols the BBC as good employers for women, offering flexibility for staff that is unusual for the industry. She is also optimistic about an increase in women going into sports media in the future. “It’s only a matter of time as the foundations have been laid, particularly with specific sports journalism courses being available.”

It is 12 years since Woods switched from being a news and business writer to sport full-time. She believes she was fortunate to have an editor who saw the opportunity to do something different, and more significantly, a chief football writer at The Scotsman, where she then worked, who was open-minded and incredibly supportive.

His support ensured that her path into the sports writing pack was relatively smooth. “I have seldom if ever encountered sexism and given I am now the chief sports writer of a national Sunday paper in Scotland, suffice to say there couldn’t have been too many barriers put in my way.”

Woods accepts that the sports editor who appointed her may have felt it was “good PR” to have a female football writer, but she says that if the move was entirely tokenism, she would not now be a chief sports writer.

But the idea that women are used for “window dressing”, particularly in broadcasting, is widespread. In newspapers, picture bylines might be used, with a glamorous photo “more akin to being a WAG than a journalist”, according to one woman sportswriter.

Women journalists’ looks can matter, even on radio it seems. The website profile of Talk Sport presenter Lisa Francesca Nand does nothing to refute the idea that the use of women as sports broadcasters is often tokenism:

“Normally we wait for presenters to earn their stripes but we catapulted our former traffic & travel girl straight in there purely on looks”

The fact remains that, while those sort of attitudes remain, and without a large pool of women sports journalists to choose from, the chances of there being any female sports editors in the near future remains slim.

What have been your experiences of women and your sports desk? Post your views on this issue by writing in the Comment box below.

The SJA welcomes applications for membership from all sports journalists, regardless of gender, provided that they are full-time professionals

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