Sexism in Sport

At the time of writing we are just on the brink of the start of this year’s Wimbledon tennis tournament. As a massive tennis fan and an avid follower of world tennis there is lots to look forward to. However, it is also an especially good time to remember that the battle for gender equality continues in almost every international mainstream sport. This piece focuses on the situation in tennis, the problems of sexism being particularly obvious in this sport.

The fight for equality in tennis has a long and fairly well known history. One might think of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs’ famous “battle of the sexes” match as a significant event in terms of the recognition of women in this sport. There has been progress but there is still a way to go. It was only in 2016 that Raymond Moore, the then CEO of the Indian Wells tournament, said that women “don’t make any decisions” in the sport and are “very, very lucky.” He continued, “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’ve carried this sport”.

We should also remember that the experiences of all women are not the same and it is important that we take an intersectional approach. Black women often experience sexism in a more brutal way than the white women tennis players. The experience of the Williams sisters is a case in point. For example, the racism that the pair experienced at Indian Wells in 2001 led the two to boycott the tournament for 14 years. Moreover, Serena is constantly pitted against Maria Sharapova. It is doubtful that there would be such a media hype of a rivalry between the two if Serena was a white woman given that the head-to-head shows that there is no competition between them: Serena has won 19 of their 21 meetings!

As a point of principle we must have equality between the sexes. One element of this would be to ensure that there is the same amount of prize money in both the men’s and the women’s draws. It would be hoped that the intrinsic importance of promoting equality between women and men, especially in context of the patriarchal society in which we all live, would be enough to justify the giving of equal prize money, however, for the sake of argument, a couple of reasons that point against equal prize money will be tackled.

  • Firstly, there is the argument that the men play best of 5 and the women play best of 3 sets. However, this is only true of the four grand slam tournaments and so cannot apply to the vast majority of professional matches. Moreover, the length of the match does not necessarily always go to the quality of play and in any case what the grand slam rules are is out of the female players’ hands.
  • Secondly, there is the argument that pay should be based on ticket sale revenue. However, this would be an unfair approach because women would be at a disadvantage given that often the overwhelming majority of the publicity of the matches focuses on the men’s draw and so accordingly this is where the majority of attention is focused.

The pay gap between men and women in tennis is closing but there is still a way to go till we reach a stage where the men and women perform on an equal platform. Let’s hope that this year’s Wimbledon’s treatment of the two draws provides an example of how the sport should develop going forward.

Article by Helen Taylor

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