From hurdles to glass ceiling

Inas Mazhar , Tuesday 4 Aug 2020

The International Sports Press Association held its first digital seminar in July on the challenges facing female sports journalists worldwide

Angela Awcon

If asked to name a few of the most famous sportswomen in the world today, most people who watch, play, or read about sports would rattle off at least some names, among them Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Maria Sharpova. But for the same people, the task of listing the names of women journalists gets much harder. There simply are not that many women sports journalists of world repute, especially in the Middle East region.

In trying to break through the glass ceiling, it often seems that female sports journalists, whether print or broadcast, must try harder to succeed than their male counterparts. This is a subtle but damaging form of discrimination by which women often cannot grasp the opportunities they have in front of them despite their suitability and best efforts.

If women’s sports at a global level are progressing and spectator interest is increasing, it is safe to say that women in the media have definitively helped to bring these things about. Several sportswomen after retiring from the field have signed on to work for TV and radio stations as commentators and at newspapers as reporters, fields once entirely dominated by men.

Seeing a woman journalist or even a woman photographer on a sports field is now a familiar sight, but not too long ago they were looked upon as intruders on the field. Even so, for those who have established names for themselves it has been a tough route for women sports journalists to take.

It was with these things in mind that the International Sports Press Association (AIPS) organised its first digital seminar for women sports journalists from 21 to 30 July, bringing together around 400 journalists from almost 100 countries to attend an event entitled “the Cost of Reporting while Female”.

The seminar, aimed at tackling gender inequality in the media industry, was split into four sessions: underrepresentation; the forgotten; the pay gap; and the gender backlash. The seminar was also open to male sports journalists, who also have a role to play in ensuring the elimination of gender bias and discrimination in newsrooms. Each session ended with an open discussion where participants shared their stories and asked questions.

The first session, underrepresentation, saw the participation of the present writer as a panelist together with colleagues from Japan, Australia, the US, Spain, and Argentina. Each spoke about her own experience in the field and how she had managed to break through into what was once considered a male field.

From Japan, Wakako Yuki said she had found her job in a leading daily newspaper because the sports editor had “needed someone who could enter female athletes’ locker-rooms”. In Argentina, Viviana Vila had learned to cope with demoralising comments from colleagues when she became the country’s first female football commentator, first on radio and then on TV. In the US, Donna de Varona had quit her job at a national TV network twice out of frustration because she was being made to feel that a women’s voice had no credibility in sports.

Speaking from Australia, Tracey Holmes said she had had to deal with remarks questioning her credibility when she became the first female anchor of a national sports programme. The present writer had made sure that marriage and children had not derailed her drive to succeed in sports journalism. From Spain, Maria Ángeles Samperio Martín said she was faced with daily concerns about the challenges of women journalists as president of the Gender Council of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

These women, pioneers from five continents, had learned how to fight against prejudice and misogyny as they had become used to being the one and only woman in an otherwise entirely male press conference or newsroom.

Even if some of the stories had happened three or more decades ago, the situation has not changed much, they said. According to AIPS vice-president Evelyn Watta, conversations around gender inequality are not new, but the seminar had set the tone for refreshing discussions about one of the most prevalent issues in society.

“If I have learned anything from my life’s journey in sports, it is that although progress has taken way too long it is possible to make change happen. However, it takes relentless, unified voices of support from both men and women,” double Olympic US gold medalist swimmer de Varona said.

EXPERIENCES: Now a sports broadcaster and gender equality activist, de Varona had to quit competitive swimming at only 17 because women athletes were not offered university scholarships like their male counterparts in the US.

 She could not accept sponsorship contracts or use her fame to earn a living wage. That experience shaped her into a vocal and articulate activist for women athletes.

Thanks to her fame and accomplishments as an athlete, she made a smooth transition into sports journalism, becoming the youngest sportscaster for a national TV network in the US and one of the first female sportscasters at the national network ABC. She was respected for her expertise in her sport, but making the transition into other sports took over a decade because “a women’s voice had no credibility in sports. I left ABC two times out of frustration,” she said.

By the time she returned to the network seven years later, she had garnered invaluable knowledge, experience, and contacts that placed her above those male colleagues that had disregarded her voice.

“You are not alone,” Tracey Holmes, senior reporter at ABC News, assured her. “Even if you are the only woman in the arena, the only female at the press conference, or the only one on tour with a national team — and all of us have been that only woman — we know what you are going through and we are here to offer you strength.”

Holmes now travels to countries like the Philippines, India, and Indonesia to train and mentor women in countries where there are still many challenges to women’s playing a role in sports journalism.

As Holmes acknowledged, men still occupy most of the heads of news or sport positions in journalism, and she believes that “until there is substantial change and gender equity in those decision-making positions the challenges will remain for women who work as reporters.”

However, she encourages women journalists to “be proud of your efforts, not disheartened by them.” She said they should “grow a thick skin” when it comes to bullies, rude remarks, and abuse.

Some 30 years ago, the present writer, now deputy editor and head of sports at Al-Ahram Weekly, was told by male colleagues to find another job “where I would need only to sit at a desk and go home to my parents or my husband at midday.” Of course, I did not listen to them.

For the first nine years of my career, I was turned down for interviews by some coaches or athletes and denied the right to ask questions in press conferences, often by my male colleagues, as they thought questions coming from women would be trivial or unprofessional. But I never took no for an answer.

I got married when I had found a broad-minded and understanding man, but some people thought marriage and children could hinder a career in sports journalism for a woman. They were wrong, of course, as I maintained my successful streak. I worked hard and travelled while pregnant and resumed work immediately after my three-month maternity leave.

It was important for me to prove myself. I believe that if women sports journalists are to succeed, they should work for it, fight for it, in order to prove themselves. No one is going to fight on their behalf. It is they, and they alone, who must carve out a niche for themselves among their male counterparts. As my experience attests, they will be welcome when they have done so. These women are taking on a huge responsibility, as they continue to fight for what they, and enlightened members of our society, believe is right.

The situation of women sports journalists in Egypt today is that they have largely proven themselves, if not in covering male events, then at least in fighting for women’s sports and trying to spread women sports through reporting and covering them in detail. In the early 1990s, there were only four women members of the Sports Press Association in Egypt along with 170 male colleagues. Now there are around 40 women registered in the Association, along with 600 male colleagues, not to mention women freelancers who are not officially registered.

When Yuri decided to find her place in sports journalism in Japan, it was to prove that “a female journalist has quality and deep understanding,” she said. She did not allow her quality to go unnoticed. “Many of my male colleagues gave me advice and support,” she added.

She was also used as a “trial” when the number of female sports journalists increased in Japan. “I was happy to see them entrusted with key functions covering professional baseball and football, even becoming leading writers for Olympics sports coverage. I created a small change, though I have never entered female athletes’ locker rooms to date,” she commented.

 From Argentina, Viviana Vila, a sports journalist, TV commentator, and lecturer at the Universidad Nacional De La Plata, can boast of being the only female football commentator on national TV and the first Spanish-speaking commentator for a FIFA World Cup for continental giants Telemundo. However, she faced obstacles in earning such accolades, and she is grateful for every step that has brought her to her current position.

“When I started, I was alone, and it was hard because I naturalised the mistreatment and disrespect. But today, we have, as a feminine collective, gained spaces, voices, and decisions. We are not alone. You are not alone,” she said.

She underlined the cruelty that comes with having to “explain each of our actions and our opinions because there is a male audience that questions and judges.” This is an audience with a “giant magnifying glass” waiting for one to fail. It was for this reason that Vila made sure to raise her son Valentino with the values of equality, justice, and human rights.

Martín, editor of the newspaper El Diario Montañes, spoke about the Gender Council of the IFJ, an organisation that represents more than 600,000 professionals worldwide and their efforts in “advancing equality in the field of journalism, both in terms of professional performance and in avoiding the salary gap and promoting access to management positions for women journalists.

“There is also, of course, everything that has to do with sexual harassment in the newsrooms and on the street and also with cyber-bullying,” she said.

She explained that there has been greater concern with such things in the field of sports journalism recently, which led to a motion being approved by the last IFJ Congress in Tunis in 2019.

The motion called “on sports federations around the world to launch prevention campaigns to strongly and publicly condemn attacks on journalists, especially when they are women; encourages all governments, through the relevant ministries, to take action to denounce violence against women in the exercise of their profession as journalists; and calls on all trade unions worldwide to reflect on how to better protect women journalists with a view to taking action to achieve this.”

OPPORTUNITIES: The second session of the seminar tackled the issue of fewer opportunities and lower salaries for female sports journalists and their need to fight for equal rights.

As a 19-year-old cadet journalist working for a newspaper in Australia in the late 1970s, Roslyn Morris would write “all manner of articles”, take and develop photographs, produce newspaper supplements, drive the paper to the printers, and even deliver stacks of papers to newsagents. “I felt very important doing this,” she recalls. However, she realised years later that her boss at the time, a man, “was being paid quite handsomely for my work” and she resolved to not let that happen again.

“Throughout my career working as a TV, radio, and newspaper journalist in Australia, I was a member of the Australian Journalists Association and covered by an award that dictated salaries according to experience for both men and women,” she explains.

The AIPS secretary-general shared this story alongside the stories of panelists Leila Behferhat (Algeria), Christine Brennan (US) and Rica Roy (India) at the seminar, establishing that a lack of respect and limited opportunities, as influenced by an often deeply rooted patriarchal mentality, were some of the factors fueling the gender pay gap.

Morris shared a story of two young women who were assigned to report on a breaking news story involving several deaths in a small community. They carried out this task so passionately and painstakingly, from door-knocking for interviews to writing up the story as it developed. But all their hard work was sacrificed at the altar of sexism, so that their male counterpart, who was not involved in the reporting, could “get experience”, she said.

 The woman who told this incident to Morris was taken off the TV coverage of the breaking news story to benefit the male journalist, who also got his name on the byline when the story was published online. 

Behferhat agreed that there was still far too much discrimination against female sports journalists. She has been working for Algerian public television since 2001 and is one of the first Arab commentators on both women’s and men’s football on Algerian television.

“To start with, we can say that female sports journalists in the Arab world are looked at from a perspective of inferiority,” she observed, adding that women are largely undervalued as their opinions and suggestions are still too often regarded as unimportant.

In India, the fate of women in journalism, especially with the present Covid-19 pandemic dealing a crippling blow to the newspaper industry, has been a bleak one. Rica Roy, deputy editor at New Delhi Television, said that “the pages that employ women more — culture, features, society, entertainment, and the environment — were the first to be knocked out by the pandemic.

 “While in digital media there are a lot more women today, in TV the numbers have shown a decline. Until 2017, I worked in a team that had 10 women sports journalists, but today I am the only one,” she added.

US sports journalist Christine Brennan is optimistic for the future, however. “During the pandemic, we will likely lose ground on the battle for pay equity. But demographics and the march of women wanting careers in sports is only increasing,” she said. “I remember the days when 20 to 30 women wrote about sports in America. Now there are more than 1,000. The glass is half-full for sure.”

Brennan, who has covered the Olympics since the 1984 Los Angeles Games, is grateful for the impact of the US anti-discrimination legislation Title IX on her career, allowing her to move from a six-sport athlete in high school to USA Today’s national sports columnist and a commentator for the networks CNN, ABC, NPR and PBS NewsHour.

According to Brennan, Title IX offered incredible opportunities for women and girls to play sports and also to have careers in sports. “I feel fortunate and lucky,” she said, as she shared a photograph of her first Olympics coverage 36 years ago with the rest of the seminar.

Brennan, also a best-selling author and nationally-known speaker, believes “women can make a lot of money in sports journalism. It’s about longevity and about rising to positions of authority and power.”

 “USA Today’s sports editor, my boss, is a woman, the second woman to hold that job in a decade. That makes a difference. She is the boss. Being the top editor, being the top columnist, that’s where the prestige is, and it makes sense that that’s where the salaries are as well.”

 In Roy’s words, “for a woman to make a mark in a man’s domain like sports journalism, she needs to be better than a man each day of her life. At times, even that is not good enough. It isn’t just about making a break-through, but also about holding onto the position by performing every day.”

OUTCOMES: Speaking of other ways to level the playing field, Brennan advised that “if you are a print journalist, do TV work. Write books. Give speeches. Become an expert in a few specific areas and become the go-to person for everyone.”

United and no longer silent was the statement of the final session of the seminar, which ended on a high note as attendees revealed the backlash and harassment women sports journalists could still face while doing their jobs. These troubling issues were discussed by a seasoned four-woman panel comprising Brennan, Roy, Georgina Ruiz Sandoval and Dorothy Njoroge.

AIPS Vice President Evelyn Watta painted a picture of how women in newsrooms are still too often viewed. She recalled an incident in which she had succeeded in getting a difficult interview done, but instead of getting compliments for the job, she was told that “we knew you would get it because you are a woman.”

“I’m not here as a woman,” Watta insisted. “I’m here as a journalist. I got the story with my journalistic skills. I did not go there and put my femininity on the table.” In the words of Sandoval, a sports journalist and TV commentator, “when many of us receive only assignments that our male colleagues are not interested in or are not about sports with a high media impact, the feeling of not being measured with the same stick is evident.”

Known as the “voice of cycling” in Latin America, Sandoval has covered 19 Tours de France, in addition to four Giro d’Italia and five Tours of Spain and other races on the World Tour calendar. From 1998 to 2015, she covered a wide range of live events and syndicated programming with the network ESPN.

 “For a female journalist, there is nothing worse than to feel that her interviews and editorial concepts are perceived as soft and with no substance,” Sandoval said.

According to Njoroge, chair of the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK) and head of the Journalism and Corporate Communication Department at the United States International University-Africa, the progress women have made in entering fields originally seen as male preserves has been threatening male privilege and has led to “a proliferation of negative actions aimed at keeping women ‘in their place’”. 

Brennan, for example, is an award-winning sports columnist and commentator for internationally recognised news outlets, yet she still reads tweets telling her to “go back to the kitchen”.

“I thought, no, you don’t want me there. You don’t want me in the kitchen. I’m not a good cook,” was her sarcastic reply.

Watta explained some of challenges women sports journalists still face on the job. “Participating in post-match coverage in the locker room means that you have to accept any attitude and psychological abuse as a woman. It is a bubble where athletes are empowered because they are on their terrain… On other occasions, we women journalists can be the subject of judgmental glances because of the wardrobe we choose, our hairstyle, and our makeup, and we can perceive whether the athletes and coaches are taking us seriously.”

Although gender equity is still some way off and obstacles persist, “if you want something, go for it,” Brennan charged participants at the AIPS seminar. “You have to grow the thickest skin; it’s the only way to survive,” Sandoval said.

The need for support was also emphasised by the panelists, who urged all female colleagues to speak out and report cases of gender-based harassment.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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