Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Sexism and Sexual Harassment in the Media: A thing of the Past?

Posted on 23 October 2017 by Emily Victoria

Sexism is a strong word that morphs into different forms.

In the sports media world, it can come as a throwaway comment: “Why is she reading the sports news? She probably doesn’t even know the offside rule.” Cue laughter.

It can, unfortunately, come as something more sinister: “I will help you get ahead in the industry if you will sleep with me.”

The ongoing Harvey Weinstein debacle in which a huge sexual harassment scandal in the Los Angeles movie ‘scene’ has been uncovered, has prompted me to explore how sexism is mirrored (or not) over here in the UK’s media industry – especially in the sports media industry, which was once a man’s world.

Obviously, times have changed since the days women would clear away the dishes after a meal and put the children to bed, while the men would go to talk sport, politics and sip whiskey in the games room with a cigar or two. We all know that. If women want to debate why Arsene Wenger is still in charge at Arsenal, they can – and many men do their fair share of the dishes.

I certainly want to talk sport – I love it.

Unsurprisingly, a quick Google search will flag up many examples of recent sexism within the sports media industry but, and it is a big but, this power-play seems to be a fading-fashion.

The Director of BBC Sport is Barbara Slater, who entered the industry in 1983 and is the first woman to be given this position. Through three decades of working in media, she has seen women levelling the field. She said to the Guardian:

“I’ve been in the industry a long time. It is transformed. If you said when I first joined as an assistant producer that there would have ever have been a woman in my position, I would have laughed at you.

“The doors are open now. There isn’t anything that would stop someone with the commitment, the talent and the hard-work getting into any position.”

BBC Sport is one of the media organisations at the forefront when it comes to reporting on women’s sport with about, according to Slater, 30% of coverage devoted to it.

Sky Sports is transforming the workplace for women. You only need to have a look at the number of female producers, directors, reporters and presenters contributing to their content and output for proof.

Although huge strides are being taken towards complete gender equality in sports journalism and broadcasting, there are still set-backs.

A female sports journalist and friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, was given the opportunity earlier this year to further her journalism career substantially. The offer came with a catch – she would have to sleep with someone to get that leg-up.

Is she a competent, intelligent, accomplished journalist? Yes, she is. Her track-record being proof. However, the industry, like many, is extremely competitive and only the hardest-working can make it. She decided to let that ‘opportunity’ pass her by but was left feeling powerless and upset by the incident.

Our media organisations here in the UK are better than these few individuals. 

Looking at the sexism issue from a different angle, the question of ‘doesn’t sex sell?’ remains.

The Sun decided in January 2015 to stop printing images of topless women on page three of its newspapers. It was perhaps a controversial decision considering the strenuous circumstances newspapers are facing with less and less people buying them – a consequence of 24-hour, freely accessible, mobile news. However, it was a decision very much in keeping with the 21st Century.

A week after that decision, a topless model appeared back in print which just homes in on the problem media companies face with the issue that sex does sell. Much of The Sun’s readership are men, some of whom appreciate its page three perks. It could be argued, though, that these decisions contribute to continued sexism.

Sex sells, but does women’s sports coverage? Some media companies choose to cover lots of women’s sports, others choose to cover very little.

Two weeks ago, I noticed one paper reported only two women’s sports stories in three days on their app.

One of those stories was about a swimsuit model and actress competing in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. The angle of the story was focused more on the fact she starred in the recent Baywatch movie than on her golf, and was supplemented with images of her in swimwear.  

Perhaps for the audience that might read it, the article was suitable. It did eventually mention toward the end of the story the amateur golfer had a handicap of seven – no mean feat.

Media organisations do have to consider their audience, especially the companies funded by subscription payments and shareholders. So, does this mean some organisations are better for women to work in? Would it be better for a woman to work for a company covering more women’s sports?

I don’t think so. There are countless examples proving how supportive sports media organisations are of women in the workplace. The National Council for the Training of Journalists, for example, are actively campaigning for more women to work in sport. I have experienced their support first-hand.

However, the host of Sky’s breakfast news programme, Sunrise, has admitted facing sexism while working in sport. Sarah-Jane Mee said to Hello! magazine:

“Working in sport can be extremely intimidating.

“Unfortunately, there was, and still can be, a lot of sexism and patronising behaviour, especially from the old boys in sport.

“They would make sexist comments and say, “It’s just banter”. But if I’m not laughing, it’s not funny – eventually they stopped.”

She added: “As soon as the men got to know me and realised I knew my stuff, I earned some respect.

“But I’d still turn up in high heels with a blow-dry. I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to dress in trainers – I was protecting a professional image.”

It is extremely important for women working in sport to be exceptionally knowledgeable to earn their place in the field, but that could be said for men entering the profession as well.

However, as my friend has proved, getting ahead can sometimes be a battle of conscience and morals, the need for ‘thick-skin’ and true professionalism.

It can be a choice between the right way into a job, or the easy way. This, of course, is a choice that could surface across many working environments and in many different careers.  

Any woman wanting to be the next Kirsty Gallacher, the next Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill or the next Theresa May will have to be at the top of their game regardless of any sexism surrounding them.

Sexism is still rife for a woman working in sport but, these days, it can often make the perpetrator look foolish and behind the times rather than belittle the person on the receiving end.