Women in Sports: Leveling the Playing Field

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Athletes discuss the gender imbalance in sports and how to make a difference

HONOLULU (March 24, 2022) — From pay and sponsorship deals to media coverage and leadership opportunities, gender inequities continue to afflict the sports industry, according to athletes who spoke at a recent East-West Center #galswithLEI Global webinar on “Leveling the Playing Field: Women in Sports.” The six panelists discussed the ongoing parity hurdles in sports as well as strides they have personally made in addressing the problem. (Watch video of the panel.)

From intern to coach
Alyssa Nakken in her Dodgers baseball uniformAlyssa Nakken shared her unexpected journey to becoming the first female full-time coach in Major League Baseball. “It was never a dream of mine because I never thought this career path existed,” she said.

As a collegiate softball player, Nakken knew her future options as a professional player would not be nearly as lucrative or varied as the baseball careers to which her male peers aspired, so she looked for other options. An unpaid internship at the University of San Francisco led to another internship position in baseball operations at the San Francisco Giants office, where she joined just one other female working in the department. Her persistence paid off, and in 2020 she was hired as an assistant coach for the Giants.

Today, there are more sports organizations that are looking to diversify their coaching staff, so the time is ripe for more women to apply, according to Nakken. “In order to successfully challenge the status quo, we must constantly do things that might feel uncomfortable on the outside,” she said.

Paige Alms riding an award-winning big wave on MauiTackling giants
Surfer Paige Alms, a two-time Big-Wave World Champion, echoed the need to be persistent and keep knocking on closed doors. For Alms, the goal was to expand opportunities for women to compete in 50-foot-plus waves.

“We kept hearing women just aren't good enough,” she recalled. “It made me think about the feeling that I had when I was a little girl and I would hear, ‘The girls just aren't as good as the boys’ and I kept thinking, ‘Are we still talking about this?’”

Alms and three surfer friends formed the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing and in 2018 succeeded in getting women included for the first time in the Jaws surfing competition on Maui as well as at Maverick’s in California. Another victory came in 2019 when the World Surfing League announced they’d pay female and male surfers equally at all world-tour contests, making them the first US-based global sports organization to implement equal pay for athletes.

It was hard and exhausting, and I almost gave up,” Alms said. “Don't be afraid to speak up when things aren’t right.”

Sponsorship challenges
Kara Winger portraitDespite such victories, other challenges remain, such as fair distribution of sports sponsorships, marketing deals and TV airtime. According to four-time Olympic javelin thrower Kara Winger, women athletes receive less than one percent of global sports sponsorship deals, a market that is projected to grow to $90 billion by 2027. Only two women, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, appeared on Forbes’ most recent list of the world’s top fifty highest-paid athletes.

Lack of airtime is a large reason why sponsorships for women athletes are so minimal. “If a women’s sport is not available on TV,” Winger said, “you can't say there is a viewer base for that sport because it's literally not provided.”

Winger works for Parity, an online marketplace launched in 2020 to match professional women athletes with sponsorships and social media marketing opportunities. “We sometimes have to do things ten times better than our male counterparts to prove that we are going to be great in those roles,” she observed.

Black Fern fever
Melodie Robinson, a former player for New Zealand’s phenomenally successful national women’s rugby team, the Black Ferns, agreed. As a player, she noticed the women’s team received little media coverage despite winning more tournaments than the men. It wasn’t until after they started winning successive World Cup championships that more people started tuning in, and the team found more financial backers.

Melodie Robinson running with rugby ballEncouragingly, interest in women’s sports in New Zealand has seen a major turnaround in recent years, she said, with a record audience of more than half a million people tuning in to watch the Black Ferns defeat Australia live several years ago. Now, as general Manager of Sports and Events at New Zealand's national broadcaster TVNZ and founder of The Wonderful Group, Robinson is on a mission to get more women into sports reporting, providing skills workshops, training, and support with contract negotiations.

At TVNZ she also works to boost the women’s sports audience, connect women athletes with sponsorships, and get more women into sports media careers. After confronting online hate in her own career, she’s determined to diversify who people see on their screens, getting more women “as accepted pundits on sports TV.” 

Safe and equitable’ youth participation needed
Three-time Muay Thai national champion and nonbinary athlete Anne Lieberman says there is major work to be done to provide equal opportunity in youth sports especially in light of recent pieces of legislation passed in 10 states that bar transgender youth from joining teams that align with their gender identity.

Anne Lieberman fightingLieberman, who serves as director of policy and programs for Athlete Ally in Brooklyn, New York, says sports participation needs to be “safe and equitable,” especially for youth. “As a child, I didn't always have the language for who I was in terms of my sexual orientation or gender identity,” Lieberman said, adding that finding martial arts brought more empowerment, and team sports were a saving grace. “I got to be in my body and feel like myself, even when I didn't know what that meant or how to articulate that to people.”

For Kaoru Nakayama, founder and secretary general of Para Can, a nonprofit organization in Japan that leverages the power of sports to serve as a bridge between those with disabilities and those without, witnessing the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta made her realize there were likely many children in Japan who felt “suffocated and left out in society.”

“Kids with disabilities still do not participate in sports because there's no place for them to go to,” said Nakayama, whose organization works with upwards of 10,000 students annually. “Disability is not a personal issue but a social issue.”