Sport's gender dysfunction: Grid girls and N Korea cheerleaders

February 14, 2018 12:41
North Korean cheerleaders and the grid girls: both are the examples highlighting the dysfunctional relationship that sport has with females. Photos: Reuters/Bloomberg

In recent weeks we have seen organizers of the Formula 1 World Championship take a decision to ban the so-called grid girls. During the same period, people in many parts of the world have been bemused by the appearance of North Korean female cheerleaders at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, in South Korea.

The two groups might seem to be a million miles apart. The "grid girls" became synonymous with fast cars, testosterone-fuelled macho men, scanty clothing and what always seemed like an overtly sexual narrative. The cheerleaders meanwhile appeared to be the antithesis of this: clothed in overcoats to guard against sub-zero temperatures, tightly choreographed exponents of a North Korean soft power tactics intended to counter prevailing global perceptions of their country.

Yet inside this bizarre juxtaposition of ideology and sexuality, there is a more insidious issue. Both examples highlight the dysfunctional relationship that sport has with females. Rather than placing their participation in motor racing or skiing at its heart, sport too often accentuates female subservience to, and thereby emphasizes the power and dominance of, males.

There will inevitably be some men (possibly some women too) that baulk at this notion, and will presumably cite political correctness (gone mad – for added exasperation, it is always preferable to add this at the end of a sentence) as the motive for me and others who deign to suggest such things. However, I do not recall anyone ever having proposed grid boys as a replacement for or addition to the grid girls. Nor have I read any reports questioning why there were no robotic-like North Korean chaps spooking-out the venues of Pyeongchang.

As a man who has been working in sport for 25 years, I am acutely aware that every time I write, tweet or talk about sport, I normally make no explicit reference to gender. One reason is that I take equality (in whatever form) seriously. However, it is regretfully implicit that what I am mostly writing about is men's sport. In this sense, I am as complicit in perpetuating sport’s gender dysfunction as anyone else. It is not something I am not proud of, though it is something I am trying to change.

Recently, I agreed to become a member of the board of trustees of Women in Sport (WIS), a charity whose remit is to transform sport for the benefit of every woman and girl in the United Kingdom. As the only male currently sitting on the board, one gets a sense of what it must be like to be a woman working in sport, where there are woefully few occupying senior positions.

This is suitably highlighted by one of WIS’s most important annual reports, which examines the number of women getting top jobs at UK sporting bodies. Its most recent edition made for grim reading. Between 2014 and 2017, it was found that there was a 6 percent fall in the number of females Among almost half of the 68 Sport England and UK Sport-funded national governing bodies, fewer than 30 percent had non-executive director roles filled by women. Nine of the 68 organizations had no women in senior leadership roles below chief executive level.

At least there currently seems to be a growing awareness of the injustice and discrimination being perpetrated by sport against women. There are even some organizations, such as FIFA, which has responded to gender inequality by promoting women into senior positions. For example, in 2016 Senegal’s Fatma Samoura became the football world governing body’s secretary general, the first time a female had held such a position. The problem is, however, that FIFA’s wider travails have sometimes cast this appointment as both ill-conceived and tokenistic. Moreover, various critics believe it does nothing to fundamentally address a culture of endemic gender inequality.

Yet the problems are not just of position, they are of pay too. This is a common problem across the world, and in various industrial sectors. The BBC’s Carrie Gracie recently quit her post as the organization’s China Editor claiming that she was being paid considerably less than her male counterparts for the same work. Yet somehow in sport such differences are even greater. The recent transfer of Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United from Arsenal brought with it stories that he is being paid £600,000 per week. By contrast, elsewhere it is reported that some players in England’s Women’s Super League may be being paid as little as £50 per week.

The response of several male BBC journalists to Gracie’s complaints about pay inequality was to take a pay cut as a show of solidarity. As many people have observed, this rather misses the point – women's pay should be increased to match that of their male colleagues. Even so, it is hard to imagine leading male earners in the English Premier League countenancing the idea of even the smallest pay-cut in support of their female counterparts.

This stands in stark contrast to what has happened in Iceland and will happen later this year in Norway. The Norwegian FA has announced that it will be equalizing pay for male and female international footballers. It will spend 6 million kroner a year in total remuneration of men’s players – and exactly the same on women’s players. The men’s team, which normally receives twice as much money as the women's, has agreed to give up £50,000 a year to help make the deal possible. As in the case Carrie Gracie and her male colleagues, it’s a positive gesture though still one that does not get to the heart of the matter.

As if further evidence was needed of what the 'matter' is, sport's litany of gender dysfunction is perhaps best summed up by the recent appointment of former Manchester United player Phil Neville as manager of the England women's team. Not only was this a man who had previously tweeted about threatening to strike his wife, he has no previous experience of managing a top-level football team. It is unlikely that we will ever see former England women's national team manager Hope Powell get the job in charge of the men’s Arsenal or Liverpool teams. It seems unlikely too that we will ever read tweets from her in which she advocates using casual violence against her partner. But then, we know that differences are the name of the game when it comes to men and women in sport.

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North Korean cheerleaders at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Photo: Reuters
Senegal’s Fatma Samoura became the football world governing body’s secretary general in 2016, the first time a female had held such a position. Photo: FIFA
Former Manchester United player Phil Neville, who had previously tweeted about threatening to strike his wife, and has no previous experience of managing a top-level football team, was recently appointed as manager of the England women's team. Photo:

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.