Gender Equality in Sport Media

Dr. Dunja Antunovic, Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota and member of the Mobilizing Sport and Sustainability Collective, discusses gender equality and sport media. 

This video was produced with UBC Studios, with particular thanks to Chris Spencer.

Gender Equality in Sports Media

Women’s participation opportunities in sport are growing as professional leagues expand and international competition becomes more lucrative. However, women’s treatment in sport is still uneven due to inconsistent resources, structural barriers, and gender norms.[i]

Media representation is one area where inequalities still exist. For decades, researchers have studied the volume of media coverage, with particular concern for the underrepresentation of women’s sports.[2] The most prominent media organizations in various countries (including commercial sports broadcasters in the U.S. and public service broadcasters in Europe) often dedicate minimal coverage to women’s sports in their everyday programming – only around 5% to 10%.[3]

Media organizations do tend to promote women’s sports when the athletes represent the nation. For example, during the Olympic Games, women’s sports coverage occasionally reaches over 50% of broadcast airtime.[4]

But even in these cases, does the 50% represent equality?

These inconsistencies raise a series of important questions. 

  • What does gender equality in sports media entail? How do we asses it? And how do we achieve it? 

What is Gender Equality?

Gender equality is a human right. The United Nations identifies “Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls” as one of the main Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Sport is key in advancing gender equality, in areas such as youth participation, safeguarding policies, and leadership roles. UN Women also includes “doing better and more media coverage” as a key tenet of gender equality in sport.

Media coverage is crucial because it can shape how girls and women experience sports, by either reinforcing or challenging gender stereotypes. Also, media act as a socializing agent, which means that media coverage might influence the way audiences treat girls and women.[5]

Pertaining to sports media coverage, researchers think about gender equality in two ways: 

  1. Quantity of coverage and
  2. Quality of coverage     

Quantity can be measured by the number of articles published on a news platform, or the runtime during broadcast coverage, or even the volume of social media posts dedicated to men’s versus women’s sports. This analysis would lead us to the sorts of findings mentioned earlier, such as 5%, or 50%, of coverage is dedicated to women’s sports. 

Beyond the volume of coverage, it is also important to look at the quality of coverage. In other words, how are women represented in media? 

When evaluating coverage quality, we can analyze representation patterns, including the presence of gender stereotypes in words and images. For example, do articles portray women as competent athletes or as sexual objects, or both? In other words, even when women do receive attention, the stories about women’s sport might still perpetuate discriminatory patterns.

Gender equality is not just a metric, but a comprehensive, structural commitment to the advancement of girls and women. By taking sports media seriously, we can analyze messages about girls and women, and evaluate how these messages contribute to or hinder efforts for positive change. 

Strategies to Achieve Gender Equality

To achieve gender equality in sports media coverage, we need to consider not only existing data on quantity and quality, but also identify barriers and propose solutions.

For example, when women represent their countries at international events, such as the Olympics, media organizations hype the home nation athletes and promote women who are winning medals.[6] Driven by nationalism, this form of visibility is deceiving for two reasons: 

  1. Attention on national team athletes is often temporary, during major events that happen only every two or four years. To ensure continuous interest in women’s sports, we must not solely focus on women’s success at the international level. 
  2. This kind of coverage creates divisions based on national identity.[7] Media organizations position the home nation athletes as “us” and pit them against athletes from other countries, or “them.” Or, as we found in our studies, some broadcasters completely ignore women who are from other countries.[8] To achieve gender equality in sports media on a global level, we need to find solutions that benefit all women and girls. 

Our studies also found significant disruptions -- practices that reflect solutions to address gender equality across national contexts. For example, journalists reported on gender inequalities and racist commentary during Olympic coverage, thereby holding each other accountable and demonstrating socially responsible reporting.[9]  

Media organizations can play a role in empowering  girls and women in sport by telling comprehensive, nuanced, and contextualized stories that tackle social issues. Gender equality does not exist in isolation. Rather, gender equality is intertwined with racial justice, disability rights, and environmental activism.[10]

So what can media organizations do? 

  • Media organizations can evaluate their own practices by asking questions such as:
    • What is the quantity and quality of women’s sports coverage? 
    • Are the portrayals using inclusive and empowering language and visual representations? 
  • Media organizations can set achievable and measurable targets in daily, weekly, seasonal coverage. Think about: 
    • What would move the coverage of women’s sports forward? 
    • Which events or athletes could be receiving more coverage? 
  • Media organizations can hire and promote content producers who are committed to gender equality. In educational programs, ensure that sports media professionals are trained to cover women’s sports. Bring in partners when necessary to ensure expertise on these issues.

We can all contribute to empowering representations based on gender, race, disability, sexuality, age, and sport. When you post on social media or create content, you can consult portrayal guidelines as outlined by international governing bodies, media entities, and organizations. Here are some examples: 

Or, you could you create your own portrayal guidelines that promote inclusion. 

Gender equality is a collaborative process and we all have a role to play.  

[i] Bowes, A. & Culvin, A. (2021). Introduction: Issues and debates in the professionalisation of women’s sport. In A. Bowes & Culvin, A. (Eds.), The professionalisation of women’s sport: Issues and debates (pp. 1-15). Emerald.

[2] Bruce, Toni. “New Rules for New Times: Sportswomen and Media Representation in the Third Wave.” Sex Roles74, no. 7–8 (April 2016): 361–76.

[3] Cooky, Cheryl, LaToya D. Council, Maria A. Mears, and Michael A. Messner. “One and Done: The Long Eclipse of Women’s Televised Sports, 1989–2019.” Communication & Sport 9, no. 3 (June 1, 2021): 347–71.; Rojas-Torrijos, José Luis, and Xavier Ramon. “Exploring Agenda Diversity in European Public Service Media Sports Desks: A Comparative Study of Underrepresented Disciplines, Sportswomen and Disabled Athletes’ Coverage on Twitter.” Journalism Studies 22, no. 2 (January 25, 2021): 225–42.

[4] Billings, Andrew, and James Angelini. “Equity Achieved? A Longitudinal Examination of Biological Sex Representation in the NBC Olympic Telecast (2000–2018).” Communication & Sport 7, no. 5 (October 2019): 551–64.

[5] Hardin M., Greer J. D. (2009). The influence of gender-role socialization, media use and sports participation on perceptions of gender-appropriate sports. Journal of Sport Behavior, 32, 207–226.

Kane, M. J., LaVoi, N. M., & Fink, J. S. (2013). Exploring Elite Female Athletes’ Interpretations of Sport Media Images: A Window Into the Construction of Social Identity and “Selling Sex” in Women’s Sports. Communication & Sport, 1(3), 269-298.

[6] Ličen, Simon, and Andrew C Billings. “Cheering for ‘Our’ Champs by Watching ‘Sexy’ Female Throwers: Representation of Nationality and Gender in Slovenian 2008 Summer Olympic Television Coverage.” European Journal of Communication 28, no. 4 (August 2013): 379–96.

[7] Xu, Qingru, and Andrew C. Billings. “The Medal War in Peacetime: Examining Nationalistic Notions Embedded in CCTV’s Coverage of Gymnastics in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.” Journal of Global Sport Management 5, no. 3 (July 2, 2020): 243–61.

Angelini, James R., Andrew C. Billings, and Paul J. MacArthur. “The Nationalistic Revolution Will Be Televised: The 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games on NBC.” International Journal of Sport Communication 5, no. 2 (June 1, 2012): 193–209.

Billings, Andrew C, Olan KM Scott, Kenon A Brown, Melvin Lewis, and Michael B Devlin. “The Patriotism down under: Nationalized Qualities and Australian Media Consumption of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 54, no. 3 (May 1, 2019): 325–47.

[8] Antunovic, Dunja, and Sunčica Bartoluci. “Sport, Gender, and National Interest during the Olympics: A Comparative Analysis of Media Representations in Central and Eastern Europe.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, May 11, 2022, 101269022210956.

[9] Cooky, Cheryl, and Dunja Antunovic, Serving Equality: Feminism, Media, and Women’s Sports. (Peter Lang Publishing).

[10] For resources on these issues, visit the Sport and Sustainability Media and Education Resource

First Nations land acknowledegement

We acknowledge that the UBC Point Grey campus is situated on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm.

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