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Marisa Reich | Why it’s time to end the sports media patriarchy

In her first SportsPro column, the chair of She Sports Switzerland and Infront's head of events explains why it is vital that the male-dominated sports media industry acknowledges its bias, unconscious or otherwise, and commits to making real change.

by Marisa Reich
Marisa Reich | Why it’s time to end the sports media patriarchy

Have you ever wondered why a woman commentator is calling a soccer match? Or if the woman who does the post-game interview with the basketball player is wearing too much lipstick? If you have ever had such thoughts, you’re the reason why we don’t have more women reporting about sports. Let that sink in.

What if you said ‘no’ to the above question? Unfortunately, the unconscious bias trap may still have you under control. And those biases are part of the reason why women are still underrepresented everywhere.

The sports media industry is undergoing great disruption, facing enormous pressure from the customer side; and yet the role of women in news, broadcasting and digital media is not adapting to those demands quick enough.

How many women do you think work in sports media? Just off the top of your head, how many do you know or how many can you think of? One? Five? Ten? One thing the media industry has in common is that a very small percentage of women are working in front of and behind the camera, at news desks or in production.

The numbers are vague, but the figure is only around 11 per cent in some countries and companies. Simply put, men report and produce the majority of news in sport.

In 2017 it looked like this: 90 per cent of sports editors were men; 88.5 per cent of sports reporters were men; 83.4 per cent of columnists were men; 79.6 per cent of copy editors/designers were men; and 69.9 per cent of assistant sports editors were men.

So, where does the problem lie?

Well, the problem is simple. If we don’t have female representation in the media, we leave out a whole spectrum of views and opinions and diverse reporting and storytelling. Women have to become equal partners in telling the story, and they need to be equal partners in sourcing and interpreting what and who is important in the story.

According to a 2018 Nielsen report, 84 per cent of general sports fans now have an interest in women's sport, while a recent Gallup study found that 51 per cent of women in general say they are sports fans. In major US leagues, females make up about 35 per cent of fans. That is about the average percentage on European soil as well, where the range, depending on the sport and country, is between 20 and 50 per cent.

This means that approximately one in three fans of almost any sport is a woman. And yet, we have roughly only 11 per cent women working on topics that serve the demands of around 50 per cent of sports fans - and in the clubs and leagues this interest could easily increase if we would be able to serve their interests, wishes and demands.

Another reason why we have to increase the percentage of women working in sports media is that we miss out on immense talent. Around the world, women are highly educated but with a lack of opportunities, role models and limited scope to advance to senior leadership positions they drop out early in their careers to pursue other roles, or stay for years in junior positions without creating an impact.

Not only are there fewer opportunities for women to make their way into sports journalism, but there are also fewer promotions for women to higher positions. The so-called ‘similarity bias’ is responsible for this, which makes us prefer people who are similar to ourselves.

If it is only men who report about sports and only men's sport is shown, society gets the impression that women do not belong to the cultural system of sports and society at large.

On the smallest scale, it comes down to gender, which only leads to the appalling figures mentioned above. If gender balance is not achieved soon, it will be disastrous. Why? Fewer women than men drive technology, innovation and gaming. Artificial intelligence also has a gender bias when its machine learning is based on language and structures dominated by men. This could have long-term effects on sport and the media - for our entire society, and for future generations to come. Do we really dare go down that path?

In the end, we must remember that the media tells our society what is important and who matters. The public consumes and sees what is presented to them. If it is only men who report about sports and only men's sport is shown, society gets the impression that women do not belong to the cultural system of sports and society at large. But when women are present and participate, whether in front of or behind the camera, as heads of newsrooms or as founders of media companies, stories are told that would otherwise not be known and topics are raised that would otherwise not be touched upon.

Women drive the economy because of their purchasing decisions. Globally, women accounted for an estimated US$31.8 trillion in consumer spending in 2019. When 51 per cent of women claim to be sports fans, and 35 per cent support a club, who can afford to forego this consumer power?

But we have another hurdle to clear. It is not only about accepting and letting women into sports media, but also integrating and empowering them as part of the system.

Ultimately, the aim must be to eradicate the dominant gender relations and dismantle the still very patriarchal system of sport and media, as well as acknowledge the huge power of insider relationships and the so called 'boys’ clubs'. If we don’t start to set up clear policies, set KPIs in terms of hiring and promotions for executive roles, we just go down the path of another decade of lip service and insufficient measures, and we will fail to have a lasting impact.

The dominant power structures in sports journalism are often invisible for men who operate in their bubble of informal social networks of male friendships. They’re a death knell for women; they promote from among themselves, they are havens for toxicity, relying on objectification of their colleagues, and they provide networking, support and professional mentoring that are simply not available to anyone who isn’t a part of the ‘club’ or bubble.

Combined with male-dominated and patriarchal values, such as political game playing, aggression, backstabbing, point-scoring, overconfidence and ‘stitching people up’, we promote a toxic, mediocre environment where allegiances trump excellence. It is the way sport has been constructed and how the sports media has reflected it.

Yet the current climate also proves that this direction may not be the right and smartest one to go with in future. It lacks diverse thoughts, innovation power, and the willingness to advance from the status quo. But as I experience it, for those in possession of power it is easier to try to protect and defend the existing frameworks and hierarchical structures than to transform and change a system which simply doesn’t acknowledge an equal society.

For women, those power structures are visible, and above all they experience them in their daily jobs. They hear statements like "prove yourself” and are advised to adapt to an environment where it is the norm to be hardened and uncomfortable. Women often face discrimination, harassment, or comments about their looks or private situations, which are far from being related to their work and expertise.

How can sports media become more inclusive?

I think awareness is a first step; commitment a second. I think our most powerful ace is the generational shift happening at the moment. Generations X and Y grew up in a time of great disruption and they have seen women taking the lead and speaking up, be it on the tennis court, thanks to the likes of Billie Jean King and Serena Williams, or elsewhere with athlete activists like American soccer star Megan Rapinoe.

We need to create visibility for women inside an organisation to attract, retain and grow pipelines of female talent and reduce biases to break the traditions of nepotism. And to inspire more girls and women to join the world of sports media. The rewards will be manifold: increased creativity, better products, faster problem-solving, reduced employee turnover, greater profits, attractive workplace environments, and better decision-making.

Do we dare to miss out on these positive effects to uphold a toxic system? Or are we as innovative, agile and bold as the world around us is now? It starts with commitment from the top and execution from everyone.

We are all responsible for the prevailing system. And we are the ones who can change it. All of us. Just as in every sports team, it takes every single person to become a champion.


About the author: An expert in sports marketing and communications, Marisa Reich is currently the head of events and culture at Infront and chair of She Sports Switzerland. Her previous roles include managing international communications for Red Bull’s Wings for Life World Run and the Berlin Marathon, while she has also represented elite athletes in track and field as an IAAF-accredited agent. She became a SportsPro columnist in October 2020, writing about issues surrounding women in sport.