A closer look at the progress and the road ahead for women’s equality in the world of sports.

By Max Torres

November 29, 2020
“I remember thinking people must think I’m really weird, because I go out and I do this figure skating thing, and I look well, pretty and graceful. And then I get on the basketball court, and I’m a bulldog. And I’m battling for every ball.”

Brenna Greene is the sports director at KREM 2 News, the CBS affiliate news station in Spokane, Washington. She grew up like many other girls with a fiery passion for sports, and her childhood dilemma with her image reflects how society has created stereotypes for women to be “pretty and graceful.” In doing so, they’ve left no room for Greene’s bulldog that lives inside many women.


The metaphor of the inner bulldog is indicative of the sexism that women confront in today’s world of sports. Whether it’s on the field as competitive athletes, or as members of the media at a press conference, today’s portrayal of women in sports illustrates significant social progress, but also that much has been left to be desired.

There were many women pioneers in the world of sports, but all-time tennis great Billie Jean King may be the most prominent example of the uphill battle women face. Despite her acclaim, former world No.1 tennis player Bobby Riggs wasn’t convinced of her skill. He claimed that women players were inferior to men and that he could beat any female player despite being retired for more than 20 years at the ripe age of 55.

Billie Jean King extends for a ball in her 1973 match against Bobby Riggs. Photo: Associated Press

King decided to face the male chauvinist in a match all their own that would be dubbed The Battle of the Sexes. King defeated Riggs in straight sets, conforming to the male rules and winning in three straight sets en route to the $100,000 grand prize. Her victory marked a significant achievement for other women athletes, who had long been viewed as inferior to men.

Where we are today: the issue of representation

Examining the sports world more than 45 years later in the 21st century shows a clear lack of representation for women. As of 2011, women account for 43% of all college athletes. That comes close to the original aim of Title IX, which in principle establishes equal participation between men and women in school athletics. However, despite clear-cut legislation men still enjoy preferential treatment in the athletic realm.

This is manifested in part by the low participation of women in sports journalism, where their opinion is belittled, and they battle sexual discrimination in the workplace. In a 2013 study, media literacy expert Hans Schmidt argues that low participation further compounds issues for women in sports. Schmidt goes on to claim that low participation levels result in women being more susceptible to stereotyping and leaving their career fields at higher rates than more well represented groups such as white men, who dominate sports media.

Many women will agree the opportunities for women in sports journalism are more attainable than ever. However, the conversation then shifts to the environments they work in. Those work environments are often toxic because modern masculinity places the worth of a sports opinion on past experience. Even if a woman has played said sport, they are ridiculed for “only” playing against other women, whereas the opinion of a former male athlete is more respected.


The imbalance of representation carries over to women athletes receiving far less attention due a lack of coverage. In her study about the experience and attitudes of women in sports media careers, Marie Hardin exposes the flaws of many sports editors, saying they falsely claim to be neutral in their story selection. Editors will often cater their coverage to what is deemed interesting by their audience or in simple terms, what is popular.

Surface level objectivity serves as a front that allows misogyny to thrive and journalists, who are the gatekeepers to women’s stories, to belittle them and shield them from the spotlight. The numbers reflect this. Research from the Pew Research Center suggests that on average, just three percent of daily newspaper sports stories are about women’s sports teams, and a mere five percent are focused on individual women athletes.

Women that do earn air time as sports reporters, they can often find themselves working as sideline reporters. These roles can be great, but a majority of them are in supporting roles, keeping them from the main stage.

The University of Southern California’s Center for Feminist Research had this at the forefront of their 2010 study that looked at these very trends in the sports media industry. Their study closely examined three local Los Angeles news stations and ESPN’s flagship news program “SportsCenter.”

Until women are just as prevalent as men in sports journalism, their voices will continue to be trumped by those of men and remain muted in the background.

Trends of 3 different local news stations in 2009. Credit: USC.edu

Trends for on-air talent at SportsCenter Los Angeles in 2009. Credit: USC.edu

The pay gap

The pay gap between male and female professional athletes is central to the conversation around women’s representation in sports. Back in March of 2019, the U.S. Women’s soccer team filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation with the hope of earning equal pay to men, citing the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Recent performances by the women on the pitch surpassed the men’s team by a long shot, as the men failed to even qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The lawsuit is still ongoing due to slowing from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the women’s play en route to capturing their fourth world title was further evidence to strengthen their case. Women won’t earn the same amount as men overnight, but what could be a major step in the right direction is changing the collective bargaining agreement to align more closely to that of men.

One notable basketball example shows that this problem won’t change in the near future. NBA star LeBron James and WNBA star Sue Bird both captured their fourth titles during the 2020 professional basketball seasons, yet they are in entirely different realms when it comes to their pay.

Fifth-year guard Erica Wheeler, who plays for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever took to Twitter to voice her displeasure over the pay gap.

Bird, who like James is also a 17-year veteran, made $215,000 last season on her super-max contract, which was supplemented by an $11,000 championship bonus. Even so, that pales in comparison to James’ 2020 salary of more than $37 million and championship bonus of $370,000. It’s worth noting that women’s sports bring in less revenue than men’s sports, but the coverage that they receive is a major barrier to attracting a larger audience, which in turn would result in greater revenue.

Women’s sports being undervalued compared to men illustrates another aspect of their ongoing plight to level the playing field.

What can be done?

There is no one solution that will get women the respect that they deserve in sports. It will take a combination of stereotypes fading and new social norms being created.

Brianna Vasquez, a former track and cross-country athlete at Gonzaga University thinks there has been progress in our view of the female athlete. Specifically she sees the new trend of society valuing women for their athletic performance and not their appearance, which has been a focal point for women’s sports coverage and criticized heavily in the past.

“I think we’re transitioning to less importance on how you look outside of the sport versus how you’re actually playing and what you’re doing in your sport, on your field and on the court,” Vasquez said.

“That’s what people are starting to pay more attention to. I think with females before it was like, oh, how do you dress? What are you wearing? And all this kind of stuff,” she continued. “Versus now I feel like people care more about playing and what you’re doing and the points and all that.”

Men play a massive role in the portrayal of women in sports, as they account for a large portion of both the consumer audiences and those who share their stories with the public.

Orlando Sanchez is one of those men.

During his career as a sports anchor and reporter at KGW News in Portland, Oregon he has spent time covering the historic University of Oregon Women’s basketball program. Oregon Head Coach Kelly Graves has turned the program into a national powerhouse and along the way developed the top pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft, New York Liberty star Sabrina Ionescu.

Sanchez sees the program as a beacon of hope for women in sports, saying her impact on the community goes beyond inspiring young girls. She is normalizing boys holding women athletes in the same light as men.

“With the Oregon women’s basketball team, they capture the imaginations of so many people. It was really special to see not only little girls looking at Sabrina Ionescu like, ‘Oh my God, I want to be like Sabrina one day,’ but you were seeing little boys wearing Sabrina Ionescu, jerseys, those things flying off the shelves,” Sanchez said.

Sabrina Ionescu cuts down the net as the Oregon Ducks are crowned Pac-12 champions. Photo: Scott Boldt

Boys wearing the iconic #20 Sabrina Ionescu jerseys may not seem noteworthy. However, raising them to value women equally and realize they are just as capable as men will play a vital role in laying the foundation for the social change needed in this field.

When people attend a women’s basketball game at Matthew Knight Arena, at first glance they might think they were at a men’s game. But the Oregon women’s team has flipped that narrative and they are the big attraction in town. The city has gotten behind the girls, shown their support, and worked together to drive them into the spotlight.

The image of women in sports is heading in the right direction, and it’s clear that media members and athletes alike won’t stop fighting for equality any time soon.

That fight scored a big win this past weekend, as Vanderbilt’s Sarah Fuller made history when she became the first woman to play in a Power 5 college football game.