Women in Sport: An Even Playing Field?

23/11/2012 16:40 GMT | Updated 23/01/2013 10:12 GMT

Never before have British sportswomen been so recognisable than in 2012, the mother of all sporting years. But has this Olympic Games finally put women's place in sport into the spotlight?

MPs were recently warned that the Olympic Games legacy is in danger of failing women. Only 5% of sports media coverage is dedicated to women's sport, which receives just 0.5% of all commercial sponsorship, according to the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation.

Many people dream of playing sports professionally yet few to achieve this goal and even fewer are female. In the UK nine out of 10 girls aged 14 fail to meet official guidelines for physical activity and four out of five women are not taking enough exercise. Boys show poor numbers too, but twice as many take part in physical activity than girls.

Positive strides are being made in women's football and cycling. Rochelle Gilmore recently launched the DTPC Honda Team, signing Olympic champions Dani King, Jo Rowsell and Laura Trott. The Football Association plans to make women's football the second most popular UK sport by 2018.

Professional sports have historically been played and operated by men. In terms of airtime, sponsorship and talent, female athletes have not had the investment or opportunity to demonstrate their skills and the female game is classed as a minority sport because of the lack of revenue stream.

London 2012's Olympic legacy was a true celebration of women in sport. The coverage provided a platform to showcase talent; from references to the suffragettes in the opening ceremony to the glory of female athletes winning gold medals for Team GB. Nicola Adam's gold medal in boxing was a triumph that finally broke the stereotype that boxing is a male only sport.

I spoke with Diane Modahl, former 1990 Commonwealth Games 800m champion and Ashleigh Ball, 2012 Olympic Bronze medallist for hockey to hear their views. Have women become more successful in sport over time or has the measure of success been an attitude change? Having competed in four Olympic Games, Diane is well placed to comment:

"No doubt that London 2012 provided an opportunity for the world to notice that women are brilliant at sport! This is not a new or ground breaking fact, it's a reality. Many successful female athletes such as Paula Radcliffe, Ellie Simmonds, Dame Kelly Holmes, Tessa Sanderson and Sarah Storey have been quietly breaking records, winning medals and inspiring athletes for decades. The difference now though is that we can all be genuinely excited about the commitment from the media to continue to showcase world class female athletes."

Ashleigh agreed that the profile of the home Olympic Games provided the platform women's sport needed to be recognised and respected by the nation and the media.

"There has also been an increase in numbers attending hockey clubs around the UK, for example, a club based in Lincoln saw 100 new people turn up to their first training session after the Games - a club with a total membership last season of 100. This is undoubtedly underpinned by strong visibility in the area; hockey is very well represented in the local papers and on local radio in particular in this area. At London 2012 the BBC showed every minute of every hockey match, and coupled with a podium finish, this coverage has led to the increase in participation."

Interestingly, Ashleigh also commented on how the success of women in the Olympics and Paralympics has brought a new generation of role models for women. Since competing, Ashleigh has been interviewed on the One Show, BBC Breakfast and featured on the front cover of OK Magazine. It is refreshing that women's achievements are finally being celebrated for hard work and effort rather than valued for aesthetic reasons.

The power of female athletes to draw audiences in London 2012 highlights the appetite for women's sport. However, the current lack of coverage is creating a glass ceiling effect.

The lack of exposure on the playing field is reflected in the boardroom with few women in senior positions at sports clubs and governing bodies. This is hardly surprising given that equality in business roles at the top level has yet to reach equilibrium. Sport and business are not distinct as sport is indeed a multibillion pound commercial enterprise.

The FA appointed Heather Rabbatt at the end of last year as the first female director of the FA which shows a significant change in attitude. The European Commission's proposal for Europe's listed companies to reserve 40% of their non-executive director board seats for women by 2020 or face sanctions is interesting in the context of sport. Whilst this shows a positive change in attitude, I believe that women would rather succeed on merit. Attitudes continue to evolve and when sport is your business, it makes commercial sense to showcase both male and female talent both on and off pitch.