Champion women athletes can help shape narratives, win battle of gender equality in media

More investment and attention should be given to women athletes for them to stand on par with their male compatriots.

Senior sports administrator Prof Datuk Dr Shamala Subramaniam said once women athletes truly receive the recognition they deserve, the narratives regarding their success would be similar to that of men.

“If we are in a domain or phase of life where we are discussing gender equality, then an accelerated effort is needed to address this. There must be huge investments in sports concerning women athletes,” said Shamala, who is the Olympic Council of Malaysia vice-president and Malaysian Hockey Confederation deputy president.

“When it comes to women, the focus (in Malaysia) is largely on development and grassroots. We need the women to win and when that happens, the articles written about them will eventually be about their capabilities and not other stuff.

“When you win, then you are associated with the empirical values of your sport and it is no longer about glamour or being seen as an accessory.”

Shamala was responding to International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) global research project that examined sports gender equality across news and social media. The findings – made public on Monday – showed clear differences in the way men and women athletes are portrayed.

The report found that conversations and coverage of men’s tennis are more focused on the sport, with a strong combative narrative and a sense of history, elite competition and achievement. The narratives around women’s tennis are less intense and relatively more focused on life off-court, ranging from health, age to family.

“Men work really hard, with some sacrificing their family time, but they often have a woman by their side. But women are always expected to juggle between work and home.

“There must be a supportive ecosystem to allow women to also train as hard as their male counterparts,” added Shamala, the recipient of the 2011 Women In Sport Award.

She also admitted certain quarters are quick to use women athletes as the face of their brands and that the conversations should be about the capabilities of the said athlete and not how she looks.

Commenting on the findings of the report, ITF president David Haggerty said the results reveal that despite similar public appetite across both men’s and women’s tennis, there is a distinct difference in the narratives surrounding them.

“It’s important to acknowledge that this difference is not necessarily always negative, but we must avoid a situation where a different focus arises as a result of conscious or unconscious bias, as ultimately that can diminish the sporting achievements of female athletes,” Haggerty added.

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