Almost two-thirds of elite British female athletes have experienced sexism in sport but the vast majority did not feel able to report it.
In the BBC Elite British Sportswomen’s survey, 65% of respondents had suffered sexism, but only 10% reported it. The figures have worsened over the past five years since the last survey was carried out. In 2015, 41% had suffered sexism, with 7% reporting it.
Athletes said they did not know who to report it to, and that their mostly male coaches would not understand or take them seriously.
They did not think it would make a difference anyway and would involve significant sacrifice.
Women feel their chances of selection for teams or events would be harmed if they stood up and spoke out against sexism.
So here are the stories of four women and the sexism they have faced, all anonymised so that speaking up does not mean losing out.
‘It’s not appropriate. It’s disrespectful.’
A golfer shares her experiences of sexism while playing in pro-ams, where a professional plays with male amateurs who are sometimes affiliated with sponsors of a tournament.
“It’s the perpetual comments on your physique. I’ve had guys jokingly propose to me on the second hole and then do it again five holes later, then again on the next hole, to the point that it gets awkward, uncomfortable and too persistent.
“It’s not appropriate for the context and environment that we’re in. It’s disrespectful – it should be about my golf, not those sorts of things.
“There are always questions like: ‘Do you have a boyfriend? How’s your dating life?’ Things that they probably wouldn’t ask guys.
“I’ve had a few experiences like that in pro-ams. It’s frustrating. There’s not really anything you can do or say about it because they’re sponsors.
“A lot of the time they’re people who are literally allowing you to play in this event and make a living. They kind of take advantage of that a bit. We’re so reliant on these people.
“There’s nothing we can do without fear of losing sponsorship or losing future opportunities. If you stand up for yourself, they’re just going to be like: ‘Oh, she’s no fun.’ You have to tread very carefully.
“For the most part, in terms of sexism in women’s golf, the people we come into contact with are super supportive of women’s golf.
“It’s more the outside people looking in who don’t understand it. That’s where the issues lie.
“It isn’t every time. I have had some incredible pro-am experiences that I wouldn’t change. It’s just a couple of times a year. You know as soon as you get on the first tee if it’s going to be a rough one.
“I know the other girls in the field are experiencing the same thing so I’m sure there are a couple of us every week that experience some form of inappropriateness and disrespect that is frustrating.”
‘Men are still getting more money and there isn’t any reason for it’
An Olympic gold medallist explains how she felt when she discovered a less high-profile male athlete was getting paid more than her by the same sponsor.
“There was a male player who was with the same sponsor and got paid a lot more money than me.
“He was famous in his own right but in my opinion, and I said this to them, on a digital platform in terms of promoting the brand he doesn’t have social media, he doesn’t do many talks.
“If you look at value as a person – he’s an amazing person. But value as a business: it wasn’t the same, especially after I won an Olympic gold medal.
“So I made the decision to move sponsors for less money out of principle. I quickly found out that one of the male athletes was on double the amount I was on.
“When I found out a person who at that point hadn’t achieved anything was on double what I was, I very quickly left.
“I went back to the original sponsor who upped my contract and apologised, which they admitted they should have done in the first place.
“It was very frustrating. In our sport, men are still getting more money, bigger sponsorships and I don’t understand why. There isn’t any reason for it – it’s literally because they are men.”
‘One cubicle toilet for about 26 women’
An athlete speaks about a time when she represented her country at a stadium usually used by men, meaning the toilet facilities were not functional for women.
“As nice as the changing room is – it’s spacious, there’s a hot tub, ice bath, everything going – there’s one cubicle toilet. We’re talking 26-28 people with one cubicle. I love playing there and you feel so welcome as a team, but there’s one cubicle.
“You literally have to change the schedule to allow time for people to go to the toilet. Everyone needs to go before we warm up and when you come in from the warm-up.
“But what do you do? You don’t want to call off the whole match because there’s only one cubicle. I don’t really want portaloos either because you’re playing international sport.
“It’s things like that – it’s become normal to accept it.”
‘The system is so ingrained with male dominance’
An elite sportswoman who represents England describes how coaches favour male players and why she feels powerless to stop it.
“The ideas of the past – that the men’s game is more physical and more interesting, that they are pushing the boundaries – are still in place because coaches have been in place for years and years.
“The men get put on the main training areas and the coaches will mill around those areas and the women will be put on the side to carry on the routines but not really get the feedback and the coaching input.
“We’ve had some women’s squad sessions which have highlighted how much previously it was tailored to the men’s side of the game. We realised how different things can be and how much value we can get.
“It’s brilliant that they are trying to change but the system is so ingrained with this male dominance. I’m not even sure they are aware that they do it, it’s just an everyday occurrence but as a woman playing in that sport it’s disheartening to see.
“I have at times said that things weren’t acceptable and that men are saying derogatory things to women but it has not been taken seriously.
“It was the whole: ‘Oh, you’re a feminist, you’re undermining us, you just have women’s rights ahead and you don’t take a balanced approach on it.’
“I’m quite happy to keep saying these things aren’t fair but with the coaches it’s different – because they are your selectors.
“And unfortunately, as much as you don’t like the system you have to roll with the system because they are the people who are going to be selecting you for your country.
“When I’m out of the system and I’m finished I would like to think I’d be able to say more things about how I didn’t like the way we were treated and how I couldn’t say so at the time because of fear of the end of progression of my career.
“You have to be in favour because as soon you’re out – regardless of your results – there is always a reason not to select you. You have to be at the top of your game to have any power.”
Here is a selection of other anonymous responses given in the sexism section of the survey:
- I had a previous national coach who was completely sexist and I was bullied I believe for being female, which was reported and brushed under the carpet by another male.
- I have personally been jeered and laughed at for being a female rugby player at different clubs from the crowd. Clubs I have played at have declined to let my team use the main field despite being one of the top competing teams in the league, and not washed kit or refused to let us use changing rooms or provide female hygiene facilities or food after games.
- Men are paid more than women at the club even though the women outperform the men at the same level in the sport. Men are also given priority on facility use, finance, travel, spectator slots, promotion etc. The owner of the club labelled himself as “a sexist pig” so I don’t see much point in reporting it and don’t want to reduce funding to the women further.
- We are not allowed in the gym when the men are in there or not allowed in the same room as the men even though we play for the same team and represent the same country .
- Referees making women play to junior rules, coaches not treating us with the same respect as men, spectators saying rugby would get more crowds if we played in sport bras and hot pants, people asking about showers after games. I don’t report it because it never gets heard or nothing is done about it. Sometimes challenging it just fuels the fire.
- On occasions male coaches that thought I was pretty would inappropriately express that to me when in a position of power. I didn’t want to annoy or get my manager in trouble in case I wouldn’t be selected.
- I have been in the situation in the past where a male coach showed a lot of interest in my sport and gave me a lot of advice so I felt really supported, motivated and I improved a lot. Then after a year of this, there was an occasion where I did not reciprocate his advances and then after that the advice and help stopped and I did feel very demotivated by that.
Sexism is one of many issues raised by the BBC Elite British Sportswomen’s Survey. BBC Sport will be shining a spotlight on the others with coverage throughout the week on the BBC Sport website, BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC TV. More information can be found here.
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