In a recent interview with IMAGE, Mayo footballer Sarah Rowe explained that although the recognition of women's sports in Ireland had improved, there is still a considerable way to go before it's on par with the men's equivalent.
Considerable steps were taken yesterday to close that gap, with the launch of the new 20x20 campaign. The initiative – which has the support of Lidl, AIG, Investec and KPMG – aims to increase media coverage and attendance at women's sports events and overall participation by 20% in the next two years.
20x20 hopes to change the cultural perception of female sports; a perception which can be biased at times, in favour of male sports. The campaign pledges, "This isn’t a ‘women for women’ initiative; it’s ‘all of society for all of society,’" and that the benefits which will come with these advances will outweigh any negative annotations.
Organisers are urging all aspects of Irish society to get involved. Universities, schools, and gyms can create better conditions and opportunities for girls to become more involved in sports, and the media can pledge to increase their coverage of female sports events and awareness of female athletes.
The reality of women in sports
At yesterdays official launch in Dublin, female sports stars from around the country gathered together to tell their own personal stories of being female in the Irish sports industry. Cork's Rena Buckley, an 18-time All-Ireland winner, shared her story of being asked to present medals to under-12 and under-14 boys and girls. When she arrived she was told the GAA team had decided they didn't want her to hand out the medals to the boys, and that she would now solely only hand out the medals to the girls. A young local man was then asked to hand out the medals in lieu of Rena; she said the man was "mortified" and couldn't even look at her.
The story Rena told highlighted the discrepancies in how sports in this country are displayed to both boys and girls. When situations like this occur, boys will only correlate to boys, and girls will only associate themselves with girls; with the aspiration for equality only ever a pipe dream.
Who do girls look up to?
In an official promotional video, the 20x20 campaign asked young girls who their favourite sports stars were; they were all male. They explained they didn't know any female sports stars; that they knew the opinions of women's sports, in general, is second class to men's. One girl spoke of how, in school, the only way a boy will pass the ball to a girl is if a teacher makes a rule to do so. This is something we can all relate to. Many of us have overriding memories of boys-only football and hurling teams in school; girls being picked last for teams and boys being celebrated.
Personally, as a youngster, the only Irish female sports star I was aware of was Sonia O' Sullivan, and outside of her I had no knowledge of female GAA or soccer stars. It was just that way it was. You knew no differently; you accepted it and moved on. This new campaign says, "If she can't see it, she can't be it". We couldn't envisage them, so how could any of us dream to be them? The same goes for thousands of girls across the country, who are enamoured by sport but feel that (in the long-term) they will never be comparable to the boys.
The capability for cultural revolution becomes more evident by the day. The depths of social media and its power can now change the personality and viewpoints of generations. But the shift can only begin if their education changes. The way children are trained to view sports and equality must diversify; not only for girls but for boys too. The media they will grow up to consume – media which is produced in such vasts amounts – must try to present a somewhat equal balance of gender roles. Girls should never feel like the ball is being passed to them out of obligation, rather for their confounded talent.
This initiative has the power to change that.
Find out more about 20x20 and how to get involved here.