Deirdre O’Neill: Why are there so few female sports writers?

We all know that most sports journalists are men. However, in recent years, female sports broadcasters have increased their visibility. By comparison, while newspaper sports coverage has increased rapidly in recent years Deirdre O’Neill, University of Huddersfield, looks at the progress made by women sports writers. [Image: Jon Candy / Flickr]

Sports journalism – online, in broadcasting and in print – is flourishing. Much of top-level sport is big business and top athletes have a celebrity status, with all the attendant coverage. For newspapers in particular, sports coverage has expanded exponentially, and in a competitive market, is arguably the driving force behind the battle for circulation and building a loyal readership.

According to the Chief Football Correspondent of the Times, Oliver Kay, “The number of pages of sport has gone up overall. Football dominates, at about 50% of the Times and probably around 70% for the red-tops. You could ask why newspapers are force- feeding us football, but all the research shows it’s popular and adds to the circulation figures.”

Old assumptions about women’s interest in sport are being challenged, with recognition that many women form a substantial part of the audience for sports. Alongside this, women’s sporting achievements in the 2012 Olympics were celebrated by the public and in media coverage, while women athletes are succeeding in major world sporting events such as cricket and football.

Disappointingly, beyond prominent events such as the Olympics, routine women’s sports coverage remains very low. Research into newspaper coverage, which I carried out with Matt Mulready for Journalism Practice (2015) showed that it was under 5% six months after the 2012 Olympics, a figure in line with the earlier findings of the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation. This has implications for sponsorship, with women’s sports only attracting a paltry 1% of total sponsorship. If the situation is to change, it is fair to say that both sporting bodies and the media need to attract more women. As Tammi Grey-Thompson commented, “I think the reality is that most editors are men……We need more female involvement in all sectors of sport.”

Broadcasters have started to tackle the issue, particularly the BBC, where we have seen female sports broadcasters such as Gabby Logan, Claire Balding, Alison Mitchell and Jacqui Oatley becoming more prominent. This has led some to argue that gender disparity is now far less of an issue in sports journalism. But what is less well known is the position of women in newspaper sports journalism. What we do know is that in many countries studies have shown that male sports journalists heavily outnumber women.

Nevertheless, there has been little research focussing on the UK. In order to establish the situation here, Suzanne Franks and I carried out surveys of bylines in the national press, comparing six newspapers across two separate weeks in autumn 2012, followed up with a survey of bylines six months before and six months after the 2012 Olympics, this time in seven national papers. Finally, a third comparison was made with 2002 to see if there had been any improvement. A mixture of quality papers, mid-market papers and red-tops were used in the surveys, and we noted the gender of the by-line in nearly a total of 10,000 sports articles. Details of our research findings are published in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that male by-lines dominated – this is what we expected – but the paucity of female by-lines took us aback. On average, in the periods studied, the average proportion of articles with a female by-line was below 2% (1.8% to be exact). Some papers rarely had a female by-line and at no point did the proportion rise higher than 3%.

In the first period studied, there were 14 issues, and not one newspaper had fewer than five issues without a single female by-line. The Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph both had nine out of the 14 issues without a female by-line. But it worth noting that were were some differences between newspapers. The newspapers where women sports writers were most visible were the Guardian and Observer, followed by the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.

So how did this compare to the past? When we looked at the by-lines a decade previously we found that the figures had not changed significantly since 2002, and the Olympics had made minimal impact. In 2002, the average number of female by-lines was just over 1%. This figure was the same six months before the 2012 Olympics and came in at 1.5% six months after the Olympics.

Nor does this overall average figure of 1.8% in the UK compare favourably with other countries. A 2007 study in Australia put the figure at 11%, while a 2006 study in the USA found 11% of articles to be written by women. That figure rose to 13% in some Swiss newspapers in 2013. In 2011 a major survey of sports writing across 22 countries examined 80 newspapers and a total of 22,000 articles. It found that the proportion of sports articles by female journalists was just 8%. Low, yes, but higher than our disappointing findings in the UK press.

Even allowing for the fact that by-lines are a crude measure (though most other studies around the world use this method so our findings are comparable) and there may be women working on sports who do not receive a by-line (such as sub-editors) this is nevertheless an extraordinarily low figure.

I am now carrying out further research with Suzanne Franks that involves interviewing sports journalists, mostly women on national papers, to try to shed some light on why there are so few women writing about sports. It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that this is sexism, pure and simple. While there is likely to be an element of this, conscious or unconscious, the final analysis is likely to demonstrate a more complex picture: one which points to a lack of opportunities for both women and men on national papers, where workforces are being cut back and vacant posts are rare. And despite the higher visibility of women in sports broadcasting, this does not seem to be translated into women seeking sports writing jobs on local and regional papers. Most of the women I’ve spoken to on national papers say they rarely get enquiries from young women wanting to go into sports journalism. A common response is, “They are simply not coming through from the local and regional press.” Are women making a conscious choice not to go into the field – it does after all, require a lot of weekend and evening work, not always compatible with family life, though this could also be an issue for men with families and is an issue in many areas of journalism, including sports broadcasting- or does this career choice simply not occur to them?

It seems to me that the work needs to start at school level, with journalism tutors forming links with schools and colleges in their local community to encourage youngsters from both sexes and a range of non-traditional backgrounds to come into sports journalism.

And it would help if there were more women involved in teaching sports journalism and leading sports programmes. Like their national profile in journalism writing, I only know of a handful of women running sports courses.

If you have managed to recruit more than the token woman onto your sports journalism courses, I would welcome hearing from you. And if you are a woman involved in teaching sports journalism, do let me know about your experiences. Crucially, as journalism educators, how can we help address the gender imbalance?

Otherwise, despite some progress in sections of the media, sports coverage will continue to be mostly for men, about men and produced by men.

 Deirdre O’Neill is Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Media, University of Huddersfield

 A version of this article first appeared on the NUJ website on 16 October 2015



Franks, Suzanne and O’Neill, Deirdre. ‘Women Reporting Sport: Still a Man’s Game?’ Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism (Published online before print December 30, 2014, DOI: 10.1177/1464884914561573)

O’Neill, Deirdre and Mulready, Matt (2015) ‘The invisible woman? A comparative study of women’s sports coverage in the UK national press before and after the 2012 Olympic Games’, Journalism Practice, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp.651-668.