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Misogyny in Sport

Volume 680: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to introduce my first Adjournment debate. I also thank the Minister for being here to respond to what is a global issue in sports clubs big and small around the world.

Misogyny in sport is an incredibly broad topic for debate, and I want to make clear that it operates at every level. I could talk for hours about every sport known to man or woman—no pun intended—and those who know me would say that that is not hard, but it is already late, so we do not have the time. I will therefore try to focus my speech on a few specific issues that may not be so well known to the Minister or, indeed, to others listening here today.

The first is the misogyny we see in wrestling. While some will say that wrestling is not a sport, that is a debate for another day. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) and I are co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on wrestling, which I of course encourage Members of all political persuasions to join, so this is an issue close to my heart, not least because of the close links with my constituency in south Wales.

I will also touch on the barriers to participation in sport for women and girls. Simple issues, including kit and equipment designed with boys and men in mind, allow such inequalities to persist. I spoke to many individuals and sports clubs ahead of this evening’s debate, and they told me that everything from street harassment during training to unequal funding is having a gendered impact on interest in sports and exercise.

As colleagues across the House know, I am a proud woman of the Welsh valleys, so it seemed only fitting to begin my preparation for this debate by looking at the media coverage of Wales’s most famous sports stars, but there were far fewer women than men in those articles. What message does that send to young girls in my constituency, and across the country, about who sport is for, and what our sporting heroes should look like?

This is really a debate about the opportunities that we afford young people. Time and again I have heard the same stories about how some sports are gendered early on. Although I left school some years ago now, it surprises me that netball and hockey are still routinely aimed at women and girls, and football and rugby associated with men and boys.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing an important topic to the Chamber. As a proud Scotswoman, I play the Scottish sport of shinty, which is often mistaken for hockey. Does the hon. Lady welcome, as I do, the quadrupling in women registering to play shinty over the past 10 years despite the challenges to which she refers?

I thank the hon. Member and absolutely echo her call. I look forward to watching shinty once it is given the prominence it deserves.

If we are to reduce misogyny and sexism within sport, we must do more to encourage variety at the first opportunity. A huge part of that battle lies with all of us. We all have a responsibility to call out misogyny and sexism where and whenever we can. On that point, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for her campaign to make misogyny a hate crime. Only when misogyny is recognised for exactly what it is will we be able to reduce the abuse that women in sport often face. We all know how important sport and exercise are for both mental and physical wellness, and I am particularly worried that fears around misogyny are having an impact on the number of women participating in sport. The charity Women in Sport recently reported that 1.5 million fewer women than men participate in sport at least once a month.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, because it is important to address misogyny in sport. Does she agree that we need to take all possible practical steps to ensure that, for example, my three beautiful young granddaughters—they get their good looks from their mother and grandmother, not me—have the same opportunities in sport that my handsome wee grandson will have? It is important for the future that we do this for the children.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. Now that he has intervened in my Adjournment debate, I feel that I am a proper MP. I completely echo his calls, and hope to see his grandchildren among our sports stars of the future.

Women make up only 18% of qualified coaches and only 9% of senior coaches. In almost half of publicly funded national governing bodies, less than a quarter of their board are women, and, in total, women make up only around 30% of board members. While it is easy to get lost in the statistics, these numbers really do matter, particularly in traditionally male-dominated sports such as wrestling. The disturbing reality and lived experience for many female wrestlers is, more often than not, entrenched in misogyny. I have heard horrific tales from female wrestlers who were faced with threats of rape or sexual assault, all in the name of “friendly banter”. I have also heard from women as young as 13 or 14 who, at the start of their careers, were the targets of vile behaviour that saw male wrestlers competing to be the one to take their virginity.

The #MeToo movement shone a light on the inherent misogyny that persists across so many industries, but less well known is the Speaking Out movement, which has left the wrestling industry tainted with its harrowing stories of emotional and sexual abuse. These behaviours are disgraceful, yet they continue to persist, and ultimately, the sports industry urgently needs more regulation.

The UK Government have a responsibility to engage proactively with governing bodies to support women and to bring an end to this abuse. I would be interested to know how many meetings the Minister has had with governing bodies to discuss misogyny in sport. What tests has his Department put in place to hold these institutions to account, particularly when there is no governing body to hold to account, as with wrestling? Who should these young women turn to? We saw this problem with British Gymnastics. It is welcome that UK Sport and Sport England are commissioning the Whyte review into British Gymnastics, but the UK Government must take the lead.

Women also often face barriers to accessing the proper equipment they need to participate in sports. Think about large-scale running events: most of these events provide runners with kit, which is almost always “unisex”—which of course, in reality, is not true. Yet it is not all doom and gloom; there is hope. There are many wonderful examples in my own constituency of groups that are doing an excellent job of encouraging women and girls’ participation in sport. Rhondda Ladies Hockey Club, supported by Hockey Wales, has been doing amazing work to encourage women, as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community, to participate in sport. I pay tribute to their fantastic work, and especially the work of my own former head of sixth form at Tonyrefail School, Kay Tyler, the club secretary. I also would love to highlight the fantastic work of the Pontyclun Falcons ladies’ rugby team in my community, and their team manager, Michelle Fitzpatrick, in encouraging and supporting women to play rugby.

Yet issues around misogyny in sport are apparent across every age group. University teams across the UK have repeatedly hit the headlines, most commonly when men’s sports teams have been penalised for horrendously sexist, homophobic or racist themed nights out. And still, as in many industries around the country, women are paid less than their male counterparts for exactly the same work.

There are also massive differences in the funding opportunities. We saw that just recently: during the coronavirus crisis, the suspension of top-level football was initially applied equally to both the men’s and women’s competitions, but when games were allowed to start up again, the Football Association cancelled the women’s super league and championship matches. In contrast, the men’s premier league and championship games were able to resume.

Yet what is perhaps most shocking of all lies in public attitudes towards sport. Insure4Sport recently found that an incredible 40% of participants do not believe that women’s and men’s sport should get equal TV coverage. Some of the responses on this reasoning were, frankly, disgraceful, ranging from, “I think women lack enthusiasm,” to, “I find them slow, weak and boring,” and, my personal favourite, “I personally think it’s not natural for a woman to play these types of sports.” Call me old-fashioned, but in 2020, I am flabbergasted that women’s sport is seen as “less than” in every sense.

The coronavirus pandemic has, of course, added to the strain that sports clubs across the country are facing. Clubs at all levels are feeling the severe financial pinch and there is already concern that the women’s game and their funding will suffer most in the long term. Many women’s elite teams are tied to or are subsidiaries of professional men’s clubs. When the men’s clubs hit hard financial times, they often cut ties with the women’s teams to save money. For example, when the men’s club withdrew funding in 2017, the Notts County women’s club collapsed, leaving their players jobless and, in some cases, homeless just two days before the season was due to start.

The Minister must ensure that the UK Government act to support women’s sport through the coronavirus crisis and to guarantee that future generations have the opportunity to develop a love for sport, which will pay dividends throughout their lives. Nevertheless, bleak as this sounds, there is hope. Generations of children are now growing up with female sport heroes to look up to, and we must not lose this momentum.

The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) is an ambassador and a pioneer in this House for football. She has not been able to attend the House because of illness, but we should put on record our thanks to her for what she did to promote the sport of football. She came to my constituency and visited the Comber Rec women’s football team, and really encouraged those people to take sport forward.

I thank the hon. Member for his contribution, and I completely echo his call. I have not had the opportunity to meet the hon. Lady yet, but I wish her well from the House. I know that she is a passionate advocate for women’s sport, as am I, and I am glad that we could work cross-party on this.

As I have said, there are some real trailblazers in traditionally male-dominated sport. I am sure that we will be seeing my two nieces, Katie and Robyn, on prime- time sports programming in the near future—well, fingers crossed anyway. From Tegan Nox, a proud Welsh valleys woman who is making waves in the wrestling world, to the formidable Fallon Sherrock, who I am sure will teach the men a thing or two in the upcoming world series of darts, it cannot be denied that women really can compete alongside the very best, regardless of gender. I am sure that the Minister will agree that these women are excellent examples of the very reasons why women and girls should be given equal opportunities early in life.

Lastly, it would be foolish of me to secure such an important debate without touching on the decade-long period of cuts that has seen sports clubs and facilities fold at the hands of this Government. In July 2019, it was reported that since 2010, more than 700 council-run football pitches across the UK have been lost forever.

I thank the hon. Member for giving way again. I would like to echo that and promote the #SaveLeisure campaign, because this is not just about sports clubs folding, but about the local council trusts that are running sport across the UK, which are now finding things really challenging, and that is having a knock-on effect on clubs.

I completely agree with the hon. Member, and thank her for her contribution.

On that subject, by contrast, the Welsh Labour Government’s Vision for Sport truly prioritises the needs of people in Wales, and we are seeing some fantastic local initiatives pop up. In my constituency of Pontypridd, the local Labour-led council set up the fantastic “Dark in the Park” project in conjunction with Newydd housing association. This project uses local outdoor spaces such as Ynysangharad park to deliver a couch-to-5k running activity in the evening for local people.

I would like the Minister to join me this evening in acknowledging the deeply misogynistic behaviours that still exist across the sport industry. While it would be foolish of me to ask the Government to intervene on the practices in sports club boardrooms across the country, I can ask that he and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport actively encourage better practices for clubs, big and small. I specifically request that he consult the Chancellor ahead of the upcoming autumn Budget to ensure that local authority spending is not subject to further cuts that will impact the availability of sports facilities for all.

We saw in the last few weeks the England football team giving pay parity to the women’s and men’s teams. Does the hon. Member agree that the Government need to do more to encourage broadcasters to promote women’s sport? If we look at the disparity between the showing of male-dominated sport and that of female-dominated sport, we see there is quite a gap.

I completely agree with the hon. Member’s calls. If we do not see women’s sport, there is no women’s sport. It needs to be visible to all of us for all of us to be encouraged to take part and see those heroes, so that we have heroes for our young people to look up to.

I also request that fair funding is given to the devolved nations in terms of the Barnett consequentials, which will allow for small steps to be taken to provide equal opportunities for everyone interested in sport. Ultimately, leadership to eradicate sexism and misogyny must start at the top. The road to ending this deeply entrenched inequality is undeniably long—a marathon, not a sprint, if you will—but until we see real change from the Government and a true commitment to eradicating sexism and misogyny in sport, I am afraid that the conversation will not even get off the starting blocks. Diolch.

I thank the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for tabling this important topic for debate this evening. She spoke eloquently, knowledgeably and passionately about this very important topic, and I agreed with her on the vast majority of the issues she raised.

The great power of sport is that it has an amazing ability to bring people together and to unite for common goals. Sport should be an inclusive sector to work in, with opportunities for everyone. It should be enjoyable to watch, with everyone feeling welcome and included. Everyone should be able to take part in the sport or physical activity of their choosing—from football to rugby to wrestling, and beyond.

We have seen great progress, as the hon. Lady acknowledged, with women’s sport in recent years, with levels of media coverage and sponsorship higher than they have ever been, but of course there is much more to do. Misogyny has no place in our society. Any form of discrimination is abhorrent, and we must do all we can to tackle it. We have heard examples this evening of women facing disproportionate challenges in the sector. The examples the hon. Lady gave and others remain, sadly, all too frequent, and they happen across many aspects of the sporting sector.

In broadcasting, women’s sport still lags behind men’s in coverage. It is often only in the biggest events—the Olympics, the Paralympics, Wimbledon and so on—that women’s sport gets equal screen time and debate. However, the issue goes deeper than broadcasters’ decisions. Sporting federations and event organisers support a great many more top-level men’s events than women’s. As the hon. Lady mentioned, covid has had a disproportionate impact on women’s competitions compared with men’s events, with many women’s top-level leagues and events cancelled. The inherent economic imbalance between men’s and women’s sport is leaving women’s sport having to fight harder to recover from coronavirus. That cannot be right.

Women have been historically under-represented as presenters or commentators, but that is starting to change with the concerted effort of broadcasters and some fantastic role models in this arena. This should be recognised and praised, and we are now more likely to see female presenters, pundits and commentators for both men’s and women’s sport on TV and radio. However, that itself has been a catalyst for online abuse, with female presenters being trolled and receiving misogynistic abuse from so-called fans who obviously believe women have no right to talk about sport, as the hon. Lady mentioned.

As I have said before about women in politics, if we want more women in sport, we need to start treating the ones we already have a lot better. This is something we do take very seriously as a Government. We are working on the plans set out in the Government’s online harms White Paper to introduce world-leading legislation to make companies more responsible for the users’ safety online. There are of course provisions in the Equality Act 2010 to protect people against discrimination, whether in the workplace, as consumers or as members of private clubs or associations. However, I repeat that there should be no place in sport for discrimination of any kind. Whether it is done consciously or unconsciously, we need to address discrimination and have open and challenging conversations about these issues.

Are there challenges? Yes. Should we do everything we can to tackle them? Of course. We can take heart from the great progress we have seen in women’s sport over recent years, and I want to say a few words about that now. The year 2019 was a fantastic one for women’s sport. To choose just two, the FIFA women’s world cup in France and the netball world cup in Liverpool were fantastic events that shone a spotlight on brilliant women sport stars. On top of that, the UK hosted the women’s Ashes and a thrilling Solheim cup.

We will be hosting some more great events in the coming years, including the Rugby League world cup in 2021, which will for the first time see a combined men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournament. In 2022, the UK is due to host the UEFA women’s Euro football championships and, of course, the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth games, where there will be more women’s medal events than men’s. This will be the first time in history that a major multi-sport event will feature more women’s than men’s medal events, and we can have it right on our shores, which we should all be very proud of.

We are seeing the popularity of women’s sport continue to grow, with record audiences tuning in or turning up to watch international and domestic women’s events. On the commercial investment side, we have seen record sponsorship deals struck, including Barclays’ sponsorship of the women’s super league and Boots’s sponsorship of women’s national football teams. There are also many examples of individual clubs promoting equality between their men’s and women’s teams. Just last month I was delighted to visit Lewes Football Club in East Sussex. As many hon. Members will know, it was the first professional or semi-professional football club to have equal playing budgets for its men’s and women’s teams, which is something I applaud.

All of that is helping to inspire more women and girls to become active. The latest data from Sport England’s Active Life survey in April showed that before covid-19 there were more than 210,000 active women compared with the previous year. We want to continue to encourage more women and girls to get active and build on the momentum generated by initiatives such as Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign, which launched its latest TV advert just this week. The latest phase of the campaign recognises that, for many people, the pandemic has added to the physical, financial and time barriers to getting active. The campaign uses real-life stories to celebrate the inventive ways in which many women have stayed active during the pandemic and helped to inspire many others.

I am pleased to say that more women are working in the sector than ever before. Sport England’s annual survey of diversity in sport governance, published in September last year, showed that women now make up an average of 40% of board members across Sport England and UK Sport-funded bodies. There is still progress to be made, but that is quite a remarkable achievement, and the Government continue to work with sports and sport bodies to ensure that opportunities to progress are open to all.

We want to raise the profile of, and encourage more commercial investment in, women’s sport. Sponsorship and media coverage go hand in hand. As the hon. Member for Pontypridd mentioned, if women’s sport does not have the media coverage, sponsors often do not see it as commercially attractive. It is fantastic to see elite women’s sport getting better coverage, but our key aim is to use that exposure to encourage more women and girls to get active. As we set out in the Government’s sport strategy “Sporting Future”, sport and physical activity should be accessible to all, and we mean all.

However, there is still a gap in participation levels between men and women. We know that there is still more work to be done to break down the barriers that prevent women and girls from getting active. Over the summer I met sport governing bodies and the CEO of the fantastic charity Women In Sport, which the hon. Lady mentioned, to explore further the new challenges that covid-19 has posed to women in sport and to discuss what more can be done. I am happy to say that there was a real, shared commitment among sports to protect investment in women’s sport and promote its growth. I also wrote to the major sports governing bodies and asked what they were doing to encourage women’s sport. They came back with very positive responses. I look forward to seeing those positive responses and words turn into action, as I am sure the whole House does.

I recognise the impact that covid-19 has had on sport, but women’s sport has been hit particularly hard. I want to take this opportunity to assure hon. Members that I am personally committed to helping women’s sport come out of the current crisis stronger than ever, and I am working closely with the sector to ensure that that happens.

One thought that I have had while the Minister has been presenting his case is about the need for stars—those who can be role models to promote a sport. Is that something that he could work on? If we can do that for the adults, the children will come through on the back of it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; I, too, do not feel that it is a proper debate without being intervened on by him. As always, he makes a valid and important point. During the coronavirus crisis, for example, we have seen leading sportsmen and, in particular, women show real leadership, being absolute role models, helping out in their communities and getting out the important messages about coronavirus that we need to get out there. On an ongoing basis, we see many female sports stars getting the credit they deserve, but we need to do more. I applaud those who have stood up and helped during the coronavirus crisis. Many women’s sport stars have played a lead role in many charities. They are deservedly on that pedestal.

Public funding in sport, which the hon. Member for Pontypridd mentioned, should clearly benefit women’s sport and physical activity. That is something I am very passionate about. I have made it clear to all the major sporting bodies that if they are receiving Government funding, I expect and require them to make sure that an adequate share of that funding is spent on women’s sport.

Misogyny has no place in our society and has no place in sport. Sport should bring people together. It should be inclusive as a sector and enjoyable to watch and participate in. We have seen great progress with women’s sport, with bigger audiences, increasing sponsorship deals and more coverage, and we are seeing progress on participation with more women and girls being physically active, but we must not become complacent or turn a blind eye to discrimination or misogyny. I thank the hon. Member again for reminding us of that by securing this evening’s debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.