Reflections on the playing field for women in sport and sport media
Updated: May 8
The international conference “Empowering Women in Sport and Sport Media” was organised by the Hungarian Sport Journalists’ Association on 18 May in Budapest, Hungary. The conference took place just a couple of hours before the Women’s Champions League final in the city, and our Communications Expert, Mariann Bardocz-Bencsik attended it.
Among the speakers, there were many former and current high-level athletes, most of them female and all having some kind of relationship with sport media.
Dr. Tünde Szabó, Minister of State for Sport in Hungary – and Olympic and world medalist swimmer – gave an overview on women’s presence in Hungarian sport. She revealed that among the presidents of the national governing bodies of 45 sport disciplines supported by the government, there are only three female leaders, and she suggested that this figure needs to be improved. She pointed towards the International Olympic Committee’s Gender Equality Recommendations, a document that we need to keep in mind when talking about gender equality and women’s empowerment in the world of sport.
After the Minister of State, Laura Georges took the stage and addressed the audience with an empowering speech as a former athlete and a current sports leader. Georges is a two-time Champions League winner, who played 188 games for the French national football team, and is currently the Secretary General of the French Football Federation. She brought a very clear message:
“Women’s football is not about the future. It’s happening now.”
She pointed out that there are still clubs that do not care about women’s football, and she thinks that it needs to be changed, as she believes that girls need to be considered as equal.
Laura Georges was followed by a real trailblazer on stage, Donna de Varona. The two-time Olympic champion swimmer, and the first television sports reporter in the United States led the audience through her career from a little girl who was passionate about sports, to her first world record at the age of 13, then to her other successes in the pool and beyond. Using the platform of the media, she successfully lobbied in Congress to set up the Women’s Sports Foundation, and helped push through a legislation that enables women to receive federally funded sports scholarships.
She did not sugarcoat the challenging future ahead, mentioning a myriad of tasks to be taken care of within women's sport:
De Varona’s testimony was followed by a highly interesting presentation from Dr. Andrea Gál, sport sociologist at the Physical Education University, host of the conference. Dr. Gál shared some recent research findings around women’s representation in sports media in Hungary. Female reporters are fewer in numbers (around 17-27% of the total amount of reporters, depending on the media outlet), and their salary is significantly less than their male colleagues’ (55-80%, depending on the outlet). Regarding female athletes, Dr. Gál’s message is that it’s crucial how we communicate about them in the media, as today’s language and attitude will form the ones of the future.
The second half of the conference was started by Dr. Zsuzsa Csisztu, former Olympian gymnast, sports journalist, who gave us a presentation on her career transition from athlete to media worker. She firmly believes that performance has no gender, and emphasised how important was it in her journalist career when her (male) bosses gave her opportunities to prove what she is capable of doing.
As she said: “It can help you significantly when serious people start taking you seriously.”
The last speaker before the panel discussion was probably the most-awaited one: Katinka Hosszú, also known as “Iron Lady”, 3-time Olympic champion swimmer and business woman. She honestly explained that even with her great results in the pool and beyond, she still feels that being a woman is a big disadvantage for her - for instance, in business meetings. Nonetheless, she believes that this can be turned into an advantage. She thinks that as women CEOs have to fight harder to prove their abilities in business, they will be more prepared for the challenges ahead. Half-jokingly she envisioned a future when men will organise conferences, entitled “Empowering men in sport”, and added that “as we are nice, we will give men equal opportunities” - referring to all the women in the industry.
Hosszú's speech was followed by a panel discussion, moderated by Charles Camenzuli, the President of the European Union of Sports Press. In that panel, Donna de Varona made an important point on the role of social media in changing the world of communication. As she said, for example, Katinka Hosszú shares a lot about her life on these platforms, and it’s something herself didn’t need to do when she was an athlete in the ‘60s.
The panel discussion got especially interesting, when the president of the International Sports Press Association, Gianni Merlo, in his closing remarks, mentioned the case of Caster Semanya. The two-time Olympic champion South African runner has elevated level of male sex hormones, that greatly supports her dominant performance in the 800m and 1500m distances. Many of the panelists had a strong opinion about her case, but nobody knew the perfect solution to handle it. There was a mention about a possible introduction of a special category for Semanya and those alike her to compete in. It was stated multiple times that the goal is to keep the competition fair, but there are so many factors to consider, that it’s impossible to say which solution is the fairest - for Semanya, for her competitors and for track and field. Donna de Varona noted that we simply don’t have enough policy to decide on the case and a couple of panelist agreed with her.
The international conference was a great mix of athletes’ testimonies about media, the stories of former athletes who chose to work in sport media, and some facts and figures on women in sport and sport media at large. A key message was in one way or another expressed by most of the speakers. As Katinka Hosszú put it: “I’ve done the work. It must not matter if I’m a woman or a man.”
At ENGSO, we cannot agree more with her.