Sportswomen on a rigby pitch

Why we must continue to champion the rights of Sportswomen

By Paul Abraham

As someone who has over a thousand books on every aspect of coaching and self-improvement and who is always looking for more knowledge to become a better coach and mentor. My reading matter is very varied – from autobiographies by Tyson Fury (boxing) and Eddie Jones (Rugby Union) to mindfulness and zen Buddhism, plus everything in between.

The book that has really made me stop and think is ‘The Rivals, a book which highlights the competiveness and friendship of tennis legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. As an occasional armchair tennis fan, I was always supportive of Martina. I admired how she re-shaped her body and power through obsessional training to become a tennis legend and icon. I also admired her decision to announce and be proud to say she was gay. She truly was an inspiring woman changemaker.

The Drive to Boost Pay for Sportswomen

But, this isn’t the reason this book had so much of an effect on me. Rather, it was the drive and passion that the female tennis players and indeed other sportswomen in most popular sports displayed to fight for better rights, respect and acknowledgement against the male macho environment that prevailed in the early 1970’s.

It took the power, confidence, guts and steely courage of Billy Jean King to change women’s tennis forever.  While the male players lived a life of a good living and top hotels, females tennis players were lucky if they had their flights paid for. They still did the tournament grind because of their passion for the game.

Then, a meeting of nine of the top female players of the time decided to go it alone with their own tour. Basically, they felt they had nothing to lose, even if it meant being banned from tournaments such as Wimbledon. Losing 100% of nothing wasn’t going to make any difference.

A Poor Deal

The pay statistics of the time are shocking. At the first Open Wimbledon in 1968, the prize-fund difference was 2.5:1 in favour of men. Billie Jean King won £750 for taking the title, while Rod Laver took £2,000. The total purses of the competitions were £14,800 for men and only £5,680 for women.

By the 1970s, the pay difference (which had been a 2.5:1 ratio between sportsmen and sportswomen) had increased. In 1969, ratios of 5:1 in terms of pay were common at smaller tournaments; by 1970, these figures had increased but up to 12:1.  At the 1970 Italian Open, men’s singles champion Ilie Năstase was paid US$3,500, while women’s singles champion King received just US$600.  On top of this, the US Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) failed to organise any tournaments for women in 1970.

Without Billie Jean King, there would probably be no multi-millionaire female tennis players today. There might not have even been any ‘tour’ players. Such players never win a title being able to make a good living doing something they enjoy and have a passion for. The same can also be said about the women’s Golf tour.

How much has changed?

While there has been a shift in women’s sport and top performers are receiving the exposure and better remuneration they deserve, there is still a long way to go before equal recognition and pay is the norm.

I vividly remember sitting in the dug-out of a professional rugby league club as female referee Julia Lee took control of a match twenty years ago. She was subjected to comments by supporters and club officials of “Get home and get your ironing done”, “Your husband is waiting for his tea” and “Dizzy Lizzie sort your knitting out”. Comments such as this were common then.

Thankfully, there has been some recognition that everyone should be treated with equal respect. Although I was a fan of football pundit and ex international footballer Andy Gray, I applauded the news that he was to be sacked along with presenter Richard Keys by Sky for his sexist comments.

It is refreshing to see some of the English football lionesses appearing on Sky’s Gillette Soccer Special and the BBC’S iconic Match Of The Day programmes, where their knowledge and insights will hopefully make the “dressing room banter” style of summarising matches a thing of the past.

More recently, I was very disappointed when I was asked to give a speech at a dinner at the House of Lords about Rugby League. Nobody had been invited from the Women’s Rugby League, one of the sports success stories of recent time. It’s a terrible slight on all the sportswomen, female administrators and coaches when the male CEO of a Super League club accepts the award for the Rugby League Women’s Player of the Year.

I spoke up about this and personally will travel to meet anyone anytime irrespective of gender, age or sexuality to tap in to their knowledge – you can never stop learning as a coach.  Billie Jean took on the establishment, won and showed how archaic sports organisations were run at that time.

Recognition and opportunities have improved immensely for girls and women to take part in their favourite sports but there is still a long way to go. Thankfully, organisations such as Inspiring Woman Changemakers are working to help break down the barriers when it comes to fairness and safety for women.  The 1970’s spawned the “Sport for all” initiative. Surely now is the time for “Equal sporting opportunities for all” to be embraced.  Billie Jean, I salute you!

Inspiring Women Changemakers member Paul Abraham played rugby at amateur level before becoming a successful coach for under 14/15 players. His teams went on to win championships and cups at club level and had involvement at county level. Paul then moved to the professional level, where he worked as fitness coach and match day physiotherapist. His coaching company Heading Onwards is a sponsor of Bramley Buffaloes RLFC and our Igniting Inspiration Awards. He is a champion not only for sportswomen but for women at all levels in society.

Inspiring Women Changemakers is a dynamic movement of people working to make the world a fairer, safer place for women. We give changemakers the communication skills, platform and connections to amplify change.

Bring your heart, your brainpower and your connections – join us!