Women in sport: Much has changed, but we aren't there yet

Impressive strides have been made in the arena of women in sport. But in terms of compensation, representation, and recognition, we have not yet reached true gender equality, writes CBC Sports host Scott Russell.

Erase stigma around competition and mistaken ideas of femininity, Olympians say

From left to right, Canadian Olympians Kerrin Lee-Gartner, Catriona Le May Doan, Jenn Heil and Beckie Scott. (Photos by The Canadian Press)

As we prepared to broadcast Road to the Olympic Games this past Saturday, it struck me how much things had changed.

Co-hosting the show with me was the immensely talented Andi Petrillo.  She knows more about sport and has a better grasp on how to deliver it than most people I know. 

Calling play-by-play on freestyle skiing was Brenda Irving, a pioneering female in sport who was the first women to appear as a rink side reporter on Hockey Night in Canada and who has gone on to be a regular on CFL football telecasts and play caller at several Olympics. Again, she was the first woman in Canada to perform those duties.

And then there were our four sport analysts, all women, all Olympic champions, each the parent of two children, all members of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and all still involved in sport at the highest level.

The way things were

When I started in this business 30 years ago, there were almost no women who appeared in front of the camera as sports hosts, reporters, or analysts. Terry Leibel and Diana McDonald of TSN as well as Sue Prestedge of CBC painstakingly paved the way. I can recall only rarely interviewing a woman in my role as the supper hour sportscaster at CBC Charlottetown. 

Men got all the play; that's just the way things were.

Catriona Le May Doan won two gold medals in speed skating at the Olympics and is now a fixture on the Canada Games Council, an ambassador with Special Olympics Canada, a member of the board at Winsport, and the new senior director of community engagement and marketing with Sport Calgary which connects more than 400 sport organizations in that city.

Erasing the stigma

"We need to introduce sport to families and young girls and make them aware of the opportunities there are for them," Le May Doan said. "We need to erase the stigma which says just because women are strong, muscular, and sporty, they're not necessarily feminine. It's been partially overcome but we're not there yet."

Beckie Scott won the first Olympic gold medal in the history of Canadian cross-country skiing at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake. But the title didn't come easily. Originally the bronze medallist, Scott went through a two-year battle which exposed the two Russian skiers who finished ahead of her as dopers. She has since gone on to represent Canada at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and now presides over the athlete's council of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

"Only 25 per cent of IOC members are women," Scott noted. "There is always a ways to go for women in sport. Sport leaders and administrators at the highest levels need more representation from women. There's a lot of room for improvement."

While Canada has made great strides with regard to sport leadership, the same is not true globally. The sport minister in Canada, Carla Qualtrough, the head of Own the Podium (OTP), Anne Merklinger, the CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC), Karen O'Neill, and the president of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), Trisha Smith are starting to redress issues of sport governance which have been dominated by men in the past.

But Jenn Heil, a gold medallist in freestyle skiing at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy who does humanitarian work with the international organization "Because I am a Girl," believes too many young girls are dropping out of sport too early.

"We need more women in leadership roles and in coaching positions," Heil stressed. "We need to make the experience relevant to girls and right now we're falling behind in that regard. We have to get people, both boys and girls, prepared to participate. We are way behind in physical literacy in this country and that's a big problem."

Fostering a greater competitive spirit

Kerrin Lee-Gartner, who is is the only Canadian to win Olympic gold in downhill skiing, which she did in Albertville in 1992, is on the board of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. She places part of the responsibility for a greater place in Canadian sport on women themselves.

"We need to, as women, celebrate what we are capable of," she said. "We have won as many gold medals as Canadian men have, but maybe that's not the point. We can do things that men can't do. Sometimes for men, being competitive is seen as a normal part of life whereas competitiveness in young girls is frowned upon. You need to be competitive in order to succeed in life. Women, I believe, need to foster a greater competitive spirit."

While impressive strides have been made in the arena of women in sport, we aren't there yet. There is not yet gender equity on the Olympic stage. Women cannot earn as substantial a living as men do in the realm of professional sport.  Very few high-performance coaches are women. The media's coverage of women's sporting activities pales in comparison to what men have traditionally garnered.

Still, as I observed Andi take her place at the centre of the studio stage and introduce Brenda as well as these four strong champions, I was struck by the notion that we are most assuredly headed in the right direction.

One other word came to mind as I took it all in as an unabashed fan of Canadian sport.

That word is impressive.