Women deserve more than just a chair at sports media table

CBC Senior Contributor Shireen Ahmed on the way women's voices are showcased in sports media and other predominantly male spaces. Are these conversations tokenized or are women really being seen and heard?

International Women's Day appropriate occasion to bring 4 of us together to discuss

Four women stand arm in arm.
From left to right, CBC's Andi Petrillo, Shireen Ahmed, Signa Butler, Anastasia Bucsis shared their experiences in sports media in a wide-ranging discussion. (Monika Platek/CBC Sports)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Every year on International Women's Day, I am invited to be part of a panel or an event to amplify the achievements of women in media or sports media industries. I am always honoured to do it and excited about the conversation. But I have been thinking a lot about the way women's voices are showcased in sports media and other predominantly male spaces. Are these conversations tokenized or are we being seen and heard?

I sat on a panel with a few colleagues at CBC Sports last week to talk about women, sports and media. The brilliant Andi Petrillo hosted the discussion with me, the incomparable Anastasia Bucsis, and the legend that is Signa Butler.

Fellow Haligonian Butler was captain of my high-school soccer team in Halifax. She was an extraordinarily talented player and her grin is the same as it was 30 years ago. Monika Platek and Sarah Jenkins, two exceptional members of our CBC Sports unit, produced the show. Jenkins moonlights as a TikTok influencer and Platek is the social media lead, a digital visionary with more than a decade of experience.   

We opined, shared and we laughed. We also gave each other compliments. I couldn't help but see Anastasia smile shyly when I told her how great she is and how impactful her work is. It's one thing to say that she's humble, but this incredibly talented Olympian is excellent as a host, play-by-play commentator and team member. I am not trying to embarrass my colleagues, but women are often predisposed to being modest about their accomplishments. And I am annoyed about that. 

Petrillo is literally award-winning. In November, she was the first woman to win Sports Media Canada's Outstanding Broadcaster award, and was the first woman to have a daily sports radio show in Canada. When I say I am among incredible women, I mean it. And we are part of a small group of women and non-binary folks in sports media who aren't the dominant population demographic. Each one of us carries expertise and strength.

WATCH | An IWD Conversation: Where do women's sports stand in 2023?

Where do women's sports stand in 2023? An International Women's Day conversation

25 days ago
Duration 37:33
Andi Petrillo, Anastasia Bucsis, Shireen Ahmed, and Signa Butler sit down ahead of International Women's Day to discuss the state of women's sports in Canada, and around the world.

Women in sports media often have stories of unkind and sometimes terrible moments in our careers. Whether we are intimidated or overlooked for opportunities, or have dealt with sexist and abusive comments online, those experiences can affect people in particular ways.

A 2020 study from the Women's Media Center called "What Online Harassment Tells Us About Our Newsrooms: From Individuals to Institutions," explained that women journalists may choose self-censoring to avoid or minimize abuse. 

I also have the added fun (read with sarcasm) of being a target of racist comments. There are moments that I pretend don't affect me, but in smaller circles I nod and share and empathize with other women. 

We are part of a unit at CBC Sports that has pledged to have gender balanced coverage, but it can't be just one department at one media company. It can't be only us with a few women (some racialized) in important roles but not yet at the helm. It has to be more. It has to be the entire industry. 

Currently, women's sports make up less than five per cent of sports broadcast on television. Sure, there are steps being made and initiatives seeking to make a change, especially in the U.S. There is potential for tremendous growth because we know the importance and impact of women's sports in Canada and around the world. 

I teach sport media and sports journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University. My classes are far from gender balanced, but every year the number of female students rises. 

It seems like a constant fight to not only do the work but fight for respect and create more space for others. In all honesty, some days it feels too hard. Some days I don't want to spend my time reading comments from people telling me that I shouldn't wear hijab and that I should go back to where I came from. Or more broadly, that "women shouldn't get paid equally" or that "no one watches women's sports."

We know that's not true. We know that women are half the population in this country. We know that we deserve a shot at opportunity and success and that includes sports and sports media. 

Important conversations

I feel like we also need more sports spaces with women having important conversations. I have had the pleasure of co-creating a podcast featuring four amazing women and myself. Burn It All Down is currently on sabbatical, but I think the impact has been meaningful. My co-hosts were all in the U.S., but our listeners were also in Canada and were so invested in the conversations we had about women in sports. The issues that have occurred in the U.S. for women in sports certainly mirror and resonate north of the border (see: fighting for equal pay and abuse in sports).

I have missed that forum to talk about sports, analyze and share knowledge with women who know sports, who love sports and are damn good at their jobs. 

I keep coming back to the conversation I had with Bucsis, Petrillo and Butler. I think we need more of that in Canada. Having women's voices heard is necessary. We have seen decades of men talking sports on the airwaves. People will not die if women do it too. 

Of course I believe in men covering women's sports, but there are topics that women may have knowledge of and lived experience in that can craft a point or interrogate something differently. I think it's high time to acknowledge that not only do women belong in sports spaces, we are needed here.

And of course I tie all of this to racial diversification as well. Seeing Black women broadcasters is so important. Having Black women as senior producers and as executives is also important. I still don't know of one Indigenous woman who is a full-time sports journalist in Canada. That sits heavy on my heart and in my head. I think about being one of the very few (if only?) racialized women in Canada who has a platform and a sports column. There needs to be way more of us.

There has always been and will always be a place for women in sports and in sports media. The two are interconnected as we continue to build toward sustainable women's leagues in Canada (I'm still mortified that it's 2023 and we don't have any for basketball, soccer or hockey).

Enourage girls to become leaders in sport

We can cheer on the teams we do have and attend university and college games. We can applaud women broadcasters. We can report online accounts that are needlessly harassing women. We can take our sons and daughters to women's games and we can also tell our family members who make sexist comments to stop.

We can email networks and request more coverage of women's sports. We should support girls and women as referees, as coaches, in sports management fields, and as academics studying systems and barriers of sport. 

We can encourage girls to become leaders in sport, and teach our boys to support that. As women and gender-nonconforming people, we can certainly vie for a place at the proverbial table. I used to say that if there was no place for me, I would "build my own chair." 

After more than a decade in the industry, I'm not interested in building just a chair for myself. On this International Women's Day, I am joining others and taking wisdom from those before me and building my own dining room with place for us all.


Shireen Ahmed

Senior Contributor

Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

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