Why are there so few women in professional sports?
Despite recent major wins by Bangladeshi sports-women, the profession is still largely male-dominated
Around two months ago the Bangladesh women's football team won the South Asian Football Federation Women's Championship for the first time. Their achievement has been acknowledged and celebrated by nearly everyone irrespective of class, gender, and even religion. Though the women's football team has won several U-19, U-18, U-17, and U-16 championships in years prior, those wins did not attract much attention since they were not as significant as SAFF. However, after their last victory, the most discussed issue in both social and print media was the wage discrimination between men and women in the world of sports.
There is no doubt that a huge remuneration gap exists between male and female players in Bangladesh which needs to be minimized. Indeed, the wage discrimination for female players is the prevailing situation throughout the world, not only in Bangladesh, while many studies on this issue have confirmed that this kind of remuneration gap also exists in the most popular women's sports such as tennis. While in the Grand Slam tournaments both the men and women winners receive equal prize money, it is considerably smaller in other tournaments. However, the wage disparity is acute in Bangladesh as the national women's cricket team members are paid Tk30,000 as a monthly salary whereas the male members earn Tk400,000 in a month -- that is only 7.5% of the men's wages.
This gives way to an important question: Is equal pay the prime factor behind encouraging more women to choose sports as a viable profession?
There is no reason to believe that simply bridging the wage gap will increase women's participation in sports, though it is considered to be one of the major factors getting in the way. The Bangladesh Institute of Social Research (BISR) Trust conducted a study in 2019 to explore how non-sports women (ie women who do not participate in competitive sports) perceive women's sports. The study found that, while a significant portion of non-sports women want to play by watching women's sports, they are not willing to take sports as a profession.
Participating in sports is just as beneficial to women's health as it is for men -- all the women in the studies mentioned that they used to take part in various games and sports during their childhood and they recognize that sports are essential for better physical health. While growing up, various forms of friction such as social stigma and family restrictions have been imposed upon women who have expressed interest in sports at a professional capacity. Therefore, in order to act in line with the recognized social norms and values, they establish a kind of self-denial among themselves which prevents them from engaging in sports wholesale.
This is labeled as the “denial perspective” in the abovementioned study. Because of this self-denial, a lack of preference is observed among the non-sports women in the case of participating in sports even though women need sports and activity biologically just like men. It is also worth mentioning that engaging in sports and play is not considered an “ideal profession” in our society, especially for women. As society does not value sports as a “real profession,” a lack of eagerness is established among non-sports women towards sports which is one of the main reasons for women's lack of participation in this arena.
Then what about the women who are taking part in sports? Why did they choose sports as a profession? To answer such questions, the study covered interviews of a few sports-women from various competitive sectors like football, cricket, hockey, swimming, archery, and so on. It revealed that, in Bangladesh -- unlike other countries -- most of the women from lower income groups tend to take sports as a profession more frequently than women from higher income groups.
The social and economic disparity faced by these women drives them to choose sports as a means of earning and empowerment. The study also found that women who have their family members engaged in sports have a high possibility of being engaged in sports later. More than two-thirds of the studied sports-women stated that they had male family members engaged in sports which inspired them to take part in sports themselves and made it easier for them to get financial and other forms of support from the family.
Nevertheless, the social demand for women's sports is quite limited in Bangladesh, as women's sports are not on the priority list of the general public. Therefore, in a women's cricket match, for example, the number of spectators does not cross the limit of 300 while the number goes up to 20,000 for a men's match. Simply put, the money follows the eyes.
The difference in the number of spectators in the matches resulted in a remuneration gap between men and women players. Therefore, this lack of demand for women's sports in the society also resulted in limited earning opportunities for professional sports-women. Yet, it is not always the sponsors and spectators who make the remuneration equal for men and women players. Studies show that, despite drawing the same revenue from the women's matches as of men's, the prize money winning sports-women receive is much lower than their male counterparts. Thus, it is the preference of society which determines the value.
The value of every profession is determined by the society in question. As sports has not been recognized as a women's profession by our society, women are not willing to take sports as a profession, even though the scenario is changing slowly through each decisive win made by a Bangladeshi sports-woman
Sarmin Akther is Researcher (Social and Gender Division), Bangladesh Institute of Social Research Trust.