View from the sofa: Equal pay for women is an admirable aim but the issue of inequality is a lot more complicated than that

Woman’s Hour, Game Changers BBC Radio

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Bravo Emma Pooley. Bravo not just for calling time on her cycling career only to embark on another one, triathlon, with two more sports thrown in for good measure (although that is worth a cheer), but for alluding to the fact that anger at women in sport not being paid as much as men is a bit like telling off the bloke at the McDonald’s drive-through for contributing to the obesity crisis. It ain’t that simple.

Pooley was on Woman’s Hour, the frequently smug Radio 4 show that often slips into misandry in its efforts to promote women’s issues.

The reason for her appearance last Tuesday was because research had shown that  30 per cent of sports deny women equal pay, including cycling, in some events at least.

The host, Jane Garvey, had been speaking about the subject with Ruth Holdaway, the chief executive of Women in Sport, and they were both calling for a regulation to be brought in when Pooley was introduced to inject a hefty dose of reality and common sense to the debate, coupled with a surreal vegetable-based metaphor.

“In cycling as in many sports, we don’t actually do the same competitions,” she said. “So you are comparing the price of a banana with a dried pea – it’s not even apples and pears.

“It is very hard to regulate when the events are completely different and the people who are organising races are private companies trying to make a profit.

“So like many things in life it is ruled by market forces. And you can’t force a race organiser to pay huge amounts of money that they just don’t have, because they don’t have the sponsorship to put the money in.

“Until the sustainable model and media coverage is there for women’s sport there won’t be the money.

“Prize-money is important for the signal it sends out, but regulating on it is putting the cart before the horse. You can’t have equal prize-money until you have the same participation levels and opportunity.”

It was an excellent point well made, but what was to follow from Pooley was an even more important issue – one that every person who either is a female or knows one should listen to. It’s just a shame that she wasn’t given the chance to express her opinion fully.

“[Equal prize-money] is an admirable thing to aim for – I would have loved to earn more from cycling – but it is not the reason I took it up. It’s the opportunity that is most important. If elite sport has any role it is to inspire people to take it up. There is a knock-on effect...”

It was at this point that Garvey interrupted to put forth the opinion of a listener that the root cause of all the ills of women’s sport was that “men are making the decisions”.

Holdaway explained that there is a “complex web” when it comes to the lack of participation, prize-money and media coverage of women’s sport – which is what Pooley had just explained – and there is “no simple answer”. But she continued with the overly simplistic notion that there is an issue with the proportion of men at leadership or boardroom level in sport.

Oh, if it were that easy: redress the balance in leadership and participation levels would increase. But that overlooks the point that not all men are concerned with their own gender alone. In fact (and whisper it quietly) some men could even be classed as feminists – without feeling the need to don a silly-looking T-shirt.

There are fathers of girls who want their daughters to participate and excel in sport (and not only for the reason that their retirements are sorted if they raise an elite tennis player) and do their best to see that it happens, as well as teachers in schools who look out for their pupils equally, no matter which toilet they may head to at break.

Yes, we know there is much to be done before the balance is redressed – but, as we heard on Thursday night on Radio 5 Live in Game Changers, a live panel discussion to mark the 30th anniversary of the organisation Holdaway is in charge of, the aim of making everything equal might not be the answer.

As a (female) audience member said: “I may be being controversial here, but men and women are different. Making football and rugby 50-50 in terms of participation might not be what we all want. Women want to do different things to men.”

The notion was further expanded on by the panel, which was heaving with luminaries, including the cyclist Victoria Pendleton and Lizzy Yarnold, the Olympic skeleton bobsleigh gold medallist, all ably corralled by Eleanor Oldroyd.

Yarnold and Pendleton both pointed to role models as inspiration for their getting into sport: Denise Lewis’s achievements provided the spark for Yarnold. And Pendleton also pointed out that people interested in women’s sport need to make their appetite public – a fact that is often overlooked by people bemoaning the lack of coverage in the media: if nobody is bothered to go and watch it, what is the point of us lot in the media covering it?

The cyclist argued that if women “shout and make their voices heard that they care about sport” then radio, television and newspapers will be negligent if they fail to report it.

We know that there is an imbalance, compounded by the fact that there are some in sport (and the media) who are just plain sexist. Both were discussed at length during Game Changers.

Pendleton summed it up with a story about being told repeatedly throughout her career to “be less emotional – more like a man”. “Does that matter if I am still winning?” she asked.

Quite simply, no.