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Philippou: Addressing the gender gap in sports journalism

The other day, I met with one of my favorite sportswriters, Stewart Mandel, at a local Starbucks to get advice on how to make it in sports journalism, since that’s what I’m fairly certain I want to do with my life these days. I left our meeting feeling super inspired, but there was something that made me feel a bit nervous to throw myself head-first into the world of sports media: the lack of female sportswriters in the industry.

The dearth of women sportswriters can partly be attributed to the lack of women in sports media as a whole — yet this gender disproportionality is even more acute when it comes to sportswriting. The most prominent women in sports media (think: Erin Andrews, Holly Rowe, Doris Burke, my beloved Katie Nolan) tend to not be writers, but are TV personalities or sideline reporters.

The 2014 Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card shed light on the severity of the lack of female sportswriters: It gave APSE newspapers and websites their fourth consecutive “F” grade for gender hiring practices. Earning an “F” constitutes that no more than 22 percent of employees were women, but the actual statistic reflects an even more dire situation: Only 14.6 percent of sports staffs are made up of women, while only 9.6 percent of sports editors are women.

At many sportswriting meccas, women are not on staff or do not write the most important stories. For example, none of Sports Illustrated’s senior writers are women, and the content that women do contribute to the magazine often lacks substance compared to pieces written by men. Although ESPN The Magazine’s new editor-in-chief is a woman, men still overwhelm the magazine’s masthead, and online coverage of major sporting events, such as Super Bowl 50, across various publications remains dominated by male writers.

Calls for greater inclusion in sports media don’t simply have a basis in the fight for gender equality; they are business-driven, as well. More women than ever before are watching sports (and not just because they find the athletes attractive); in fact, 45 percent of NFL fans are women.

An evolving audience thus demands that more women sportswriters, and sports journalists, be included in the industry and contribute to the conversations at hand. Female sportswriters also have the opportunity to contribute different perspectives in their writing and reporting from their male counterparts, particularly when it comes to discussing sensitive topics such as domestic violence. Overall, diversifying content helps a publication separate itself from competitors.

To justify the lack of female sportswriters, some sports fans use the excuse that “women don’t play X sport, how can they possibly comment on/analyze it?” Not only do I think that argument is complete B.S. (and sexist… how often have you heard that argument used against a male commenting on a sport he hasn’t played before?), but sportswriters (female and male) tend to be trained journalists and not former athletes in the first place.

As an aspiring sportswriter, the lack of women sportswriters scares me — it makes me wonder whether I will be hired by a sports publication in the first place, or if I do, how I will fare, or make a name for myself, in an industry that’s overwhelmingly dominated by men. It’s discouraging, to say the least, but will not stop me from pursuing my dream.

Some sports journalists — mostly women, although some men — have called out this disparity in the past. But much of the conversation focuses on calling out the lack of women in the industry and why it’s important to address the issue, not necessarily where to go from here. Although the reasons why this trend is occurring are uncertain (statistics aren’t available to show whether publications simply aren’t hiring women sportswriters or whether women aren’t interested in this niche of sports media in the first place), that is not reason enough to not try to address this discrepancy.

Changing these numbers, especially in an economically struggling industry such as sportswriting, won’t come from sitting back and expecting things to get better over time; publications need to actively take on this issue, and it’s time for them to actually do something about it.

To include more women sportswriters on staff, journalism outlets should adopt a version of the Rooney Rule called the Ralph Wiley Rule that would require organizations to interview at least one woman for an open position. The policy would open the interview and hiring processes up to people that employers might not have considered or personally known. It doesn’t mirror affirmative action in the sense that hiring practices would not overtly favor women; employers would still be expected to hire the most qualified candidate, but rather, the policy seeks to include more women in the interview process, something that would ultimately lead to the hiring of more women.

News outlets should also take steps to actively recruit female sportswriters from college publications. To facilitate this process, publications can form partnerships with college journalism schools or college publications, which can benefit both aspiring sportswriters as well as the publications themselves.

Many former college athletes that go into sports media opt for the broadcasting route. To use a Stanford grad as an example, Jessica Mendoza, one of the best softball hitters in collegiate history, became the first woman in the booth for ESPN’s MLB broadcasts in 2015, and six months later was promoted to a full-time analyst for Sunday Night Baseball.

If publications can actively try to recruit collegiate athletes to produce written content, some of them will likely make their way into the field and add valuable and unique analysis and perspectives as former athletes. (Stanford’s own Ramona Shelburne is a fantastic example of a college-athlete-turned-sportswriter — if you haven’t read her stuff yet, you need to.)

Yet no progress in getting more women in the industry will occur if the environment that female sportswriters face does not improve. Eighty-five percent of women in sports media reported that sexual discrimination is a problem for women in sports media, 87 percent agreed that female sports journalists have a tougher job than male sports journalists and 60 percent reported that female sports journalists are not taken as seriously by fans/consumers as male sports journalists. These findings serve as factors that not only have pushed women to leave the industry, but also as reasons women do not want to join it in the first place.

The disrespect female sports journalists receive does not simply come from Internet trolls (as seen in the recently released #MoreThanMean video with Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro). It can come from athletes, coaches, team executives and even fellow journalists (I’ve experienced the latter myself). Sports media organizations must hold themselves and their employees more accountable to ensure that sexual discrimination and harassment are not tolerated in their workplaces and seek to support their employees when they are mistreated by individuals from the teams they cover.

Having to face this harassment if I choose to become a female sportswriter has made me question my potential career path — I firmly believe that I shouldn’t be demeaned for doing what I love. But for the treatment of women sports journalists to improve, there will need to be more women in sports media in the first place — in other words, women commenting on and analyzing sports must be normalized.

Without a doubt, women have made major strides in the sports media and sportswriting industries. It is important to keep in mind that decades ago, women were not even allowed in the locker room; women now have more opportunities than ever before to follow and excel at careers in sportswriting and sports journalism.

It would be naïve, however, to assume that there is not more progress to be made. For greater equality to be achieved, and to make the industry more appealing to hopeful female sportswriters such as myself, organizations will have to take a look at every aspect of the job process to ensure that women can get hired and also choose to stay in the industry.

 

Welcome Alexa to the Cameron Miller Club, a club dedicated to taking down injustices in sports one column at a time, at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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