Story: Gender inequalities
Page 7 – Sport
In the mid-19th century New Zealand women did not play sport. Their clothing limited breathing and movement. The ideal feminine beauty was soft, delicate, and pale. Feminine conduct required gentleness and grace, restraint and cooperation rather than the vigorous play of muscles, aggression and competition. Public activity was approved of only if it was decorous.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sport contributed to immense changes in women’s lives. Constricting clothing was loosened and lightened, and what was seen as an attractive appearance came to include a healthy glow. Public activity and strenuous physicality became more acceptable.
By the 21st century women played every sport men did, competing at the highest level.
Women began to play sport in the 1870s. First croquet, then lawn tennis, swimming, golf, cycling, hockey, and netball (then known as basketball) were tried. Many of these games were new introductions to New Zealand. This engagement in sometimes vigorous activity was often commented on, not always approvingly.
When women tried rugby, cricket and cycling there was particularly strong opposition. Women who played sport, especially sports already strongly associated with men, were seen as masculinising themselves and upsetting the balance between the sexes.
Access to swimming pools and playing grounds was a constant problem. When women shared facilities with men, it was almost always on a less-than-equal basis.
Early 20th century: sporting activity increases
By the 1910s sport and physical activity was supported by a number of authorities, primarily as a means to a traditional end: women as healthy, competent mothers. Despite this approval, women’s sport continued to suffer from limited access to sports grounds at school and post-school levels.
Frustrated in 1920s Auckland by limited access for women to sports grounds and facilities dominated by men, the local YWCA started fundraising. It was so successful that it was able to outbid men’s sports groups, gaining control of a 6-hectare sports ground. Men took a back seat, admitted only ‘as far as space would permit’.1
There was an explosion of sporting activity amongst less privileged working girls and women after the First World War. Often organised by the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), company-based teams competed with each other locally and nationally.
Decision-making and coaching
Men often dominated decision-making in women’s sports. When a player proposed in 1908 that officers of the New Zealand Women’s Hockey Association should be female, the suggestion was ridiculed. A century later, women continued to be under-represented at decision-making levels in many sports. Of the 328 people serving on national sports boards in 2007, 87 (27%) were women. There had been no change in the gender balance of national sports boards since the mid-1990s.
Blokes and sheep
When a New Zealand encyclopedia was published in 1984, it showed 156 photographs of men, including 15 of individual All Blacks (plus a group photo), 19 of sheep, and only 16 of women. By then, this ‘rugby, racing and beer’ approach was past its use-by date, but for decades it had been the public face of New Zealand culture.
The ratio of women participants to women board members varied widely. Rowing had 55% female participation, but no female board members, whereas canoeing had 40% female participation and 50% female board members. Gymnastics had 70% female participation, but only 17% of its board members were women. Bowls had 36% female participation, and 43% of board members were women.
Sportswomen have been far less visible than sportsmen. When the numbers playing are taken into account, the space and time given to women’s sports in newspapers, radio and television has been far less than that given to men’s sport.
Three decades of research in New Zealand showed males receive on average 80% of coverage, females less than 10%. In the 2000s the limited coverage for women was heavily skewed in favour of elite female athletes, with mid-level players ignored or marginalised.
The result has been a lack of role models, less encouragement to participate, and a lower likelihood of gaining funding and sponsorship.