“Did you mean: Sportsmen Role Models?”

Ms Sally Northcroft, Director of Sport

A unit of study in the Year 9 Health Studies curriculum is concerned with the history of women in sport. The girls are often surprised at what women were prepared to tolerate in order to play sport. The long dresses in tennis and the woollen swimming costumes were only some of the sporting challenges that women in the 20th century endured.   The search for  female sporting role models over the years has revealed some very gutsy, brave and daring women – Boyle, Court and Stephenson; achievers in sport and in life. These were not household names, unlike those of Bradman, Norman and Laver. So, upon further classroom investigation, the girls proceeded to research current day sports women for examples of role models. Perhaps, they would find some names that they knew?  In true ‘Gen Y’ form, the girls used the Internet search engine ‘Google’ and in response to their search, (Sportswomen role models), Google suggested: “Did you mean: Sportsmen role models?” The all-round look of astonishment and indignation was a clear indication that the current status of female athletes as role models is lagging far behind our male counterparts. The idea that equality exists in the sporting world is erroneous, especially when it comes to showcasing the fine accomplishments of our female athletes in all forms of media. This statement and the response from the girls led me to look more closely at the significance of having role models (and particularly sportswomen role models), some reasons as to why our sportswomen are not household names and ways in which we can, as a school and a community, go about correcting this imbalance.

The definition of a role model is: “a person whose behaviour, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people.” (Dictionary.com). People such as teachers, parents, peers and athletes may be considered to be role models. It must also be mentioned that the behaviour being copied could be either positive or negative. In this instance, I will focus on the impact of positive role models. There is significant current research supporting the notion that role models are a necessary part of setting goals and in achieving individual success.  A literature review conducted by Payne et al (2002) found a number of successful programs that promoted female role models in order to improve participation of women in physical activity. Oldenhove (1989) observed that primary school student participation in Physical Education classes increased when more women dressed in appropriate active wear and were engaged in leading the classes.  Mack, Schultz and Araki (2002) investigated the relationship between self-esteem and the existence of role models and found that students with role models had higher self-esteem scores than those without role models. Additionally Wright and Caresse (2002) found that excellence in role modelling by medical specialists was a significant factor when students were selecting their area of specialty. There was a strong correlation between the clinician’s specialty and their medical students’ choice of specialty if that student had a positive experience with their role model. Increased levels of self esteem and physical activity as well as excellence in role modelling are very strong incentives to promote the need for girls to have sportswomen role models.  Additional incentive is evident when one considers the lessons girls learn when playing sport because these lessons can contribute to success in their future career paths.

In a recent study, Oppenheimer Funds Survey (2002), four out of five executive businesswomen reported that playing sports while growing up had taught them valuable skills, which contributed to their success in business. Team sports, they said, “…helped them succeed in a competitive work environment”. Furthermore, in a study conducted by the University of Virginia (Bunker, 1988), 80% of female leaders in Fortune 500 companies had participated consistently in school sports. The structure, competition and commitment required by playing sport better prepared these women for the demanding environment of the working world. These statistics are taken from the USA, but I have no doubt that there would be a high correlation with Australian statistics.  A specific example of one such individual is Barbara Warren. Warren swims, surfs and runs marathons – she is also Head of Corporate Performance at the Australian National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). She is a person who has reflected deeply on the impact that sport has had on her career. She mentions that so much of the business world was linked to very male-dominated themes such as ‘mateship’ and the use of the word ‘team’ as an aggressive or exclusive term. Barbara believes that sport can have a positive and authentic influence “on building genuine relationships, engendering pride in being part of something or extolling the virtues of analysis and reflection.” I couldn’t agree more! Girls who play sport and learn the complex structure of rules, getting along, strategising and learning from mistakes will most certainly benefit for the rest of their lives by applying these skills.

The power that sport has to develop such wonderful life skills might not be enough to convince a girl to take up playing sport. A large part of the challenge relies on the part that the media plays. The media could more frequently provide young people with examples of the types of sports that girls and women are playing. The wide audience that the media has via print, visual, audio and digital avenues is incredibly powerful. I am sure that girls can quickly identify a television or movie star, a singer or performer who they have seen through one or more media outlets. How many sportswomen could be identified through these same outlets? The statistics on the coverage of women in sport is disappointing.

Representation of sportswomen in the media has not increased in over ten years. Bruce (2008) found that 80 per cent of all sporting newspaper articles covered solely male sports. A report carried out by the Australian Sports Commission (Phillips, 1996) found that lack of space, inaccessible placement of stories in the paper, and running stories midweek, rather than in the weekend editions, are issues that negatively impact the representation of sportswomen in the media.  A study by Messner and Cooky (2009) entitled Gender in Televised Sports found that coverage of women’s sport in the USA has actually declined since the equivalent  study was conducted in 2004 demonstrating that as more and more women are playing sport, and more countries are succeeding in winning major competitions, less coverage is being given to sportswomen globally. On the radio, women’s sport coverage of all sport is less than 2 per cent and often the coverage is poorly timed or incorrect.

These statistics paint a very bleak picture overseas; however, these statistics do not improve here in Australia.  When the South Australian Premier’s Council for Women commissioned similar research by Mickan (2006), it found that television coverage was just 4.1 per cent, and that was despite a number of high-profile women’s sporting events occurring during the study period. The Australian Sports Commission released a document An Illusionary Image (1996), in which they recognized the “quality” and “tone” of the commentary during women’s sport was similar to that of A Current Affair‘s style of reporting (Phillips, 1996). The report acknowledges that women were portrayed in ways that stressed insignificance, weakness and passivity reinforcing a gender stereotype and reducing the likelihood of any sportswoman becoming a positive role model.  It is evident from this research that women are not receiving equitable media coverage and attention for achieving at the same standard as their male counterparts.

This imbalance in media coverage has been based on an unfounded belief that since women’s sport is inferior to men’s sport, audience numbers will be low. This suggestion that viewers will not watch women’s sport has been refuted by a large study conducted by The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) 2010. The major finding of Prime Time: The Case for Commercial Investment in Women’s Sport was that television viewers would watch more women’s sport on television if it was offered and that, irrespective of gender, viewers would rather watch sport where the outcome was unpredictable, the competition exciting, and the association with the sport was familiar. For example, in the United States, an average audience of over 14.1 million watched the FIFA Women’s World Cup final between the USA and Japan. ESPN (a major sports channel), reported an average of close to 13.5 million and a peak audience during the penalty shoot-out of over 21.1 million. This is ESPN’s highest-ever audience for a football match, men’s or women’s, and ranks as the second-highest audience for a daytime telecast in US cable history (www.fifa.com). Our very own Australian Netball Association has benefitted from the increased television viewership with an increase of income growth of 20 per cent from 2007 to 2008 (WSFF 2010).

The information so far may seem a bit depressing and overwhelming, but I have saved the best and most positive information for last!  At Girls Grammar, women in sport are celebrated, nurtured, motivated and inspired.  In our sports programme, we offer nineteen different sports in which the girls can compete and play on a team against other schools. We also offer many lifestyle activities such as rock climbing, yoga, pilates and zumba. The Outdoor Education Programme and our Health Studies Programme provide opportunities for girls to learn, discover and develop the skills essential for them to negotiate the challenges of life. The quality of coaching provided in all sports is of the highest quality, and includes Olympians, national and state representatives; all of whom have the passion and demeanour to be the perfect role models for the girls. Skill sessions or motivational talks are often on the Calendar. Mentoring programs for new coaches who finish Year 12 are in place to guide and nurture the passion that these girls have for their sports. There is so much positive role modelling in the sporting world at Girls Grammar, it is no surprise that my Year 9 class were shocked when they were given the suggestion by Google, “Did you mean: Sportsmen Role Models?”

But as a school that aspires to be a leader in exceptional scholarship, I believe there is more that can be done. It takes a whole community to promote excellence. When faced with an opportunity to take your daughter, niece, granddaughter or any young woman to a sporting match, find a match or game being played by women. Perhaps give her books or equipment for the sport that she likes. Parents can offer her a variety of sporting options; individual and team sports, competitive or lifestyle activities, general fitness or group activities and maybe start a new activity together! A new study of 180 families found that 70 per cent of the girls were active when mum and dad encouraged them. When watching television, search first to find out if there are any women’s sports being broadcast, or find movies that celebrate women or girls playing sport. Perhaps go online and find websites that promote women in sport (www.womensportqld.com.au is a great start). Investigate when major sporting competitions will be covered either online or on television and make the decision to actively engage in finding and promoting positive female sporting role models – this may not be as difficult as you think. Since today is our Interhouse Athletics day, it may be worth taking the trip out to QEII to encourage, support and celebrate the training, organising and teamwork that your daughter has put in to such a special day. The Interhouse Athletics Champion Trophy will be awarded today. This special trophy consists of a pair of athletics shoes belonging to Daphne Pirie (Old Girl 1950), dipped in 24k gold. Daphne Pirie was a recent guest visitor to the school and if you’re looking for a role model, may I suggest that you start with her. At 79 years of age, she is the recent recipient of the International Olympic Committee Women in Sport, Oceania Trophy; recognizing her immense contribution to women in sport throughout her many years of dedication to sport, sport coaching and sport administration. We were privileged to have Daphne speak at our assembly, I believe this opportunity encapsulates the need (in fact, the necessity) to provide, produce and present sportswomen role models whenever, however we can.

The impact that role models have on young people is very powerful and the value that sport participation adds to their lives is undeniable. We, as a community, have the power to influence the presence and profile of women in sport. The School, as part of the larger community, is educating young women to demand evidence of female sporting role models. We know that there are still hurdles to clear, but surely, sooner rather than later, names like Perry and Stosur will be spoken in the same breath as Scott and Tomic.


Bruce, T. (2008). Women, sport and the media: A complex terrain. In C. Obel, & T Bruce & S. Thompson. (Eds.) Outstanding: Research about Women and Sport in New Zealand (pp. 51-71). Wilf Malcolm Institute for Educational Research, the University of Waikato.

Bunker, L. 1998. Lifelong benefits of youth sport participation for girls and women. Speech presented at the Sport Psychology Conference, University of Virginia, Charlotesville.

Mack, M. G., Schultz, A. M., & Araki, K. (2002). Role models in self esteem of college women. Psychological Reports, 90, 659-664.

Messner, M., & Cooky, C. (2010). Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlights Shows, 1989 – 2009, Centre for Feminist Research, University of Southern California.

Mickan, P. (2006). SA Premier’s Council for Women, Proof Committee Hansard, 4 August, p. 50.

Oldenhove, H. (1989). Turning on the turned off girl. In K. Dyer (Ed.), Sportswomen towards 2000: A celebration (pp. 175-183). Adelaide: University of Adelaide.

Phillips, M. (1996). An Illusory Image: A Report on the Media Coverage and Portrayal of Women’s Sport in Australia. Australian Sports Commission, Canberra.

Payne, W., Reynolds, M., Brown, S., Fleming, A. (2002) Sports Role Models and their Impact on Participation in Physical Activity, The University of Ballarat.

Wright, S., Carrese, J. (2002)Excellence in role modelling: insight and perspectives from the pros. CMAJ; 167(6): 638-43.

Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation Report (2010): Prime Time: A Case for Commercial Investment in Women’s Sport. www.wsff.org.uk

Leave a Reply