From hockey to rowing, women’s achievements in sport are finally starting to get their fair share of attention. But there’s a lot more to be done, writes
Irish women’s sporting successes just keep on coming, the most recent a stunning world-beating performance from Sanita Puspure at the World Rowing Championships. The achievement of our hockey players in reaching a world cup final this summer was a first for any team in Irish sport and was greeted by celebrations far and wide. Along with record attendances for women’s matches at Croke Park, growing sponsorship opportunities, and increasing television audiences for women’s sport, it appears that Irish sportswomen are starting to get their fair share of acknowledgment and attention. But it’s clear this isn’t enough — increased funding and resources are required to keep the momentum going.
Former sprint hurdler Derval O’Rourke is one of Ireland’s best-known athletes and her medal tally includes a gold at the Indoor World Championships and two silvers at the European Championships.
According to O’Rourke, track and field is relatively equitable in terms of gender when it comes to competing but in the higher echelons, there is still significant room for improvement.
I don’t feel there was ever any difference in my treatment. I do think we fall down when it comes down to who is making the decisions at a higher level, like who is the CEO, who are the high-performance managers. I think there have been about eight high-performance managers, and maybe one was a woman. Now, maybe no women went for it — that’s the other side of it. If you don’t get off the fence and go for the positions, you shouldn’t complain about it.
"I know that has been an issue in sport, where women aren’t going for those jobs. There is also that gap in women’s careers where they are having kids and where it is really difficult to do it. That is a broader societal issue. But certainly in decision-making roles, we need to get much closer to parity than we are currently are at. I think the fact that Sarah Keane is the president of the Olympic Council of Ireland is a really important step, not just because she is female but because she is an extremely capable person.” O’Rourke, 37, says in terms of professionalism, women’s options across many sports can still be quite limited.
“That is why I feel quite passionate about girls doing athletics because there is a massive opportunity for them to have a professional career; those opportunities don’t exist in a lot of other sports.” O’Rourke, who has a masters in business management from Smurfit School of Business, also believes businesses are starting to see the value of investing in sponsorship of women’s sport, especially given the success of initiatives such as Lidl’s support of ladies’ football.
“I would be very aware of the Lidl campaign, it would make me very positive about their brand. If I was a brand and I had the budget, I would be seriously looking at women’s sport. You would get it at a better price than men’s sport. Just look at SoftCo, who were sponsoring the women’s hockey team, what a steal it was [€20,000].” Even though she has been retired from hurdling a few years now, O’Rourke is still very much on the sporting radar, fulfilling several media engagements, including as a panellist on RTÉ’s recent coverage of the European Athletics Championships. Social media was ablaze with cries of sexism on O’Rourke’s behalf when Thomas Barr’s European bronze medal in hurdling was erroneously reported as being Ireland’s first sprint medal in the European Championships.
“I was offended on my own behalf, so I was glad other people were for me too,” laughs O’Rourke. “There I was sitting in the studio with two silver medals. I think it was just a slip, I know how hard the media gig is. Having said that, I think that maybe mine didn’t get the same level of extraordinary achievement status. Maybe it was because I was female and Sonia had come before me and done so much. It was really funny because I saw it started to happen and I was thinking, am I being really sensitive about my own achievement?”
Rower Sanita Puspure recently won a gold medal at the World Rowing Championships in the single sculls. She has also won bronze and silver medals at the European Championships and silver at the World Rowing Cup.
When it comes to supporting each other, the rowing community is an exemplary model of gender balance. “I’m lucky enough that I’m in a sport where there is no real gap between men and women. You just take your boat and go in the water. If you do well, you do well. We respect each other on equal terms because we see each other working really hard every day, for the same goals,” says Puspure.
However, she says that as a minority sport, there is a gap in terms of how rowing struggles for recognition and support, even in the wake of continuing success on the international stage and the media attention given to the O’Donovan brothers from Skibbereen.
People get used to the boys getting medals but they still work as hard to get them and competition is as tough,” says Puspure.
Regardless of their medal success on the world stage, Ireland’s rowers have had well-documented struggles in terms of funding, regardless of gender, with athletes often having to pay for training camps and entry fees themselves. In the wake of Puspure’s outstanding gold medal achievement at the World Championships in Bulgaria, there have been renewed calls for increased funding for the sport.
According to Puspure, rowing has grown hugely in popularity in tandem with Irish successes in recent years. However, she believes it deserves more coverage and attention.
“The Lee Valley club in the Rowing Centre [Iniscarra, Co Cork] had to turn down people this year for the summer camps because they couldn’t facilitate everybody. The popularity and interest is there. But if you open a newspaper and go through the sports pages, all you see is GAA, rugby, soccer. It is all about male athletes as well, if we are talking about a gender gap. There is not much about women at all. You would think there are so many good female athletes in Ireland to write about.” While Puspure, 36, has two children, aged 10 and 11, she says she would never want to be treated any differently in her sport just because she is a mother.
“I don’t usually play that card because it is my choice to be a mum and to be an athlete. You always think about your children and family. I don’t know how dads feel when they leave their kids home alone with their mums. But as a mother, there is a really strong instinct that you want to protect them all the time and you can’t because you are not there with them. It is hard but I made the choice to do it and I am lucky enough that I have a supportive husband who is taking care of them and backing me up. I compete on equal terms at all events and I go away as often as the men.”
Sophie Spence won two Six Nations titles with the Irish women’s rugby team and was also part of the team that recorded a historic win over New Zealand in the 2014 Rugby World Cup. In 2015 she was a nominee for the World Rugby player of the year.
According to Spence, female rugby players operate on a completely different playing field to their male equivalents.
It is 100% harder for women, because for men it is their day job. Men might train one or two sessions a day, but they can get in naps, and they are refuelling throughout the day to perform as an athlete. Whereas a female rugby player has to get to the gym at 6am in the morning, is trying to get fed before that, does the session, is out after an hour and a half, then goes to work.
"You have to make sure you are organised enough that you have enough food prepared for the day, enough changes of kit for the evening sessions, and then squeeze in a nap so you can be on top form to perform for a pitch session, when you’ve done a full day’s work.” She says that the Irish women’s rugby team’s success in the last number of years has led to an increase in support and participation by young girls in the sport.
“It got more people watching, whether it was jumping on the bandwagon or not, maybe similar to the women’s hockey with their success, but that is the moment that you have to grab.” Spence, 31, set up her own rugby academy in 2016 and this year worked with more than 250 girls in summer camp programmes. She is keen to change how parents view rugby in terms of girls’ participation.
“A lot of parents are okay about letting their young boys play but they are a bit more scared about letting their daughters play. A lot of them are worried about the concussion side of things. As a coach, I would explain to parents and teachers that the person who is delivering the session will be qualified to do that in a safe manner and wouldn’t be putting a child at risk. If you can change someone’s perception of the game, it can make a massive difference. I want to help develop female players within the game.” Spence agrees that more women are needed in higher-level roles and also should be given more opportunities as coaches.
“I would like opportunities to coach and be mentored but there are a lot fewer positions for women. It doesn’t have to be in the women’s game, it can be in the men’s game but it is about getting those opportunities.”
Róisín Upton is a member of the Irish women’s hockey team that reached the finals of the World Cup in July. She plays for Harlequins in Cork and is studying for a masters in primary education at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick.
Hockey is seen as a more female-dominated sport in Ireland but when it comes to playing professionally, men have the advantage, says Upton. “Even though there are opportunities for men and women to play abroad in countries like Germany and Holland, the deals are a lot more lucrative for men. As a woman, you couldn’t really be going over there and making money, whereas some of the lads can do that.” Upton, 24, says the Irish public has become much more aware of women’s sport in recent years and media representation and coverage is key in growing support and awareness. For a long time women were underrepresented in terms of coverage and there was a largely untapped audience for women’s sport. We need the media to tell our stories, so that young girls can grow up with the sport — it is much more difficult later on to fall in love with women’s sport.” While there were objections from some quarters that the hockey players achievement was qualified by the emphasis that they were the ‘women’s’ team, Upton thinks this assumption is understandable given the domination enjoyed by men’s sport for generations.
That’s natural, given the history of sport in Ireland. In previous generations, young boys were encouraged to play sport whereas young girls were encouraged to take up things like dancing or knitting. But I think the culture in Ireland has changed so much. You see so many girls in gyms now, they are gaining in confidence and are not as afraid of being judged. It was the first time an Irish team got to a world cup final, men or women. So many people got behind us, which was just brilliant.
Upton cites role models such as Sonia O’Sullivan, Derval O’Rourke and hockey legend Eimear Cregan as influences on her growing up but says the number of sporting heroes available to young girls now is growing exponentially.
“We have Katie Taylor, Joy Neville, Rena Buckley, Annalise Murphy, Ciara Griffin, we have the Irish soccer captain Katie McCabe playing for Arsenal, Stephanie Roche who got one of the top three goals in the world, Leona Maguire the golfer, Ellen Keane our Paralympic swimmer, so many athletics stars, like Lizzie Lee and all the under-20s coming through. The list goes on.”