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Battle of the Sexes: four decades after Billie Jean King’s triumph, women still fight for equal billing in sports

Billie Jean. PA

In 1973, an unusual tennis match attracted an enormous amount of attention. Around 90m people around the world watched the women’s champion Billie Jean King take on Bobby Riggs, who had been men’s world number one in the 1940s. Dubbed the Battle of the Sexes, it was arranged after Riggs repeatedly poured scorn on women’s tennis.

Before the match, the players exchanged gifts. Bobby gave Billie a giant Sugar Daddy lollipop. She returned the gesture by presenting him with a pig.

The symbolism wasn’t meant to be subtle. This was a match between feminism and chauvinism – and much more was at stake than the US$100,000 prize money, especially for King. She had left the professional tour, due to the earning disparity (men received 12 times as much as women in some events) and was leading the newly formed Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

King, and feminism, triumphed in the match – she won 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 – which has now been made into a film starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. But have things really moved on since 1973?

On the surface things look pretty good. For a decade, women and men have received equal pay at all four tennis grand slams. Wimbledon was the last bastion of inequality in prize money, but eventually bowed to pressure from a host of female players, led by Venus Williams, in 2007.

Tennis is the only sport to boast a female in the Forbes Highest Paid Athletes list of 2017 (Serena Williams at #51), and draws large viewing figures in which the women at times eclipse the men. The financial status of female tennis players has certainly evolved.

But have attitudes changed enough since Riggs declared that women belonged “in the bedroom and kitchen”? The recent scandals in Hollywood and Westminster might suggest not. Even within tennis there is still an undercurrent of chauvinism that has profound implications on female performance and participation.

Locker room talk

Just last year Raymond Moore, boss of the Indian Wells Tournament, suggested that the WTA Tour was “very lucky” because it “rides on the coat-tails of the men”. He suggested that women players should “go down every night on [their] knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born”. He later apologised and retracted his comments after a spate of negative responses, including from King.

Then John McEnroe claimed that if Serena Williams played the men’s circuit, “she’d be, like, 700 in the world”. His comments led to a predictable outpouring of chauvinism on social media.

On a more positive note, Andy Murray continues to fight casual sexism with his unique blend of boredom and disdain. He corrected a journalist who stated that Sam Querrey was “the first US player to reach a major semi-final since 2009”. “Male player”, Murray reminded him, with his head almost in hands. And when congratulated by a TV host who wrongly suggested Murray was the first player to win two Olympic golds, he shot back with a smile: “I think Venus and Serena have won about four each.”

But, notwithstanding Murray’s support, there is a serious problem with the negative stereotypes that still pervade sport. This is a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat”. The psychological effect of stereotypes and their impact on performance has been studied across myriad domains – including the effect on women in sport.

So while there are obvious and observable differences between men and women, biology alone might not be the whole picture. Women and men are operating in entirely different psychological climates.

Female athletes and sports are invisible in the media, receiving only a 7% share of coverage. Every time you turn on the TV or read a sports article, the coverage reinforces the the stereotype that sport is for men.

Females are also vastly outnumbered in participation. In the UK there are 2m fewer women than men regularly playing sport, further entrenching the view that sport is a man’s world. If being invisible and outnumbered weren’t problematic enough, women and girls also contend with negative stereotypes that span both ends of an equally pernicious continuum from not being athletic enough to not being feminine or pretty enough.

With all this distraction it’s a wonder that women can perform at all athletically. And it’s no surprise that, even when sport can attract girls, those numbers plummet as girls drop out during puberty – just 12% of girls aged 14 meet the official guidelines for physical activity.

Love all

Sport needs a culture change. Even with the heavy psychological burden of negative stereotypes, there are amazing examples of female athleticism, which don’t get the attention they deserve. There are women who can sprint 100m to within a second of Usain Bolt. That’s a 10% difference, I know, but I defy anyone to claim it’s not athletic.

Sabine Lisicki rocketed a 131mph serve in 2014, faster than anything Roger Federer has hit in years. Women achieve incredible feats all the time – but for as long as comparisons are drawn with men they will continue to be ignored and little girls will continue to be denied their role models.

To spin it a different way, no one would dare suggest that distance runner Mo Farah is less of an athlete than Bolt because he can’t run as fast. Or that boxer Manny Pacquiao is less sporty than Anthony Joshua because he doesn’t hit as hard. So why do so many men insist on comparing male and female athletes in such a pointless way?

It’s time we started really celebrating women for the work they put in and the performances they produce. Until more amazing women are visible, it will continue to be only a minority of women who survive and thrive in sport.

Until we get equal opportunity, exposure and respect, to match the hard-won equal prize money, there is much work to do. There have been gains, but attitudes still haven’t changed enough to make sport a welcome place for women. Forty-four years after King’s victory, the battle continues.

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