August 6, 2012, by Jonathan
Sporting success and injustice
Those following team GB’s performance at the Olympics will have much to be pleased with this week. But even whilst celebrating, silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead had her mind on matters of justice, remarking on the sexism that she’s confronted in her cycling career. Typically – as with many sports – women cyclists earns less money, enjoy less media celebration, and garner less prestige than men’s cycling. Can such differences be justified?
In the Olympics the race is shorter and with fewer competitors than the men’s road race. Could this justify differential recognition? Surely not: prestige doesn’t usually track length of race, and the mere presence of more competitors does not necessarily make for a more competitive race.
It is sometimes said that women’s sport is less exciting or interesting than men’s sport, but few spectators of Armitstead’s medal winning performance would agree. Moreover, in many women’s sports, the top competitors are outperforming male competitors at lower levels who nonetheless receive more media coverage (compare the coverage of men’s football leagues versus women’s football).
Any attempted justification for unequal pay and esteem that looks to the different terms on which men and women compete ultimately focuses issues on the kinds of structural inequalities that have long been the focus of feminist concerns. If women receive less pay because they work less hours in less well remunerated jobs – then organise society so women have fair access to full-time, well remunerated positions of esteem. If sports-women receive less pay and esteem because their races or matches are shorter – then organise competition so as to be equally demanding as men’s races and matches, and give due recognition to equal participation.
As J.S. Mill remarked (I paraphrase), until society is organised in such a way that does not limit or constrain men and women in these ways, we shall not get a true evaluation of the abilities of either. Such a society really would be something to celebrate!