How far have women in sports media really come?

A tweet from a Houston Astros prospect on Wednesday proclaiming that 'no lady needs to be on ESPN' highlighted the struggles many female sports journalists face in a male-dominated industry. 

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Suzy Kolber and Steve Young talk during ESPN's Monday Night Countdown before an NFL football game between the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 19, 2016, in Chicago.

When minor league baseball player Brooks Marlow tweeted Wednesday night that "no lady," especially sports broadcaster Jessica Mendoza, "needs to be on ESPN talking during a baseball game," reactions ran the gamut from disgust to condemnation to arguments that maybe the second baseman had a point. 

But the tweet, for which Mr. Marlow later apologized, surprised virtually no one, underscoring that, while the percentage of female sports reporters and commentators may be slightly higher than it was 20 years ago, sports media remains a male-dominated industry, both in numbers and in culture. 

"There has been notable, visible progress," Marie Hardin, dean of the College of Communications at Pennsylvania State University, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "But it looks better than it is." 

Women working in the industry face a number of unique cultural and practical challenges that have led to a sustained gender imbalance, says Professor Hardin and other experts in the field. But interest is growing among budding female journalists, suggesting there may be some hope for greater equity in the future. 

Hardin and Joanne Gerstner, sports journalist in residence at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism and a freelance writer for publications such as The New York Times, point to Title IX, passed in 1972, as spurring much of the progress made thus far. 

"Empowering women to be seen and respected as athletes leads to the next thing, which is why aren't we also the ones covering the sports and bringing our talents as journalists and reporters to the game?" Ms. Gerstner says in a phone interview with the Monitor. "It's a revolution. And for the generation that's around now, the millennials ... they've never known a life without ESPN." 

But since that initial bump in involvement, the presence of female sports reporters and commentators has remained relatively stagnant across all forms of media. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, in its Racial and Gender Report Card, which measures gender hiring practices in the sports industry, awarded the Associated Press Sports Editors' 100+ newspapers and websites their fourth consecutive F in 2014 for a lack of female columnists and writers. And the talk radio trade publication Talkers magazine included just one woman in their annual list of the top 100 sports shows in 2015: Amy Lawrence of CBS Sports, ranked at 98. 

That's not to say there aren't signs of progress. When former NBC anchor Jenna Wolfe began working as a sportscaster in 1995, she "was often the only female journalist in any given locker room at any given time," she told The Seattle Times. "By the time I left sports to come to NBC in 2007, I was among a group of women in the locker room covering games, sports stories, and sports issues. It was refreshing to see how far we had come in a matter of a few years." 

Jessica Mendoza, the former Olympic softball player who was the target of Mr. Marlow's tweet, made headlines last year as the first female ESPN Major League Baseball game analyst. But, Hardin points out in an email to the Monitor, Mendoza's achievement comes nearly 20 years after former ESPN anchor Gayle Gardner became the first woman to do a televised play-by-play of a major league baseball game.

"We’re still at the 'token' stage, where a few very talented women are allowed positions of big visibility," Hardin says. "The 'token' stage is a step to better equity, but the problem is that we've been at this stage for many years. The names and faces change, but the overall picture doesn't. You have a few stars, but a very steep drop-off behind them." 

Gerstner attributes that drop-off in part to two realities of the sports journalism industry: a lack of female executives with the power to hire more women, and the demanding nature of the job.

"For women in the field, and men too, finding childcare and elder care is really tough," she explains. "People in a lot of fields talk about finding a work-life balance ... but with sports you're either all in or all out." 

But beyond the practicalities of childcare policies or a lack of hiring quotas, Gerstner and Hardin say, the problem has much deeper roots in the masculinity of contemporary sports culture. 

"The gender imbalance in all-things-sports is related to the way we culturally define sports," Hardin says. "It’s so ingrained that we don’t even question the assumptions behind why we label certain activities sports or why we see gender segregation in those activities that we call 'sports' as perfectly natural." 

In order for sports journalism to become "truly equitable," we as a society need to "redefine the way we understand sports," she continues. And "that'll take a major cultural shift." 

In the meantime, interest continues to grow rapidly – especially among younger generations of journalists – even if the numbers do not. Gerstner, who previously served as president of the Association for Women in Sports Media, describes membership as "booming," particularly within the organization's student chapters. And Hardin says female enrollment in her sports media courses has leapt to about 50 percent in recent years, five times what it was when she began teaching the courses in 2003. 

"We’re not going away," Gerstner says. "The women are going to keep coming." 

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