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'If she can't see it, she can't be it' is more than a slogan

Sarah Colgan


International Women's Day is an opportunity to show your stripes

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Today, 20x20 launches a call to action that asks the whole country to #ShowYourStripes for women in sport by pledging one action - to either participate more, attend more, or promote more women's sport

Today, 20x20 launches a call to action that asks the whole country to #ShowYourStripes for women in sport by pledging one action - to either participate more, attend more, or promote more women's sport

Today, 20x20 launches a call to action that asks the whole country to #ShowYourStripes for women in sport by pledging one action - to either participate more, attend more, or promote more women's sport

In 2018, my family gathered around the television to watch Ireland's women play the Netherlands in hockey's World Cup final. My children had never experienced anything quite like this - where we were all together watching a major women's sporting event live on television.

My daughter, then aged seven, turned to me with a look on her face of both incredulity and joy and asked, "Is it really girls playing on the telly?"

I felt I was witnessing a moment in slow motion, and as I sat there looking at her being transfixed, it reinforced strongly for me what we mean by 'if she can't see it, she can't be it'. That sentence, I've come to realise, is more than a catchphrase, it is actually laying down a challenge to a culture which has marginalised the involvement of women in sport throughout history.

By the end of that year, the 20x20 movement had been born, so called as it aims to achieve 20 per cent more attendance, participation and media coverage for women in sport by the end of 2020. Our mission was to spearhead a shift in society's perception, to challenge a non-malicious but deeply-ingrained subliminal bias so that women's sport can become part of our cultural DNA in the way that men's sport is.

What results from a shift in mindset is a new norm, where our daughters participate, our sportswomen are valued, making our society more equal as well as healthier and happier, and giving a nation of sport lovers more sport to follow.

On that summer's day in 2018, my mind raced back to the message for my daughter, that the games you saw your grandparents, uncles, aunts gather together for were only men's games. Our relations didn't come around and cheer for women playing on the tv. Thankfully that is changing for our children. But there remains a long road to travel.

Having interviewed scores of men, women and teenagers since 20x20 launched, we keep hearing common threads in their stories: Dads who have daughters recognising unconscious comments from people commiserating with them for not having a son to create sporting memories with, as though these memories cannot be created with girls; Women who gave up sport as kids who are now regretting what they have missed, not only the health benefits but the leadership skills, the sense of being needed and part of a team; And teenage girls who felt uncomfortable simply because the culture wasn't there for them to be valued as athletes in the same way as it was for boys. It was only the ones with an unusual grit or talent who broke through.

But the Zeitgeist and a shift in mindset means we can see green shoots too. We've also heard of young boys collecting football cards and not seeing a difference between the male or female players, and of men in pubs analysing Katie Taylor's technical ability rather than the previous well-worn patronising commentary around female athletes. When the Irish women's rugby team asked that pundits analyse their performances with exactly the same tone and language as they would the men's team, they helped to start a shift in the public consciousness about how all women's sporting events should be viewed.

Since International Women's Day last year, there have been some seismic events in Irish sport which will undoubtedly leave a legacy.

For instance, Ireland broke six attendance records across our biggest women's fixtures in 2019, and the GAA gave centre stage to women at an All-Ireland men's semi-final (Dublin v Mayo) in front of a sell-out Croke Park crowd, asking everyone in attendance to show their stripes for 20x20 and women in sport. This would not have happened five years ago and the message of men's sport supporting women's sport is a welcome one.

Today, 20x20 launches a call to action that asks the whole country to #ShowYourStripes for women in sport by pledging one action - to either participate more, attend more, or promote more women's sport. This will have a ripple effect that will leave a legacy across clubs and communities.

There is no doubt there is a massive commercial gap between men's and women's sport but we can never set about correcting that gap if first we don't invest in women culturally and show their sport the respect it deserves. Women in sport needs to be part of our societal norm and then, like with anything else, the demand and the ability to generate revenue will follow. But it needs a shot in the arm now, an element of positive discrimination, in order to rebalance the investment in Irish sport over so many years.

If you push yourself to explore the implications of failing to make it, it paints a bleak picture. A lost opportunity for Ireland, for us all. Start today. Start by doing your bit. Start by showing your stripes.

Sarah Colgan is co-founder of the 20x20 movement which she set up with Heather Thornton under their company Along Came A Spider

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