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Hackett: Celebrating women in sport

With International Women’s Day on Friday, it’s important to look at the progress of women’s sport

I remember vividly, as a kid, when Hayley Wickenheiser went to Finland to play in a professional men’s hockey league.

Not that any of it was televised, only mentioned in passing on TV and in the newspaper.

One of the greatest female hockey players of all time, Wickenheiser sought a new challenge in 2002-03 and became only the second female player to play professional men’s hockey.

Wickenheiser did it for the challenge, but what stands out to me is how far she had to travel to create more visibility for women’s sport at that time. There wasn’t any avenue for women to play pro hockey in North America at the time, so she had to travel thousands of miles to reach the next level in her sport.

While much has changed over the past two decades, women in sports still face many hurdles. But on International Women’s Day, looking back over the past few years, there has been some progress.

My wife and father-in-law teared up as we watched the inaugural game of the Professional Women’s Hockey League earlier this year. That league will have a ground-breaking impact on hockey in Canada and maybe, around the world. Hopefully, those female stars will be household names not just when they wear the Canadian crest or USA Hockey logo, but throughout the entire year. All in the hopes they can inspire the next generation of athlete.

There were few female role models in sports, particularly professional sports when my wife was growing up, and I imagine most women around our age or older feel the same way. They just weren’t visible in the way that men’s sports were. You wouldn’t have dreamed of seeing a nationally televised women’s hockey game 20 years ago, now they are breaking in-person attendance records across North America.

Late last year there was a women’s volleyball game played in front of 92,000 people in Nebraska. Caitlin Clark, an NCAA basketball player in Iowa, is selling out arenas across the U.S.A. and is fast becoming an iconic figure in the sport — not just for women’s basketball — the sport as a whole.

Men tend to argue that women’s sports simply aren’t as good as men’s sports, so who cares to watch? In today’s age, we are quickly seeing that lots of people are interested in watching women’s sports, if they are given an equal or similar platform that men are given. The issue is, for decades, that hasn’t been the case.

Women haven’t been compensated fairly for their participation in sport and still aren’t to a large degree. The wage gender gap in sports is getting better, but it is nowhere close to equal. Pro tennis plans to have equal pay across the sport by 2033. In curling, as of 2019, both the Scotties and Brier champions receive the same payout.

Women’s soccer has been at the forefront of this fight, both in Canada and the U.S. One of the greatest soccer players to ever play is from Canada and they won an Olympic gold medal in 2020, yet they are still underfunded and underpaid.

It’s a signal that this fight for equality in sport is nowhere close to over. But there are far more champions making their voice heard in the fight. There is a far bigger spotlight on women’s sport than there has ever been — which figures to inspire the next generation of athletes to take up the fight and push for more attention on their game.

That is integral because, according to a 2020 report about sport participation for Canadian girls aged 6-18, participation levels for Canadian girls are much lower than for boys.

“Among girls who have participated in sport, there is a dramatic dropout rate observed with 1 in 3 girls leaving sport by late adolescence. By comparison, the dropout rate for teenage boys (aged 16-18) is only 1 in 10,” part of the report reads.

The report also noted that only 18 per cent of women aged 16-63 stay involved in sport and 62 per cent of Canadian adolescent girls are not participating in any kind of sport.

“If we want sport in Canada to reach its full potential, we need girls and women to be involved as participants, leaders and contributors. These declining participation rates, both over time and as girls get older, are troubling and showcase a critical problem that must be addressed,” said Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, CEO, Canadian Women & Sport.

“Less girls in sport now translates into less girls and women in leadership roles – in sport and beyond.”

While there are increasingly more role models for women in sport on the national and international stage, it is possible that at the local level, young female athletes don’t see themselves reflected enough in coaches, leaders, or officials.

Women, of course get pulled in so many different directions and face societal pressure to live a certain way, which could possibly limit their participation in sport as leaders. It’s just another avenue in which more balance between men and women would benefit future generations.

At the end of the day, it’s inspiring to see female athletes at the highest level finally earn praise and recognition that has been long overdue. I have a niece who loves sports, and I hope that as she grows up, she sees the success of today’s generation of female athletes and understands if she wants a future in sport, it is possible and within her grasp.

To all the women out there making a difference for young athletes, thank you. You are pillars of our community and have had an unimaginable influence on so many young athletes. Thank you for continuing to lead.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate and a Central Alberta Regional Editor for Black Press Media.

Byron Hackett

About the Author: Byron Hackett

I have been apart of the Red Deer Advocate Black Press Media team since 2017, starting as a sports reporter.
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