Written by Margherita Pisoni, research associate of Project PRESFUL.
Persisting cases of discrimination around women working in the sport field outline the need to reflect on the current policy landscape which is undermining women’s rights and their fair inclusion into sporting bodies. Women still suffer from lack of exposure and too often, they find themselves dealing with misogynistic attitudes. Media often employs different and stereotypical ways to portray men and women in sport. According to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, even though women represent 40 percent of the whole sport labour force, they only acquire 4 percent of media coverage whose quality is often stigmatized as well as sexualized.
This lack of press reporting leads to scarce representation and protection along with insufficient interest towards the implementation of binding policies to protect women’s rights in sport. The case of Lara Lugli, an Italian volleyball player who lost her job after communicating to her club that she was pregnant, highlights the harsh injustices inequalities female athletes constantly face. This episode also calls attention to the existence of legal systems and contractual structures that do not embed women’s rights.
Lugli was playing for Volleyball Pordenone (now renamed Maniago Pordenone) when she was denied a payment of one thousand euros because she got pregnant, and she did not communicate the intention of her maternity to the club. The player was requesting a payment for her last month before the termination of the contract, when the club sued her for damages and for ignoring the contract’s clauses signed for the 2018-19 season. The reasons behind the club’s decision point out to the fact that Mrs. Lugli hid her will to be a mother and she unexpectedly left the team, leaving the club to deal with both economic and performance losses.
By no means an isolated case
This case gained recognition internationally and raised several concerns on the unfair compromises female athletes must accept. Maternity leave legislation in sport still represents a blurry and controversial topic. For instance, in Italy it is very common for women to sign contracts which comprise clauses such as the one on pregnancy and other conditions which allow clubs to avoid paying labour costs and pensions. In Italy the professionalization of women’s volleyball players still encounters several institutional, economic and social barriers. The lack of media coverage, the scarce political interests and the huge discrepancies between men and women in sport, result in the classification of most Italian female athletes as amateurs. Women in sport are often independent contractors, not employees, and this leads, among other things, to deny legally mandated protection for pregnancy.
The case of Alysia Montaño, an Olympic middle-distance runner, constitutes another example of discrimination and unfairness in sport. Montaño saw her sponsorship from Nike removed when she expressed her desire of having a baby during her career as a professional athlete. The Olympic gold medallist Allyson Felix experienced something very similar when Nike did not guarantee essential financial support during her pregnancy. As Montaño stated in an opinion video by New York Times: “the sport industry allows for men to have a full career and when a woman decides to have a baby, it pushes women out at their prime“.
Specific guidelines along with regulation and protection need to be in place to protect women, making the sport industry welcoming and sensitive towards everyone’s rights. There are many debates that arise from pregnancy rights. Thus, it is important to clarify fundamental aspects surrounding maternity leave, starting from promoting job safety and deepening the research around women’s rights and pregnancy in sport. It is not scientifically clear if there should be definite deadlines for women in sport to cease competition during pregnancy and it is surely important to consider case by case. When it comes to athletic success, many female athletes have proven that they can compete at a high level during and after pregnancy in several sports. Recent studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, backs this argument up. Sport institutions, clubs, committees and sponsors should share responsibility and guarantee protection towards women’s rights and their safeguarding before, during and after maternity. Professionalizing women’s sports should result in safe and fair working conditions, creating an environment that promotes equal opportunity and success.
These examples outline the urgency to carefully consider the barriers women in sport fields are facing. The decision to become a mother should always be backed up by healthy and safe working environments along with constant job protection. Female athletes should be supported through reliable networks, updated resources and information on how to act through pregnancy. There should be more attention towards the implementation of an effective counselling system to empower female athletes in the course of maternity. According to several testimonies, this type of guidelines are quite scarce in the sport field and they leave elite athletes to deal with the difficulty of navigating partum and postpartum experiences on their own.
A common mistake is that of perceiving pregnancy as a barrier to one’s career or as a sort of bad and undesired medical condition. There is a need to switch perspectives and approaches, to make sure that women’s role in sport is sufficiently professionalized and, in turn, that they receive adequate protection. Pregnancy and motherhood should be framed as possible parts of a woman’s journey, even in the case of elite athletes. It is not up to women to adapt, suspend their work and deal with all the risks associated with it. It is sport bodies’ responsibility to make sure that women are protected in their right to become mothers and that alternative notions of athleticism are promoted, for example, by allowing pregnant women to compete at the highest levels.
It is now time to implement policies in the sport field that do not look at pregnancy as a limitation. Female athletes should never find themselves dealing with the harsh decision between their career and their role of mothers. We need to move beyond a sport context where women constantly have to negotiate and fight for their rights. We must proceed towards the implementation of discourses and infrastructures that promote gender equity rather than gender equality. A wide array of wishes, stories and rights are at stake and they all deserve to be considered and protected.
This article drives attention to one of the most neglected problems in our actual sport system: the lack of „safe and fair working conditions“ for female athletes, the lack of an „environment that promotes equal opportunity and success“ for both sexes. In fact, I have to admit that up to now I did not waste many thoughts on the consequences which pregnancy might have on the career of women in sport business. The cases of discrimination you describe (Lara Lugli and Alysia Montano) testify that fundamental reforms have to be done in order to create what should be selfunderstood: industral law and contractual structures which prevent sport federations as well as sponsors from removing financial help and pensions as soon as female athletes have to interrupt their career due to pregnancy. Of course I do not regard pregnancy as a „disease“. But as far as I know no male athlete has ever suffered cuts of salary after having been injured. It could be worth while to dedicate more research to the matter. Especially to the question of working conditions for female athletes on an international scale.
An other related problem mentioned in the article is the unsufficient visibility of women’s achievements in sport due to the poor media coverage. As an act of „help yourself“ more or less two years ago in Germany „sportfrauen.net“ was founded – an internetplatform on which reports, commentaries and debates on women’s sport and sportpolitical questions are published, of course from a female point of view. (only in German, I’m afraid!) As far as I know it was quite successful from the start, even despite Corona.
Great work Margherita Pisoni!
I find it particularly interesting and important to raise awareness to the fact that not only the media and sports clubs need to change their coverage and policies on female athletes, but that also major brands like Nike can (and need to) make a difference.
While reading, i remembered one of the most recent video ad campaigns of Nike, where pregnant female athletes are showcased. With the facts from this artice in mind, the irony is undenieable.
Looking forward to reading more of your work on here!