You don’t have to be a professional athlete to care about issues impacting women in sports. Hell, you don’t even have to be female. Any human with a fairly basic understanding of math can see why it’s a problem that our women’s soccer team was awarded $2 million in prize money after taking out the World Cup in 2015, while the men’s team (who failed to win anything) earned $9 million.
What you do need, though, is an Internet connection, in order to see the body-shaming strong athletes such has record-breaking gymnast Gabby Douglas have to deal with on social media. Once you’re done reading those comments, switch over to male gymnast Samuel Mikulak’s account to see the kind of positive attention his medal-winning muscles get.
Finally, a television would also provide a little insight, because then you would notice that women’s sports—particularly at the Olympic games—get far less prime airtime than the guys’ events. One study out of the University of Delaware found that in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, men received almost 23 hours of prime-time coverage, versus a little less than 13 hours for women. Another study discovered a more even split at the 2008 games: 46.3 percent of airtime went to women, but even then, coverage of women’s events mainly included what researchers dubbed “socially acceptable” sports for women—i.e., events where the competitors wore tight or short clothing.
There’s really no better time to talk about these issues than right now, as the countdown to the Rio Olympic Games in August closes in. With that in mind, we spoke to seven female sporting champs to find out what they considered to be the biggest issues facing women in their industry. Keep clicking to read what they had to say.
Allyson Felix, Track and Field
"The biggest issues facing women in sports right now are visibility and respect. Women are still not given the same opportunities as men, and it does not seem like our accomplishments are viewed as being as impressive as men's are.
Unfortunately, over my career, I have not seen this change much, but it's something that I believe in and am excited to help change in the future. These issues have impacted every aspect of my career. They impact the economics of my business, but they do not impact my worth or the way I view my accomplishments."
Allyson Felix is an American track-and-field sprint athlete and a star in the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 400 meters. She's the 2012 Olympic champion in the 200 meters and has two more Olympic medals of the silver variety. Felix is sponsored by companies including Nike and Chobani.
Alex Morgan, Soccer
"[The biggest issues facing women in sport] is the [gender] pay discrepancy and the fact that FIFA isn’t paying as much attention to women. Also, the fact that we play on turf, and the men have never played any international major tournaments on turf; they play on grass. We need to get more women in higher positions in FIFA and to grow the women’s game globally."
Alex Morgan became the youngest player on the national soccer team at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup when she was just 22 years old. She then went on to score the winning goal at the London Olympics in a semifinal game against Canada the following year.
Hilary Knight, Hockey
"Low visibility of various women’s sports and also the misconception that women’s sports aren’t as entertaining, skilled, physical, or competitive as the men are—if anything, women’s sports can be quite the opposite!
I have learned to have an indomitable will and be extremely determined to break the 'ice' glass ceiling in a male-dominated sport. I have also had to work hard to try to put women’s hockey in the sports spotlight when women’s hockey should automatically be visible to more people because it is such a dynamic and highly skilled game."
Hilary Knight is a forward for the American women's ice hockey team. She already has two silver Olympics medals.
Gabby Douglas, Gymnastics
"I feel that one of the biggest issues facing women in sports is the negativity regarding strong feminine muscular body types. I remember attending an event, and when the pictures from that night were published, there were quite a few comments on my muscular build. I could have let some of the critical comments affect me, but I refuse to be ashamed or self-conscious! I embrace all of my muscles. It's important to celebrate uniqueness and stop attempting to make every body fit into the same shape."
American artistic gymnast Gabrielle "Gabby" Douglas won gold medals in both the team and individual all-around competitions at the 2012 London Summer Olympics. She's also the first woman of color of any nationality and the first African-American gymnast in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion.
Melissa Stockwell, Paratriathlon
"I think women and sports have come a long way in the past few years. Instead of the statement 'She's pretty fast for a girl,' you hear about how fast and powerful she is without the gender. But as far as we've come, there is still progress to be made.
[We need greater] inclusion for women in male-dominated sports, to be seen as equally strong and fit, and to get the participation numbers up. The sport of paratriathlon is debuting as a Paralympic sport this year in Rio. As a female being classified in the severe-leg-impairment division, we have the lowest participation numbers from around the world. Personally, this impacts the amount of competition we have, and we aren't able to grow the sport as fast as we'd like."
Melissa Stockwell is a three-time world champion paratriathlete—with the potential to take gold at the first Paralympic Games triathlon, which will debut in Rio this year. Stockwell is sponsored by companies like Chobani, Deloitte, and Ralph Lauren.
Kayla Harrison, Judo
"The issue that seems to be at the top of most lists right now is equal pay—we see that in soccer and tennis. But for me, the biggest issue may be sexual abuse of young athletes. It is one of those things that no one wants to talk about but is all around us.
My Fearless Foundation was set up to build awareness and find solutions for this issue. I am a survivor of a sexually abusive relationship with a coach, and it has had a huge impact on my entire life. Strength of character is at the heart of great athletes, but it is also important for a successful life.
I was fortunate—judo is a fantastic vehicle for building self-esteem, which has been critical to my winning medals. If I can convey that to young people, then I will have been successful in helping fight this issue."
Kayla Harrison became the first American in the history of judo (man or woman) to win a gold medal back in 2012, at the London Olympics. Her sponsors include include Liberty Mutual.
Morgan Brian, Soccer
"The biggest issue for women in sports right now is closing the pay gap. There have been many women before me who have paved the way for young women like myself to have a successful career competing in sports, and I feel it's our duty as professional athletes to continue to push for equality.
A little over a year ago, I became a professional athlete, so I have just joined the fight to help grow women's sports to create a better future for all women athletes. It will be a long battle, but a worthwhile one."
Morgan Brian became a world champion in soccer at the age of 22 and is part of the women's national team. Sponsors include Chobani.