Analysis Media

Olympics’ Coverage Still Shortchanges Female Athletes

On The Issues Magazine

There are a lot of issues with the Olympic media when it comes to the appearances and presentation of women athletes, and many untapped and emerging opportunities, as well.

Originally written by Jane Schonberger for On The Issues Magazine

Growing up in the ’70s, I loved watching the Olympics. As an athlete myself, I sat mesmerized through performances from exciting athletes like Nadia Comaneci and Bruce Jenner. I became engrossed in learning about their back-stories and personal journeys to the Games.

Watching the Olympics is still a highlight for me. But when I stopped playing tennis and swimming competitively and started thinking critically, I realized there are a lot of issues with the Olympic media when it comes to the appearances and presentation of women athletes, and many untapped and emerging opportunities, as well.

What’s Wrong with the Olympics?

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Four key problem areas about the spectacle of the Olympics and the presentation of women athletes pop out from the peer-reviewed research.

First, male athletes receive more media attention than female athletes. More overall coverage is devoted to male athletes both on television and in print publications, such as Sports Illustrated. When media opportunities are limited for women, it’s difficult for them to get exposure and advance professionally.

Secondly, the type of attention women receive differs from that given to men. During the 2004 Olympics, male athletes were more likely to be portrayed as “courageous, strong, and independent” compared to female athletes who were likely to be described based upon their “physical attractiveness and sexuality.” There’s no doubt that stereotypes perpetuate themselves within our culture, and the more stereotyping occurs, the harder it is to overcome.

A third point is that media attention toward women athletes and the quality of it are not getting better with time. One would think that as more women advance in the workplace and become empowered members of society, these trends would get better. But we’re not seeing much improvement. Even as recently as the Beijing Olympics in 2008, researchers found that NBC gave more on-air time to male competitions compared to the 2004 Athens games and 2000 Sydney Games despite near parity in participation. The men on telecasts also received more comments about “strength, intelligence and consonance, compared to their female counterparts.” For those interested in numbers , only 23 percent of Olympians at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles were women, a figure that jumps to 42 percent for Beijing 2008 and 45 percent for London 2012. In fact, with the addition of women’s boxing, the London Games will be the first to feature both sexes competing in every sport on the Olympic program.

The fourth, and perhaps most crucial, point is that money follows the exposure and attention. Forbes published an article in 2010 on the highest paid female athletes. Not surprisingly, tennis players, led by Maria Sharapova, ruled as the top-earning female athletes. Women’s tennis is, arguably, the most commercially popular and successful among all women’s sports, likely because it is an individual sport that draws a greater percentage of male followers than other women’s sports.

But the dollars don’t just come on the court — they come afterward from lucrative endorsement deals and appearance fees. As a female athlete, if you can’t provide a large stage for a brand, you need a targeted platform like the Olympics to elevate your visibility. Since the built-in audience is practically guaranteed, when the Olympics come around every two years, brands come out of the woodwork to associate themselves with female athletes.

For example, going into 2012, the P&G hair care brand, Pantene, sponsored — for the first time in the brand’s history — 11 elite female athletes from around the globe as its newest beauty ambassadors.

While Olympics attention is a good thing and any extra attention that female athletes get from the media and brands is a bonus, I wonder if two weeks every two years will be enough to help females advance. What about the 206 weeks between Games? Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about how to change the paradigm.

Putting Women Athletes on Top

While the facts are not-so-inspiring, I also see opportunities. This is where it gets fun, and why I’m so passionately dedicated to increasing visibility for women in sports.

NBC producer Molly Sims said during the recent International Olympics Committee Women & Sport Conference in Los Angeles that during the Olympics, tune-in rates between the male and female audiences in the U.S. are strikingly similar. In fact she noted that 52 percent of NBC’s viewership during the Games is female — more than any other sports programming. This increased female audience provides a special and unique platform for female athletes.

There are two reasons why the Olympics provide such a great opportunity. First, patriotism. Experts say “at the Olympics, national flags trump all other forms of identity”– even, most notably, gender. So when rooting for Team USA, viewers essentially don’t care whether the athlete is male or female. They just want America to win. A second leading reason why the Olympics are popular with the mainstream is because they offer more variety than traditional sports telecasts. Some researchers have seen that women prefer watching more gender-neutral, non-contact or “feminine” types of sports, such as gymnastics, swimming and beach volleyball, and enjoy the emotional back-story that Olympics coverage provides.

There’s also an incredible long-tail opportunity for female athletes on the Internet. The 2008 Games was largely considered the first “online Olympics.” That year, NBCOlymipcs.com offered more than 3,500 hours of online coverage from Beijing, including 2,200 hours of live video coverage. More than 50 million unique users watched 75 million video streams, and nearly 18 percent of audiences consumed content on both television and the Internet. Researchers Tang Tang and Roger Cooper argue that “the Internet should be able to remove gender inequalities caused by imbalanced sports telecasts and allow men and women to access the content they want, when, where, and how they want it.”

With the Internet rising as a leading platform to consume sports, female athletes need to amp up their social media footprint and become active. Dan Levy of Wasserman Media Group discussed the importance of athletes having an active Twitter account. Levy says, “Every single perspective sponsor, it’s the first or second thing they look at. It’s the difference between getting a deal and not getting a deal.” I’d add that female athletes, by putting in the extra effort and creating an engaged audience, also elevate not only their personal brands, but their sport and female athletes as a whole.

Trending to the Future

And it’s not just the athletes who can get involved on the Internet, it’s the fans and other media platforms, too. ESPN launched espnW in 2010, and it has since grown to a successful business for the company. The espnW brand seems to have found a home by focusing its content primarily on female fans.

Similarly, WomenTalkSports.com (a blog network I created in 2009 with Ann Gaffigan and Megan Hueter) has developed into a vibrant online community among female athletes, fans of women’s sports, journalists and bloggers. If you truly want to help raise the visibility of female athletes, you should support these sites by visiting them, commenting and sharing the articles. The larger the community that female athletes and fans have, the more visible we are to the community at large.

A leading argument attempting to explain why female athletes receive less attention than males is women’s physical performance — we can’t jump as high, swim as fast or lift as much weight. As time goes on, however, women are closing the gap. After all, in comparison to our male counterparts, women are just getting started.

Here’s a great example in running. In September 2011, a team of researchers looked at the winning sprint times for the 100-meter race across genders, looking back over the past 100 years. It shows that women are progressing in a remarkable fashion. In addition, the study indicates that if the current trends on running times continue, projections will intersect at the 2156 Olympics, when — for the first time ever — the winning women’s 100-meter sprint time of 8.079 seconds will be lower than that of the men’s winning time of 8.09 seconds. Researchers say this could occur as early as the 2064 Games or as late as the 2788 Games. I may not be around then, but hell, it still makes me happy — you can bet the world will tune in for that.

Strong is now considered beautiful. With the advancement of women in society and the changing ideals of body image and sexuality, a strong, successful woman is “the new sexy” and “the new beautiful” — an image worth pursuing even for those who are not athletic. Strong women challenge conventional notions about beauty and convey a contemporary look and attitude. From a brand perspective, now is one of the best times to support female athletes. As our culture continues to change and adapt, female athletes need to harness and embody changing ideals — I believe it will elevate their status and bring increased sponsorship dollars.

Yes, the 2012 London Olympics and the months preceding it are an exciting, celebratory time for women in sport. Women and girls around the world will be tuning in and watching athletic performances across many disciplines that both amaze and inspire. Viewers will get to see sports that are rarely on public display. Challenges will be overcome. Records will be broken. Heroes will emerge.

But, while tuning in, it’s important to think critically about what you’re watching or reading and ask yourself — what’s missing, and what could be better next time? Then, think about what needs to happen by 2016 and how you might be able to help.


Jane Schonberger is a producer and media consultant who is currently the CEO of Pretty Tough Media, Inc, a lifestyle brand for tween/teen female athletes that creates specialty content and products, including a series of sports-themed YA novels published by Penguin USA. Schonberger is also the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Women Talk Sports LLC, the largest blog network devoted to female athletes and fans, and is the Sports Editor for BlogHer.com.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

News Law and Policy

Texas Lawmaker’s ‘Coerced Abortion’ Campaign ‘Wildly Divorced From Reality’

Teddy Wilson

Anti-choice groups and lawmakers in Texas are charging that coerced abortion has reached epidemic levels, citing bogus research published by researchers who oppose legal abortion care.

A Texas GOP lawmaker has teamed up with an anti-choice organization to raise awareness about the supposed prevalence of forced or coerced abortion, which critics say is “wildly divorced from reality.”

Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) during a press conference at the state capitol on July 13 announced an effort to raise awareness among public officials and law enforcement that forced abortion is illegal in Texas.

White said in a statement that she is proud to work alongside The Justice Foundation (TJF), an anti-choice group, in its efforts to tell law enforcement officers about their role in intervening when a pregnant person is being forced to terminate a pregnancy. 

“Because the law against forced abortions in Texas is not well known, The Justice Foundation is offering free training to police departments and child protective service offices throughout the State on the subject of forced abortion,” White said.

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White was joined at the press conference by Allan Parker, the president of The Justice Foundation, a “Christian faith-based organization” that represents clients in lawsuits related to conservative political causes.

Parker told Rewire that by partnering with White and anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), TJF hopes to reach a wider audience.

“We will partner with anyone interested in stopping forced abortions,” Parker said. “That’s why we’re expanding it to police, social workers, and in the fall we’re going to do school counselors.”

White only has a few months remaining in office, after being defeated in a closely contested Republican primary election in March. She leaves office after serving one term in the state GOP-dominated legislature, but her short time there was marked by controversy.

During the Texas Muslim Capitol Day, she directed her staff to “ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.”

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in an email to Rewire that White’s education initiative overstates the prevalence of coerced abortion. “Molly White’s so-called ‘forced abortion’ campaign is yet another example that shows she is wildly divorced from reality,” Busby said.

There is limited data on the how often people are forced or coerced to end a pregnancy, but Parker alleges that the majority of those who have abortions may be forced or coerced.

‘Extremely common but hidden’

“I would say that they are extremely common but hidden,” Parker said. “I would would say coerced or forced abortion range from 25 percent to 60 percent. But, it’s a little hard be to accurate at this point with our data.”

Parker said that if “a very conservative 10 percent” of the about 60,000 abortions that occur per year in Texas were due to coercion, that would mean there are about 6,000 women per year in the state that are forced to have an abortion. Parker believes that percentage is much higher.

“I believe the number is closer to 50 percent, in my opinion,” Parker said. 

There were 54,902 abortions in Texas in 2014, according to recently released statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The state does not collect data on the reasons people seek abortion care. 

White and Parker referenced an oft cited study on coerced abortion pushed by the anti-choice movement.

“According to one published study, sixty-four percent of American women who had abortions felt forced or unduly pressured by someone else to have an unwanted abortion,” White said in a statement.

This statistic is found in a 2004 study about abortion and traumatic stress that was co-authored by David Reardon, Vincent Rue, and Priscilla Coleman, all of whom are among the handful of doctors and scientists whose research is often promoted by anti-choice activists.

The study was cited in a report by the Elliot Institute for Social Sciences Research, an anti-choice organization founded by Reardon. 

Other research suggests far fewer pregnant people are coerced into having an abortion.

Less than 2 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 2004 reported that a partner or parent wanting them to abort was the most important reason they sought the abortion, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute.

That same report found that 24 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 14 percent surveyed in 2004 listed “husband or partner wants me to have an abortion” as one of the reasons that “contributed to their decision to have an abortion.” Eight percent in 1987 and 6 percent in 2004 listed “parents want me to have an abortion” as a contributing factor.

‘Flawed research’ and ‘misinformation’  

Busby said that White used “flawed research” to lobby for legislation aimed at preventing coerced abortions in Texas.

“Since she filed her bogus coerced abortion bill—which did not pass—last year, she has repeatedly cited flawed research and now is partnering with the Justice Foundation, an organization known to disseminate misinformation and shameful materials to crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said.  

White sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills during the 2015 legislative session, including several anti-choice bills. The bills she sponsored included proposals to increase requirements for abortion clinics, restrict minors’ access to abortion care, and ban health insurance coverage of abortion services.

White also sponsored HB 1648, which would have required a law enforcement officer to notify the Department of Family and Protective Services if they received information indicating that a person has coerced, forced, or attempted to coerce a pregnant minor to have or seek abortion care.

The bill was met by skepticism by both Republican lawmakers and anti-choice activists.

State affairs committee chairman Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) told White during a committee hearing the bill needed to be revised, reported the Texas Tribune.

“This committee has passed out a number of landmark pieces of legislation in this area, and the one thing I think we’ve learned is they have to be extremely well-crafted,” Cook said. “My suggestion is that you get some real legal folks to help engage on this, so if you can keep this moving forward you can potentially have the success others have had.”

‘Very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem’

White testified before the state affairs committee that there is a connection between women who are victims of domestic or sexual violence and women who are coerced to have an abortion. “Pregnant women are most frequently victims of domestic violence,” White said. “Their partners often threaten violence and abuse if the woman continues her pregnancy.”

There is research that suggests a connection between coerced abortion and domestic and sexual violence.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, told the American Independent that coerced abortion cannot be removed from the discussion of reproductive coercion.

“Coerced abortion is a very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem, which is violence against women and the impact it has on her health,” Miller said. “To focus on the minutia of coerced abortion really takes away from the really broad problem of domestic violence.”

A 2010 study co-authored by Miller surveyed about 1,300 men and found that 33 percent reported having been involved in a pregnancy that ended in abortion; 8 percent reported having at one point sought to prevent a female partner from seeking abortion care; and 4 percent reported having “sought to compel” a female partner to seek an abortion.

Another study co-authored by Miller in 2010 found that among the 1,300 young women surveyed at reproductive health clinics in Northern California, about one in five said they had experienced pregnancy coercion; 15 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced birth control sabotage.

‘Tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion’

TJF’s so-called Center Against Forced Abortions claims to provide legal resources to pregnant people who are being forced or coerced into terminating a pregnancy. The website includes several documents available as “resources.”

One of the documents, a letter addressed to “father of your child in the womb,” states that that “you may not force, coerce, or unduly pressure the mother of your child in the womb to have an abortion,” and that you could face “criminal charge of fetal homicide.”

The letter states that any attempt to “force, unduly pressure, or coerce” a women to have an abortion could be subject to civil and criminal charges, including prosecution under the Federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

The document cites the 2007 case Lawrence v. State as an example of how one could be prosecuted under Texas law.

“What anti-choice activists are doing here is really egregious,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s vice president of Law and the Courts. “They are using a case where a man intentionally shot his pregnant girlfriend and was charged with murder for both her death and the death of the fetus as an example of reproductive coercion. That’s not reproductive coercion. That is extreme domestic violence.”

“To use a horrific case of domestic violence that resulted in a woman’s murder as cover for yet another anti-abortion restriction is the very definition of callousness,” Mason Pieklo added.

Among the other resources that TJF provides is a document produced by Life Dynamics, a prominent anti-choice organization based in Denton, Texas.

Parker said a patient might go to a “pregnancy resource center,” fill out the document, and staff will “send that to all the abortionists in the area that they can find out about. Often that will stop an abortion. That’s about 98 percent successful, I would say.”

Reproductive rights advocates contend that the document is intended to mislead pregnant people into believing they have signed away their legal rights to abortion care.

Abortion providers around the country who are familiar with the document said it has been used for years to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.

Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, previously told Rewire that abortion providers from across the country have reported receiving the forms.

“It’s just another tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion—tricking women into thinking they have signed this and discouraging them from going through with their initial decision and inclination,” Saporta said.

Busby said that the types of tactics used by TFJ and other anti-choice organizations are a form of coercion.

“Everyone deserves to make decisions about abortion free of coercion, including not being coerced by crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said. “Anyone’s decision to have an abortion should be free of shame and stigma, which crisis pregnancy centers and groups like the Justice Foundation perpetuate.”

“Law enforcement would be well advised to seek their own legal advice, rather than rely on this so-called ‘training,” Busby said.