Despite their significant progress, female sports reporters are still fighting for fair representation
Karen Thomson’s love of competition drew her to sports as a child, though she never could have guessed what challenges awaited her as she progressed within the journalistic niche.
Thomson, a veteran of TV and radio, credits her sports-loving dad for suggesting she pursue a career in sports broadcasting. Her family had always supported and nurtured her love of competition, enrolling her in an array of extracurricular activities and encouraging her passion for softball.
“I’m a little ball of competitiveness,” Thomson says, remembering the victory she felt the first time she hit a home run.
Thomson graduated from the journalism program at Columbia Academy in Vancouver in 2005 and went on to become a news anchor for News 1130, where she stayed for almost four years before moving on to cover sports at CTV Vancouver. Throughout her years as a sports reporter, she found the industry to be dominated by men and felt significant pressure to fit in “with the boys.”
“You just need to prove yourself even more so,” she says. “If you make one tiny mistake, people are on you.”
According to an International Sports Press Survey in 2011, more than 90 per cent of sports articles that year were written by male journalists, while only eight per cent were written by women. In a pointed attempt to rectify gender inequality in the field, many North American newsrooms have worked to bring more women to prominence in recent years, with moderate results.
Thomson says gender discrimination still exists in the sports newsroom. People often questioned how she got her job, or assumed she’d stumbled into sports from the news department, never guessing that sports reporting had been a lifelong dream. She felt the men were never asked these questions or expected to explain their presence in the newsroom.
The legal right of female reporters to have the same access as men to athletes was given via a 1978 court judgment in the United States after Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke was barred from Major League Baseball locker rooms. But that one case hardly settled issues of inequality. In 1990, writer Lisa Olson filed a lawsuit after being harassed in a National Football League locker room—one of many stories of bullying, harassment and conflict faced by women covering the sports beat.
In their 2013 essay The Glass Ceiling and Beyond, journalism professors Erin Whiteside at the University of Tennessee and Marie Hardin at Penn State blame inequalities in sports media on a concept they called “hegemonic masculinity.” They theorize that professional sports systematically “normalize women’s inferiority” and their “accepted marginalization.” Whiteside and Hardin go on to say that many women in sports journalism become tokens tasked with proving their worth in the industry, and by extension, the worth of women in general.
When Wendy Long joined the sports department at the Vancouver Sun in the 1980s, she felt she was causing a bit of a stir. There had never been a woman in the sports department before. In fact, women working in sports were so rare that Long was one of just four in the country. When Long stepped into the Sun newsroom for the first time, she felt like all eyes were on her, and that feeling never really changed.
“Some of the guys, they were terrific and helpful,” Long says. “Some of the other guys, you could kind of tell they were hoping I wouldn’t last too long. As it turned out, I outlasted all of those guys.”
She says she threw herself into her work at the Sun and was determined to be the best sports writer in the country to show everyone that a woman could do the job.
She knew that she would be setting the stage for the future women interested in sports writing.
She was the only reporter who was interested in covering sports such as alpine skiing and track and field, as she had actively participated in both her whole life. She went on to develop an expertise in niche sports reporting, and covered seven Olympic Games throughout her career as well as the 1987 Federation Cup and 1999 Pan American Games.
She continued trailblazing throughout her career and was the first and only woman to be inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2016 for her work in sports media.
Despite all of her success, Long says she had to work twice as hard as the men to prove that she belonged.
At Yahoo Sports Canada, Sarah Jenkins is the only woman in a 10-person newsroom. The 22-year-old was the first female reporter to be brought onto the sports media roster with a full-year contract, and despite her success, found herself running into the same challenges as Thomson.
“You have to work harder because you’re going to get questioned a little more,” Jenkins says. “Your intentions are always going to be questioned, unfortunately.”
Jenkins, who is a video producer for Yahoo, previously worked as a play-by-play hockey commentator at Ryerson University and worked as a writer and researcher for the CBC at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018.
Jenkins believes that the representation of women in sports media has improved significantly over the years, but is still lacking, despite media outlets attempting to incorporate gender equality into the newsrooms. She points to a recent time when Yahoo Sports was hiring for a content editor: there wasn’t a single application from a woman, though 100 men applied.
“So, it’s this weird issue of, ‘We want more women to be represented,’ but also, ‘Where are they?’” Jenkins says.
She goes on to note that Yahoo Sports Canada is trying to develop a newsroom that is gender equal but that the goal becomes difficult to achieve when the pool of applicants is so small.
The problem isn’t helped by the shrinking number of positions in media, thanks to many outlets that have recently slashed their sports budgets. When Bell Media laid off many of the positions in CTV’s sports department, Karen Thomson moved to a career in sales. Looking back, she says she loved being a sports reporter, and she points to some of her male mentors in the newsroom as a key reason why.
“They believed in me, which was so important,” she says. “You want to find those mentors who are going to help you and believe in you, and I was really fortunate that I met a few people who were like that.”
Sarah Jenkins says she has met many women who are talented and qualified sports journalists through her days in school. She’s hopeful the gender gap in sports will narrow, escpecially with support from people in leadership positions.
“I think change is coming,” Jenkins says. “But it does take people like that at the top—to help be mentors to young women, who then want to grow up and become editors and come into those higher positions of power as well.”