Nancy Gillen

This time last year I was covering the Krasnoyarsk 2019 Winter World University Games, which meant I spent International Women’s Day (IWD) in Russia.

As a national holiday, IWD is celebrated more widely there than back home in Britain. At the end of breakfast that morning, I was handed a flower, as were the millions of Russian women across the country. Well-wishes and greetings also accompanied me throughout the day.

It was an interesting experience and my first real encounter with IWD, which always takes place on March 8. 

I had been aware of the day, which has its roots in a movement of 20th century working-class New York women demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. For a lot of my life however, IWD had just been a hashtag trending on Twitter.  

Now, this year, I have paid particular attention to the occasion, especially in my capacity as a sports journalist. Regular readers of the insidethegames blog section will know I am a strong proponent in gender equality in sport, both on the field and in the boardroom.

Imagine my delight then, when a flood of news stories and press releases suddenly appeared, all of them celebrating women in sport.

One of my favourite stories was about Britain’s 200 metre world champion, Dina Asher-Smith. Toy company Mattel chose her to be the inspiration behind a one-of-a-kind "Shero" Barbie doll.

Decked out in a Nike cropped vest and running shorts - the outfit Asher-Smith wore when she triumphed at Doha 2019 – the doll is part of Barbie’s pledge to celebrate female role models in sports from around the world.

It is an effort to close the "dream gap", considered the time when girls start to doubt that they can be anything. Research shows that when girls play sports, they report higher levels of confidence, which in turn breaks down barriers to self-belief.

Toy company Mattel made a Barbie doll inspired by sprinter Dina-Asher Smith ©Getty Images
Toy company Mattel made a Barbie doll inspired by sprinter Dina-Asher Smith ©Getty Images

This was a genuinely great idea, but many expressed disappointment when discovering the Asher-Smith doll was a one-off and not available for purchase. A petition was even set up to try and change this.

It seems bizarre the doll was created to try and encourage girls to play sport, but was then not accessible to the audience in question. Subsequently, the doll seemed more of a promotional opportunity for Barbie than a legitimate attempt to aid the development of women’s sport.

Another example of this comes from Liverpool Football Club. To celebrate IWD, a number of inspirational women from the city were invited to Anfield for the team’s Premier League clash with Bournemouth. There were also a host of other activities taking place across the club, both internally and externally, to mark the occasion.

While this is better than nothing, Liverpool’s self-congratulatory promotion of these events were at complete odds to the state of their women’s team, who are currently battling regulation in the FA Women’s Super League.

It is well documented that Liverpool Women’s struggles this season are largely down to a lack of funding and resources. 

While millions of pounds are spent on ensuring world-class playing facilities for the men’s team, the women are expected to play at the home of League One side Tranmere Rovers. The pitch is used so often that is has been rendered unplayable, with Liverpool Women having to postpone two matches so far this season. They even moved a match to Chester FC to deal with the situation.

So, while Liverpool are celebrating women for one day a year, their long-term commitment to women’s sport can be called into question. Liverpool's financial position means it would be easy for them to promote and develop their women's side, as rivals Manchester City do, but the club choose not to. 

Liverpool Women are battling relegation this season due to a lack of finances and resources ©Getty Images
Liverpool Women are battling relegation this season due to a lack of finances and resources ©Getty Images

These situations sum up IWD in the sporting world for me. It may appear cynical, but it does seem as if brands celebrate women’s sport around IWD because it creates good publicity and monetary gain. After March 8, however, women’s sport is once again forgotten as normal service resumes.

This is at clear odds with the original purpose of IWD, which aims to create a long-lasting contribution to gender equality. Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the Women’s Resource Centre, has warned that the meaning of the day may soon become lost.

“There’s a risk that it becomes an event a bit like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day instead of giving visibility to the work that women are doing around the world,” she said, as reported by The Guardian. 

If companies and brands are so interested in women’s sport, they should be investing all year-round, instead of making a fuss just one day a year.

The frenzied activity around IWD is particularly bittersweet when considering a number of women’s tournaments, such as the Women’s Six Nations, do not have a title sponsor, and therefore no prize money. Coming forward to put resources into such an event would show a commitment to women’s sport that would also be a fitting IWD celebration.  

World Rugby introduced an extension of its women’s executive leadership scholarship programme on the eve of International Women's Day ©Getty Images
World Rugby introduced an extension of its women’s executive leadership scholarship programme on the eve of International Women's Day ©Getty Images

For once, International Federations and governing bodies are due some praise. Instead of flash-in-the-pan events, a number of sport organisations have announced sustainable policies to promote gender equality.

World Rugby, for instance, have revealed an extension of its women’s executive leadership scholarship programme. An additional 12 new scholarships will be awarded in 2020, with the dozen recipients coming from Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America, Europe and North America. The programme has already been in place for two years, with World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont claiming the scheme as “game-changing”.

The International Olympic Committee have showed evidence of their commitment to full gender equality, announcing that a limited number of additional quota places will be awarded to National Olympic Committees to ensure they are represented by both genders at the Olympics. Flags can also now be carried by one man and one woman at the Opening Ceremony of each Games.

The International Cricket Council's decision to host the Women's T20 World Cup on IWD was a stroke of genius, packing out Melbourne Cricket Ground with 86,174 spectators to prove there is demand to watch women's sport. 

Media organisations are also pulling out all the stops for IWD. Canadian broadcaster CBC Sports have committed to gender-balanced coverage across all platforms, while Sky Sports announced plans to increase its commitment to women’s sport in 2020 by expanding its existing coverage and strengthening its digital output. 

It is not all negative then, but there is room for improvement when it comes to celebrating IWD, especially among brands and companies. Such organisations have the financial power to make a tangible change to gender equality in sport, and subsequently should not treat IWD as just another marketing opportunity.