Gender equality in hockey is a work in progress; women players still given the cold shoulder
When the Indian junior women’s team won a bronze medal in the 2013 World Cup, the story soon disappeared from the media. In contrast, India’s gold medal in the junior men’s World Cup in 2016 received strong media coverage.
Purists opine that gender does not matter in sports, in which recognition comes from performance alone. Sports is so visible and quantifiable that we can see excellence, or the lack of it, for what it is. Being rule-based, sports is pure and gender–blind, runs the argument.
But is it? It is true that being performance-based, hockey could potentially promote gender emancipation. But in reality, gender discrimination is wired into hockey too, manifesting in earnings, employment, viewership and media coverage. The existing male-dominated order of things and the combustible competition for power and status leaves women behind.
In India, when the men’s team wins medals, it wins ample rewards, but not the women’s team. Although, in 2016, Hockey India gave identical cash awards to one female and three male players, for a hundred appearances for India, this was an exception. Female hockey players found employment only in the Railways, whereas the male players landed jobs in many public companies.
There is discrimination against athletes from out of the state. Forward-thinking Haryana fetes champion female players as much as the men, but only those from the state. Moreover, in a case of discrimination within the male gender itself, in 2016, six Punjab players from the Indian men’s team that won the 2014 Asian Games gold medal, became deputy superintendents of police, whereas players from other states were not considered. Powerful local identities were at play.
Europe and Oceania steal a march over others, whether it is earnings, viewership, or participation. Yet, in Europe too, there is a market-driven gender problem. As Marijke Fleuren, president of the European Hockey Federation, told me, with higher television viewership, sponsors prefer the men’s game – which is richer – over that of the women. For the same reason Hockey India failed to launch a league for women.
Top female athletes even pay to play. Britain’s Olympics champion and ace goalkeeper Maddie Hinch said: “Some of the girls in the British team still pay a £5 match fee to play on a Saturday, which seems a bit crazy.” Yet, as British player Ashley Jackson revealed, the success of the Olympics gold medal had earned the women’s team sponsorship and television coverage.
Exceptionally, Hockey Australia pursues absolute equality, stealing a march over other sports. Hockey Australia chief executive officer Cam Vale said: “Whether you’re a Kookaburra or a Hockeyroo, when it comes to basic terms and principles in how we remunerate our athletes, it’s exactly the same.”
Viewership shows discrimination, stemming from the broader attitude towards women. Attendance at the 2014 World Cup at The Hague was the same for men and women, as also for the 2015 Hockey World League Semi-finals at Antwerp, which the author attended. According to Martin Gothridge, former president of the European Hockey Federation and of Hockey England, in major tournaments for women, stadia in England have up to 5,000 spectators.
The contrast with attendance in games in India is telling. During the Hockey World League Round 2 in New Delhi in 2012, the stands were empty, whereas spectators attended the Olympics qualifying tournament for men in large numbers. With fewer tournaments for women than for men, and limited spectator support, women’s hockey in India is the bridesmaid, and its achievements go under-appreciated.
In Europe, media coverage of hockey is so meagre that discrimination is hard to see. In India, in 2012, the media celebrated the qualification of the men’s team for the London Olympics, while the achievement of the Indian women’s team in reaching the final of the Olympics qualifying tournament in New Delhi was under-reported.
The Indian women won the 2013 Hockey World League Round 2 in New Delhi, but the accolades went to the men. The women’s seventh place finish at the Hockey World League Semi-finals at Rotterdam in 2013 was largely on par with that of the men, who had finished sixth. Yet, the media obsessed about the performance of the men. When the Indian junior women’s team won a bronze medal in the 2013 World Cup, there were celebrations, but the story soon disappeared from the media. In contrast, India’s gold medal in the junior men’s World Cup in 2016 received strong media coverage.
Gender discrimination is not against female athletes alone. In the US, hockey is almost completely a female sport, leaving male players facing derision or prejudice. It takes steely nerves and singular focus for the men to find their niche. Nick Richardson of St Anslem’s College in New Hampshire said: “At my own high school, I wasn’t able to compete on the high school field hockey team because I was a boy.”
Happily, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) has been taking affirmative action for gender equality. Leandro Negre, the former president of the FIH and president of honour, said that 40 per cent of its management jobs were reserved for women, and the ratio was nearly 50:50 in the committees. However, females did not like to take up coaching assignments, creating an imbalance in the numbers, he asserted.
Hockey pursues formal gender equality, making discrimination hard to see. The number of male and female players in the world being roughly equal, it is possible to construct an equal opportunity model for the sport. There are two Olympics gold medals, one each for men and women, and each Olympics has 12 teams. The same is true of the World Cup, Champions Trophy and World Hockey League. Thus, gender equality in hockey is a work in progress.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador, and vice-president of Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society.
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