We’re taking another perspective on women in sport today, this time talking to Daily Mail sports journalist Laura Williamson on how it feels to be the only woman in the press room, how she got there initially and disrupting the order of things.
Why did you get into sports journalism?
It’s simple, really: I’m very passionate about sport and I enjoy writing and talking to people, so it seemed like the ideal career for me to try and pursue.
It was probably very naïve, but it genuinely never occurred to me that, as a female, I would be in the distinct minority if I ever made it onto a sports desk. In hindsight, though, that may have been a good thing as I never saw my gender as a barrier: I just wanted something, so I went after it.
How have you found it as a female journalist covering sport?
It’s certainly never dull! You soon get used to walking into a room as the only female and realise people are looking at you as if you have two heads. It’s no big deal, in general, although there are times when it gets tiring feeling like an alien.
I have never encountered any direct sexism that has stopped me doing my job and the rest is just part and parcel of the role, really. You can’t allow yourself to get stressed over the small things. At the end of a press conference, for example, it is generally “thank you gentlemen” and you may get picked out of the crowd more often than your male colleagues, but you have to use it as a positive. Who is the new manager going to remember, after all: one of the blokes or the only female in the room?
The main difficulty is constantly having to prove yourself, given the automatic assumption that women generally don’t know anything about sport. But, again, this is wearing rather than a genuine hindrance. Probably more frustrating is the battle to prove that some women do actually like sport and that we should have more coverage of female athletes in the mainstream media. But that, I fear, is an argument I will be having until the day I retire…
What’s the best event you’ve ever covered?
The Olympic and Paralympic Games last summer. Both were just incredible – particularly as sport felt like the centre of the universe which is exactly, in my opinion, as it should be.
With the recent momentum and interest in women’s sport, do you think the media world is ready for it?
I think if ‘the media’ felt there was a genuine interest in women’s sport it would respond but, at the moment, the over-riding belief seems to be that the interest just is not there. I disagree with that personally, but you have to remember you’re talking about disrupting an established order that has been in place for years and years. It will take time.
What’s your opinion on women’s sport and the way its portrayed in the media, especially if it’s a sport with a male counterpart?
Sometimes I cringe at how patronising the coverage can be, I must admit. It would be unthinkable of me to turn up at a men’s football match and confess I did not have a clue what was going on, but the opposite scenario seems perfectly acceptable; as if the male journalists are doing women’s football a service by being there. That’s not only annoying, it’s downright rude at times.
I think the main problem is that we persist in bracketing all “women’s sport” together under that umbrella of otherness. It’s just football or swimming or athletics that happens to involve female athletes, not “women’s sport’. Until we can move away from that and just see it as sport played by women, I think we’ll have a problem.
How important do you think it is for women to be represented in sport, both through playing, but also as journalists and leaders in sporting organisations?
Absolutely crucial. We need women to climb the greasy pole of their chosen profession and then haul other women up after them. It’s something of which I’m very conscious, because I would love the feeling of otherness I’ve experienced to be alien to girls coming through in 20 or 30 years’ time.
For that to happen, though, women need to get better at sharing experience, and more women need to see sport as a career. They’re not all going to be good enough to make it – and I remain unsure about the idea of quotas or positive discrimination – but if there is a bigger pool of talent at the bottom it is logical that more women will make it to the top.
What do you think women’s sport could do to help itself?
Stop whining. Stop moaning about ‘deserving’ coverage and start demanding it by attracting bigger crowds and better sponsorship deals. I realise this is a chicken and egg argument, but the media – or at least the sections that are not publicly-funded – do not have a charitable responsibility to promote women’s sport. Football matches watched by 500 people simply will not merit coverage in a national newspaper, no matter who is playing.
Who are your sporting heroes?
Growing up it was Sally Gunnell. I used to run myself and there was no-one I enjoyed watching more than her. She seemed to glide over those hurdles and achieved such staggering success, yet retained this aura of being refreshingly normal. She said in her autobiography she ate a banana roll before winning Olympic gold in 1992 so that’s what I tried to do before races as well. Sadly there was no Olympic medal for me, mind you!
Sir Bobby Robson was another hero of mine. I read his books and really picked up on the idea of playing football ‘on the grass’; the proper way. I used to go and watch Grimsby Town every week so this was something of a forward-thinking concept to my sister and I, unfortunately.