#LetHerWork shows uncomfortable truth | From the Press Box with Melanie Whelan

HEADLINE: SBS World Cup presenters Lucy Zelic and Craig Foster address viewer criticism over her pronunciation of players names. Picture: SBS
HEADLINE: SBS World Cup presenters Lucy Zelic and Craig Foster address viewer criticism over her pronunciation of players names. Picture: SBS

“LET them wear towels” is the proudly defiant declaration an American female sports journalist made in fighting for equal access to club rooms after a game.

That was in the 1970s – a handful of young women across the United States were trying to break the locker room barrier in incredibly hostile situations so they could do their job. To not have equal access meant stories from male competitors of other news outlets would be enhanced.

How far have we really progressed when it comes to women covering matches in professional male sporting arenas?

Social media campaign #LetHerWork has put respect and rights of female sports journalists on the agenda with repeated harassment and sexism – some live on camera – unfolding at the World Cup in Russia.

The #DeixaElaTrabalhar campaign, started by Brazilian female sports journalists in March as a united approach to curb sexism and predatory behaviour in the game. More peers have added their voices and personal experience to draw attention to issues plaguing traditionally male dominated sports.

These women might be allowed in club rooms, but we have seen reporters groped and kissed on television and verbally abused as they do their job to report on the biggest global sporting event.

Men behaving badly, drunk or trying to win laughs off the lads, is no longer an accepted excuse.

The sexual abuse is also felt in the studios. Britain’s Vicki Sparks made history as the first woman to commentate a World Cup game live on television when she called Portugal's win over Morocco. She had an onslaught of vitriol for having too high-pitched a voice. A little like how a trailblazing Kelli Underwood broke into AFL television commentary in 2009.

FLASHBACK: Kelli Underwood prepares to become the first female AFL commentator in 2009. Picture: Justin McManus, The Age.

FLASHBACK: Kelli Underwood prepares to become the first female AFL commentator in 2009. Picture: Justin McManus, The Age.

Even Australian treatment of female sports journalists has made international news with SBS presenter Lucy Zelic was criticised for how she pronounced players’ names. Zelic had the backing of fellow presented Craig Foster, who said Zelic’s attention to pronunciation was respecting the game and the players who play the game – what you should want in a presenter.

It should not matter the journalists’ gender. There are more women than ever before covering World Cup soccer in Russia. There are 16,000 accredited journalists at the event and 14 per cent are women. While still very much a male-dominated field, each woman is there to do her job as a soccer journalist – not a female soccer journalist.

#LetHerWork is about far more than sport. It adds to the powerful international #MeToo movement sparked in Hollywood. Sport, like Hollywood, is an incredible tool to create important social and cultural discussion. How we talk about them is important in showing leadership and awareness on an issue. Like Foster did on SBS. 

Right now is an incredibly exciting time for women on the field in traditionally male-dominated sport, including soccer. Sport is evolving and so too must both the fans and our sports chat, even if this means facing some uncomfortable self-truths so we can just #LetHerWork.

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