Skip to main content

Putting Women Back in the Game

January 17, 2024

Diverse human hands showing unity
Diverse human hands showing unity

Students from Rangita de Silva de Alwis’s class on women, law, and leadership have produced a report exploring issues affecting women’s equality in sports.

Written by Jay Nachman

Under the guidance of Rangita De Silva De Alwis, Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students have authored an insightful report that examines various issues concerning women’s equality in sports.

Putting Women Back in the Game” seeks to promote change and build toward a better future for women in sports, according to the report’s lead editor Robert Kirschenbaum L’25 and co-editor Grace Lange L’24, who also serves as president of Penn Carey Law’s Entertainment and Sports Law Society.

The report was widely shared with UN Women and the Sporting Chance Forum 2023 on the future of sports and human rights, which was convened in early December at the Palais des Nations in Geneva to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“I hope that the report sheds light on a lot of the issues that women face in sports,” Kirschenbaum said.

Women’s Sports in the Media

An athlete, diehard sports fan, and avid news consumer, Kirschenbaum said one issue that he was struck by while doing research for the report was the discrepancy in the coverage of women’s and men’s sports as well as ongoing media bias.

Robert Kirschenbaum L'25 Robert Kirschenbaum L’25“You would search men’s sports and all the headlines would be these accomplishments and achievements, like a championship or a team record or a personal record. But when you search women’s sports, you’re just constantly seeing some sort of sexual harassment or some sort of issue they face whether it be with pay or uniforms or maternity leave. There’s a lot of issues that we were seeing that were at the forefront of our research that you wouldn’t necessarily see with men’s sports.”

As the report states, “Even when women do receive coverage of their sports, the broadcasters and news headlines often undermine their accomplishments and put the spotlight on the larger sports world or even male counterparts, as if the accomplishment being done by a woman was something out of the ordinary.”

One example in the report was when Corey Cogdell-Unrein, who is married to Chicago Bears’ lineman Mitch Unrein, won an Olympic bronze medal in trap shooting. The Chicago Tribune tweeted, “Wife of Bears’ lineman wins bronze today in Rio Olympics.”

The report states, “There is no difference in the training programs or time exerted by female athletes, yet broadcasters and journalists are often so quick to undermine their achievements and shed the spotlight elsewhere.”

Another example in the deeply researched report relays the story of an Australian reporter asking tennis pros Genie Bouchard and Serena Williams to “…give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit in 2015.

“Surely some interviewers make the conscious choice—they see the woman as a professional athlete, they see her hard work, her determination, her triumphs, and tribulations and yet still choose to ask her ‘for a twirl.’ This should not be for the woman being interviewed to fix,” the report asserted.

Women, Law, and Leadership

The report was a project of de Silva de Alwis’s “Women, Law, and Leadership” class, which was a platform for students to test ideas and a space for students to ask questions about the under representation of women in leadership and how that hurts the global economy, hampers the diversity of thought and undermines the public good. The class concept was for students to research and develop a wide range of policy initiatives on women’s leadership.

headshot of Grace Lange L'24 Grace Lange L’24Among the topics the report addresses are sexual harassment in sports, body image, family leave policies, misogyny in e-sports, gendered uniforms, gender bias in media profiles of athletes, the compounded nature of intersectional bias, and Islam’s support of women’s physical development as a way to address bans on women’s sports in certain communities.

Lange hopes the report “serves as either as a first glance or a reminder on an academic and global scale that women’s sports need work and that women’s sports on their own holds power.”

She added, “I think this past year in America, especially at the college level, we’ve seen this emergence of interest and leadership and attention on women’s sports and how it’s empowering female athletes and how those female athletes, whether it’s those in the WNBA or those playing Division I basketball are using their platforms for good and becoming leaders.”

Lange played Division I basketball for three years at Villanova University and said she was fortunate to have been surrounded by strong women coaches and men who believe in women’s sports. She never experienced examples of the types of discrimination outlined in the report.

It was a different story for Lange’s mother and godmother, who were also Division I basketball players.

“The stories and experiences that they had were definitely different from mine,” she said. “And by no means does that mean that the landscape I was in is equal, but it definitely showed progress and that progress came as a result of people like my mom and my godmother and that generation of Division I female athletes making sure that their daughters, the next generation, had a better experience, more opportunities and had more equal footing than they did.”

Report Findings

The report divides contributions by class members into the categories Harassment and Inequality, Media Bias, Across the Globe, Personal Anecdotes, and Sports and Leadership in Action. The report concludes with a section on Looking Forward and an Executive Summary.

In the report, Mehreen Usman L’25 explores whether religious beliefs in Muslim countries discourage women’s participation in physical activities. Usman references a study that claims teachings in the Quran promoted the “development and maintenance of the spirit and physical strength, regardless of gender.” Nonetheless, the study contends that the relationship between women’s participation in sports in Muslim countries is weakened not by religious beliefs, but by external reasons—which exist in non-Muslim countries as well, Usman points out.

The causes in Muslim countries, Usman believes, “stem from overarching religious beliefs, such as the norm of wearing modest clothing and separating the genders, which might limit women’s athletic participation. However, there are some cultural attitudes that may be similarly observed in Western (non-Muslim) countries as well.”

In both Muslim and non-Muslim Western countries, the societal norm is that women stay home for childrearing. And in both societies, more media attention for male athletes and stereotyping of what types of careers are traditionally “female” likely also play into the lower participation rate, Usman concluded.

Alyson Diaz L’25 wrote about how male-dominated companies design uniforms in women’s sports for men—highly sexualized for the male gaze or ill-fitting versions of men’s styles. But she noted women are rebelling against male control over female body.

“In the 2021 Olympics, German gymnasts competed in a full-length unitard, not a traditional leotard,” she writes. “To recognize the realities of menstruation, tennis players wore black shorts under their mandated white tennis dresses at Wimbledon.”

Melissa Bredbenner L’25 explores positive change in women’s struggle for sports equality.

“In 2022, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team secured equal pay after a six-year battle in the courts and almost forty years of existence,” she writes. “Despite USWNT having more success than their male counterparts and earning more money for the U.S. Soccer Federation than the men’s team, they received significantly less pay, had subpar playing conditions and received worse accommodations and training. Because of the low wages they received, women were forced to either quit soccer, work other jobs in addition to playing, or live off of the low and, at times, nonexistent wages made from the sport.”

She concludes, “As the USWNT has shown us, with persistence, women persevere and create change that improves the experiences of future generations.”

The Future of Equality in Women’s Sports

Kirschenbaum said that while there have been improvements in media coverage and more awareness of sexual harassment leading to some diminishment, he acknowledged one report is not going to lead to every possible policy change. That’s why he said he’ll continue to be an advocate and ally for women in sports.

Achieving equality in women’s sports can lead the charge for equality for women on a global scale, Lange came to believe after taking another class with de Silva de Alwis. In that class, “International Women’s Rights,” Lange learned of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). All countries that signed the provision consented to providing more access to women in sports.

“It would lead to other rights coming more to light because of the empowering effect that sports has on women,” Lange said.

Read the full report.