Published on ITF website
Since retiring in the early 2000s, former British professional Jo Ward has dedicated much of her post-playing career to improving conditions for female players within Great Britain. She delivered an excellent talk on gender equality at the ITF Worldwide Coaches Conference by BNP Paribas in Bulgaria, focussing in on the negative effects of stereotypes in sport and its impact on participation. We sat down with Ward to discuss her expert topic…
How did you develop this passion for gender equality in tennis?
We have to go back in time. I competed in the late 90s on the tour and at that time there were plenty of things that reaffirmed negative gender stereotypes that I personally experienced and everyone I knew experienced. Some of it was just stuff like playing on the backcourts, but there were other more obvious things.
I transitioned into coaching and then two years ago I started a PhD to see if there was anything from a psychological point of view that I could research and then make impactful recommendations about how we can start to address the problem. Within the last two years it’s become a hot topic in the UK and other nations as well. Not just tennis, but female sport is on the rise. We have had lots of gender issues that have had prominence on social media and I think it’s all part and parcel of the same big picture – how do we step-by-step change the environment we operate in?
What has been the major change in the last few years?
It’s been a slow and gradual pressure, but if there’s been any big moment it’s been recognition that tennis is only half a sport if it’s only for half the population. We have a lot more ability now within sport to gather data, look at the facts and the figures. Should we fund governing bodies, or nations, or sports that don’t have a 50-50 gender balance? It’s a conversation that absolutely needs to be had.
You mentioned in your speech the influence of language and avoiding terms like “run like a girl”, “throw like a girl” – while this may be perceived as being overly sensitive or politically correct it’s actually pretty important, isn’t it?
I have this conversation with a lot with people. To make any change, in any situation, you have to address the uncomfortable questions and sometimes you have to make people uncomfortable in how you do that. If people hadn’t spoken up about all the other inequalities we have had throughout the ages we would still be cavemen.
You had a catchy phrase in your speech: “you have to see it to be it”. Can you explain that?
I was talking with some of the other female speakers and apparently that quote comes from Billie Jean King so I have stolen it from her! But if you’re going to steal a quote from anyone, she’s got to be on the top-five list. But it’s true, isn’t it? If I’d raised my hand in class when I was five and said I want to be a policeman or a fireman I would have been laughed at. You just didn’t see it. But slowly and surely… in the UK at the moment we have a female head of the Metropolitan Police Service and London Fire Brigade. Now that little girls can see it, for sure they’re going to believe they can be it.
Andy Murray wears the feminist tag with pride. How important is it to have people like him standing up for women’s rights?
It’s unbelievable. There are layers of effectiveness I suppose. We have the conversation going on at the bottom, banging our head against the wall all these years. We have limited exposure and limited ability to reach people but at the next level up you’ve got the women who have won Grand Slams, who are higher profile and spreading the same message. But then the next level up is when you have a man who says it. He really is a cultural outlier. This can be seen as a women’s issue, but when you get a man saying it, it becomes an ‘everyone’ issue.
There are around 90 countries represented here this week – what have been your experiences speaking with women from different nations?
It’s been really pleasing to see that there are many women in different countries taking on the same challenge. Actually, a lot of the women who are doing that are the women who were playing when I was playing and who are now my age and it seems we have sort of come up together, rolled up our sleeves and we are having these respective campaigns in our own nations. I have had a few men come up and speak to me too, like a chap from Sierra Leone who wants to help women in his country. I spoke with a guy from Iran. It is something that does resonate with men and women from around the world and that’s the way it needs to start.
As one of the true global sports, tennis has real potential to be that flagbearer for gender equality, particularly in countries that still have work to do…
I think we can be world-leading. We probably already are [in terms of sport]. Already, we have done loads of work for women. There are so many pioneers in that, but the job is so far from done. Any woman in this environment understands that this stuff is what turns girls off. And if we can’t retain the girls then we haven’t got the players that turn into coaches, so it becomes a vicious circle.
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