Sunday, April 14, 2024

Have You Seen This Woman? She’s Missing

There are thousands of women missing in NZ – missing from the media when it comes to women in sport, that is. The percentage of media coverage given to sportswomen is completely dismal, not just in NZ, but globally. So, what’s the knock-on effect of this – especially when it comes to the youngest generations? And, whose incredible stories are we missing out on hearing?

Capsule in partnership with Nike

Have you seen this woman? She’s missing.

She’s missing from the headlines.

See, Hannah Wilkinson is kind of a big deal – although it’s very possible you might not have ever heard her name or seen her face before.

Hannah is a professional football player who has competed at the highest level across the world – she’s played in massive stadiums for huge crowds while living in the USA, Portugal, Sweden and Germany for her sport. Hailing from Whangārei, she’s also a member of New Zealand’s Football Ferns, has competed at three Olympic Games representing Aotearoa and earned a Nike Elite Athlete Sponsorship.

And as if that weren’t enough, off the pitch the 30-year-old is an accomplished musician and artist (seriously, you can see her work on the walls of Eden Park and listen to her tracks on Spotify). She’s also a role model for many young women across the globe who follow football – particularly as she’s used her platform to empower young women, speak out for the LGBTQIA community and dismantle homophobia wherever and whenever possible.

But, despite being one heck of an athlete (and all-around human!), Hannah hasn’t appeared in very many headlines, stories, news bulletins or podcasts – in fact, neither has her team as a whole. It’s even at a point where if people ask Hannah what she does, she knows just saying she’s a Football Fern won’t cut it.

“I don’t think people really know who the Football Ferns are, even here at home in NZ,” she tells Capsule. “I have to say I play football for NZ, that I represent our country. We don’t get much promotion here – I mean, we do a bit now, with the FIFA World Cup coming up at home this year, but generally, there’s not much news about us.”

And sadly, Hannah and the Football Ferns’ story isn’t at all uncommon when it comes to women in sport.

Things may have vastly improved in the last few years, but still today only 19% of media sports coverage is focused on females – and that’s after a big jump (largely due to the Olympics) from 15% the year prior. And when it comes to Hannah’s sport, the numbers are particularly low. Just 10.8% of football media coverage in NZ is focused on females.

They’re dismal numbers, but depressingly, New Zealand is actually way ahead of the rest of the world. Globally the percentage of media coverage regarding women sits at just 4%.

But, you may be asking, why is this such a big deal? Do newspaper column inches and time on the telly really make much of a difference to anything?

In short? Heck yes it makes a difference. Particularly to young girls and their ability to dream big, or even know what could be possible for their futures. Hannah says that whilst the likes of brands like Nike work to raise the profile of women in sport globally through creating new opportunities to change sport for the better,

from a grassroots level up. The fact is that the invisibility of sportswomen in the media means young girls are less likely to aspire to becoming professional athletes, because they’re not easily and readily exposed to seeing women excel in sport.

“It sets the precedent to our youngsters that you’re never going to get a career in sport if you’re a woman,” she says. “I mean, that’s the kind of experience I had growing up. I’m sure it’s improved, but, in the end, when you’re asking young girls, ‘Who is your idol?’ It would always be a male player. That’s because women’s sport just isn’t shown and isn’t given the same sort of platform as men.”

It’s bizarre, because it goes against what’s happening out there – attendance at women’s sporting events is on the rise.

“There’s that tired argument that no one watches women’s sport,” says Hannah. “But the fact is, people are going. If you put it out there for people to watch, people will watch it.”

And she’s right. In 2019 a record high of 1.12 billion (yes, BILLION) viewers tuned in to watch the world championships. Plus, people are actually turning up to games in droves. Last year, attendance records at women’s football matches were being broken every few months, across the globe. In 2022 Barcelona broke the worldwide record for a women’s match not once, but twice. The current record is 91,648 – a staggering number who turned up to watch Barcelona play Wolfsburg during the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

It’s a similar story in the UK and South America, plus over in America, women’s football has grown so rapidly it has entirely eclipsed men’s. The USA Angel City FC is now one of the most popular clubs – and has even gained the interest of Silicon Valley investors and Hollywood stars, with Reddit owner (and husband of Serena Williams), Alexis Ohanian being a key investor, and actress Natalie Portman a primary co-owner. Other celebrity owners include Jessica Chastain, America Ferrera, Jennifer Garner and Eva Longoria.

Natalie Portman, who has been outspoken about the gender pay gap in Hollywood, has become a huge fan of football and now uses her voice to get more media attention on women in sport. She made headlines when she spoke out about having to face her own subconscious gender biases when it comes to sport.

She says her bias dawned on her when she watched her young son turn on the TV and start watching the US women’s team play. “I kind of had this assumption that as soon as he realised it was women playing, he wasn’t going to be interested,” she admitted.

“[But] It was no difference,” she continued. “A kid who loves the sport just wants to see great players. There’s been an assumption my whole life that I’d be interested in watching men’s basketball, men’s baseball, men’s football and soccer. And I do. I love watching great players play a sport. Why would a man not watch it because it’s women?”

Back home, Hannah says she is feeling some optimism about where things are heading.

“I like to think that this World Cup is going to inspire a lot of passion and that craze around football, because firstly, it’s a sport for the fans,” she says. “If we can get New Zealanders excited about football in the same way that they get excited about rugby then we’re winning.”

Because for Hannah, it’s all about inspiring a new generation to take up the sport. She’d love to see more girls follow in her footsteps, because for her it’s been an incredible ride and one that she’d love for others to experience.

“Football has kicked off every opportunity I can think of,” she says. “It got me a college education in the States and so many professional opportunities. I’ve travelled the world and built an amazing network of connections – it has helped me have a wider world view on things and understanding different perspectives.”

It’s also brought her a huge network of friends, and a large support network – which she definitely leaned on when she came out as gay at 20 during a team tour. It was a secret she says had been weighing heavily on her shoulders, but she was pleasantly surprised by everyone’s reactions. Now, she wants to help other young women feel confident in their own identities.

“When I was growing up, kind of figuring myself out and figuring out my sexuality, I tried to think of role models that could help me through that journey, but I couldn’t think of any,” she tells. “I’d always liked to think that if I was ever in a position to be able to empower others to feel happy and okay, and celebrate their own identities, that I would use that platform. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of homophobia out there and we’ve got a responsibility – especially if you’ve got a platform – to dismantle that discrimination.”

She says things have definitely improved, even in just the last few years, but there’s still a way to go. “I think that improvement is with thanks to high profile individuals that are spreading love and celebration of the rainbow community, and just really, really celebrating their identity – like Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach.”

Now, she and her teammates are gearing up to put their talents on display on the world stage.

It’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun, so make sure you don’t miss out – and make sure you bring your kids. Especially your daughters. They might just find a new role model to look up to.

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