Attending the Palace of Westminster is not an ordinary Tuesday morning activity for an academic from Lincoln (or anywhere else for that matter). I counted down the stops between King’s Cross and Westminster, trying to distract myself from the overcrowded tube. One commuter claiming, ‘this is the busiest it’s been’, acknowledging the summer break had well and truly finished. The darkness and rain accompanying my 5.15am start was also testament to that.
In my efforts not to be late I arrived at Westminster an hour early, enough time to navigate the security system (think airport) and receive my black visitor lanyard. You enter through Westminster Hall which is quite spectacular and the oldest building in parliament, built in 1097. It is like no other entrance due to its breadth, material grandeur and architectural wonder.
Women, Sport and Parliament
Sport shares similarities with the Palace of Westminster. They are both traditional and established, both formed on ancient structures and both hold great power for positive change.
Today, I, Professor Hanya Pielichaty, was giving oral evidence (a witness) to the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee as part of the Committee’s Women in Sport Inquiry. This inquiry began on the 15th December 2022, acknowledging the importance and pressing need to tackle areas of social injustice in sport. The terms of reference for the inquiry, as cited on the Committee webpage, include:
- How can the growth in domestic women’s football be accelerated?
- What should other sports be learning from the growth of women’s football leagues in the UK?
- What is needed for women’s sporting organisations to grow audiences and revenues?
- What action is needed to tackle sexism and misogyny in sport?
- What needs to change at a regulatory level to facilitate more parity between men’s and women’s sport?
Engaging with Parliamentarians
The first stage of my engagement with the Committee was to submit written evidence to the inquiry outlining recommendations for change, which can be found here. My evidence is based on over 20 years of football playing experience consolidated by my academic research and publications (see Pielichaty, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022, 2023).
Like in sport, the importance of teamwork should not be overlooked, and I was delighted to be submitting oral evidence as part of an academic panel. I joined Dr Beth Clarkson (University of Portsmouth), Dr Rafaelle Nicholson (Bournemouth University) and Professor Stacey Pope (Durham University) on the panel. Each member had differing and complementary academic expertise covering sports governance, coaching, sports fandom, intersectionality, social justice, and culture. We waited on green leather benches that lined the external wall to Committee Room 6 located along ‘Committee Corridor’ within the Palace of Westminster. The carpet was rich in colour and resembled a Celtic design with interwoven circles that repeated along the length of the pattern. (As an aside, carpets were debated by parliament in both 1962 and 1988 with regard to costs and static electricity respectively). I mention the carpet because I vividly remember focusing on it whilst trying to compose myself and collate my thoughts as we waited to be called though.
Being an academic prepares you for many experiences in life. For example, how to manage public speaking, to see beyond what is presented to you, and to be resilient and think critically. This experience, however, was new to me and as I walked across the room to the chair holding my name, I mentally prepared for this newness.
The evidence session was held on the 12th September and Chaired by Dame Caroline Dinenage. It started at 10.01am and ended at 11.21am and can be watched back through parliament live.
The meeting focused on the terms of reference as outlined earlier but also included school sport, media coverage and governance. The main points I raised dealt directly with the inextricable link between society and sport. Ultimately, if we do not address wider issues of social injustice, discrimination, misogyny and abuse they will not disappear from sport. Sport reflects society and society is reflected in sport. You cannot change one without challenging the other.
Challenging deep-seated socio-cultural imbalances
I called for a formalised network of advocates and allies to address issues of gender inequality and inequity across sport. It is also important to note that this should not be understood as women’s sport versus men’s sport debate but rather in the context of an inclusive society. Making sport a place for all to enjoy moves beyond a simplistic view of gender wars. The complexity of these issues requires a complex response. It is not merely about giving greater funding and resources to sport for girls and women (although that is certainly needed), but rather seeking to challenge deep-seated socio-cultural imbalances that impact on all aspects of life. Increases in participation rates, audience numbers and sponsorship revenues highlight positive advancements, but they are not necessarily indicative of wider societal change.
Speaking in front of the Committee gave me a platform, but I also acknowledge my privileged position permitted me a seat at that table. As an academic it is incredibly important to utilise research, knowledge and expertise to make a positive difference to the world around us. By attending Westminster today I felt I was able to action my research and be a voice for those who are not always heard or listened to.