From the Locker Room to the Courts of Wimbledon: The Path to Gender Equality

by Latifa Lyles on July 15, 2013 · 0 comments

We know about her four Olympic gold medals. We know about her five Wimbledon championships. And we know about her similarly notable sister Serena. But what many people don’t know about Venus Williams is that she changed professional tennis forever.

Starting in 2005, the tennis player began challenging the age-old practice of paying women tennis players less money than men at Wimbledon, the oldest tennis tournament in the world. ESPN’s new documentary “Venus Vs.” captures Williams’ battle to convince Wimbledon officials that women deserved financial parity with their male counterparts.

“It was time for them to treat women equally and to pay equal prize money,” Williams said.

It was a fight she ultimately won two years later.

Towel

Locker rooms have played a surprising role on the path to gender equality for America’s female sports reporters. As a nation, we have made major strides toward equality, thanks to important contributions from advocates in many fields.

I recently had the opportunity to introduce both “Venus Vs.” and another documentary, “Let Them Wear Towels,” at their Washington, D.C., premiere hosted by the Center for American Progress. As I explained to a packed audience, sports play a major role in our social and cultural fabric. As a junior and high school athlete, having my family – parents, uncles and brothers – rooting for me from the bleachers provided an experience and feeling of support that has been unmatched in my life.

“Let Them Wear Towels” tells the stories of women sports journalists who broke into the “boys club” of the professional sports locker rooms in the 1960s and 70s. Today, in the fields of news analysis, reporting and corresponding, women are approaching parity with men. In 2012, women constituted 45.7 percent of those employed in these occupations. Nevertheless, they still face challenges.

Both “Venus Vs.” and “Let Them Wear Towels “are part of ESPN’s “Nine for IX” film series that features nine documentaries by nine female directors commemorating the anniversary of Title IX, part of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

Title IX paved the way for women athletes like Williams and changed athletics and professional sports forever. It required that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Those 37 words have ensured a level playing field for millions of women and girls in athletics. And one statistic proves that point: The number of girls who competed in high school sports nationwide increased to 3.2 million in 2010-2011 from 295,000 in 1972 when Title IX was signed into law.

Title IX hasn’t just provided athletic opportunities; it fosters aspirations and a new kind of childhood to many girls like my daughter, who is part of a group of unbelievably small toddler soccer players. Because of Title IX, my daughter and other young girls will never have to limit their dreams.

While it’s most widely known for its impact on women and girls in sports, Title IX has been a game changer for millions, by preventing discrimination and increasing women’s access to educational opportunities that have dramatically increased their ability to compete in the labor force, excel in new career fields and prepare for the jobs of tomorrow.

As President Obama said in his 2012 op-ed on the impact of Title IX, “The women who grew up with Title IX now pioneer scientific breakthroughs, run thriving businesses, govern states, and, yes, coach varsity teams. Because they do, today’s young women grow up hearing fewer voices that tell them ‘You can’t,’ and more voices that tell them ‘You can.’”

As we look at the journey of those who helped us get to where we are today, let’s celebrate how far we’ve come and remember that we must continue to fulfill the pledge of Title IX by supporting equal access for women and girls.

Latifa Lyles is acting director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau.

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