Sportswomen of the Year 2011: Women, not tokens

As we announced earlier in the week, after the BBC announced a female-free shortlist for Sports Personality of the Year, throughout December we will be running a series of features and guest blogs celebrating the achievements of sportswomen from the UK.

This guest blog is by Lorrie Hearts.

Recently, discussions on the number of men-only policy debates has led to a number of high-profile women stating that they are no longer willing to attend conferences and talks that feature male-only panels. While the move has led to applause among certain groups, there have been inevitable cries of ‘tokenism’ from many (mostly white and male-dominated) corners of the blogosphere.


And this week, as the BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2011 line-up is announced, sportswomen and men all over the country have expressed their dismay to find that not one single sportswoman has made the final ten. And, once again, there is debate about tokenism.

While this is a sadly predictable from the mostly white, male blogosophere (The Telegraph’s Ed West recently described the lack of women on policy debate line-ups as “[the] world’s officially least pressing problem”), it’s disheartening to hear women giving credence to the idea of tokenism when faced with such blatant sexism.

In response to the BBC Sports Personality’s apparent inability to recognise any award-worthy British sportswomen – or indeed any problem with the lack of female faces in their final list – Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson commented, “I wouldn’t want tokenism and I wouldn’t want a woman to be on the list just because she was a woman.

“But I think you just look at where the nominations have come from and that highlights another problem really – only two per cent of media coverage in sport goes to women. Women just aren’t on the minds, whether it’s editors or in some case producers, it’s just not there…you’re fighting against the system all the time where it’s the big sports all the time that get the recognition.”

Champion swimmer Keri-Anne Payne also commented on Twitter: “Thanks for all your lovely tweets. It is a shame there are no women on the #SPOTY list but good luck to the boys though! We don’t need awards just the support from the Great British public! So keep it coming.”

And, in this video, BBC Sports Personality of the Year presenter Jake Humphrey talks to BBC Breakfast’s Chris Hollins about the dearth of women in this year’s line-up. Even before he’s addressed the issue, he’s called for the situation “not to overshadow the achievements of these guys…” as though it’s the fuss, rather than the complete exclusion of women from the competition, that’s the problem. The recognition of these already well recognised sportsmen is so clearly a priority to him that he feels the need to give them a nod before moving on to the huge number of talented sportswomen – and massively dismayed sports fans – who’ve been shunted to one side.

The pattern is clear – and it’s disheartening. Women and men have a right to be angry about the lack of women in these line-ups. Women make up over 50% of the population of Britain and yet not one woman has made the BBC Sports Personality line-up. You don’t need to be a statistician to see a problem there. And yet, when complaints are made about this, there’s always a caveat about how we women don’t want to see ‘tokenism’. And usually, that caveat comes first.

And, while Payne’s “we don’t care and good luck to the boys!” take on the situation is clearly meant in the best way, it falls into a dangerous trap. Women seem to be frightened of appearing angry, bitter, unsporting – whatever you want to call it, for some reason, we don’t want to complain.

Right now, it seems like ‘tokenism’ is the buzz word – a new way to gas-light women and minorities who are consistently being pushed to one side so that the privileged groups can carry on enjoying their party. We seem to want to acknowledge that, “Yes, tokenism is bad”, when, in fact, the whole concept is just a huge derailing tactic.

Women are not tokens. We are not homogeneous, interchangeable items that need to be placed on short-lists and policy debate line-ups to fill spaces. We make up over half of the population of Britain and we are being systematically excluded from public spaces. And yet, when it comes to voicing our concerns and rightful anger at this, we are still falling into the same old traps. To even acknowledge the idea of tokenism in this case is to do our sisters a huge disservice.

Including women on these line-ups is not, and never will be tokenism. Show me an all-woman line-up and then tell me that there just weren’t any worthy sportsmen this year. The fact that none of our wonderful UK sportswomen weren’t recognised as worthy is the problem. Things don’t seem to be getting better and I, for one, am angry.