Gender Inequality: The Ugly Truth About Female Sponsorships

Too often exploitation is the price women pay for sponsorship.

The CrossFit Journal recently published a piece about female athletes entitled “Frailty, Thy Name Is Woman?The article challenged the idea that women are the weaker sex. In the article, Elisabeth Akinwale said:

The CrossFit Journal recently published a piece about female athletes entitled “Frailty, Thy Name Is Woman?The article challenged the idea that women are the weaker sex. In the article, Elisabeth Akinwale said:

I share sponsors with some women who have never done anything athletically. They train … and they post a lot of videos of their cleavage and stuff, and the camera angle going up toward their butt, but they are not successful athletes…

[S]o, while I understand it, it’s sort of frustrating. … Are there any men (in CrossFit) who are sponsored who are just basically hot? I can’t think of any.

It may read as if Akinwale is taking potshots at women, but her criticisms are directed more at the gender inequality of sponsorship and less at other females. The general sentiment, especially clear in the last sentence, is that men don’t have to be hot to get sponsored, they just need to be tremendous athletes. Women, on the other hand, can and do get sponsorships based more on their looks than athletic ability.

That “sex sells” is nothing new. What is concerning is that so many women in the CrossFit world have seemingly bought into that idea, opting for exploitation of their sexuality over athletic performance in order to garner likes, followers, and hits. And to Akinwale’s point, those who don’t chose this path sometimes pay the economic price.

A Real-Life Example

For example, in 2011 Reebok produced its first shoe commercial featuring CrossFit athletes. The winners of the 2010 CrossFit Games were Graham Holmberg and Kris Clever. When the commercial was produced, Reebok featured Holmberg and…Becca Voigt.

Why was 2010 champion Kris Clever passed up for a national commercial? I’ll tell you why. Because sex sells, and Reebok felt that Voigt, as a tall and attractive female, would move more units. I wonder sometimes how that impacted Clever. Perennial Games competitor, 2010 champion, GRID athlete for the LA Reign. A clever person who, from my best estimation, has few sponsors for someone as athletically talented as she is.

Kris Clever at the 2012 CrossFit Games.

A Complex Issue

Over the next three weeks, I’ll take a look at the following issues one at a time:

  • Gender inequality in sponsorships and opportunities – Akinwale’s critique. (Week 1)
  • The sex-sells trap in CrossFit. (Week 2)
  • The larger, more complicated issue of sexualization of women in sports and its pitfalls. (Week 3)

Gender Inequality

Akinwale’s point was that men are awarded sponsorship contracts on the basis of athletic talent, not looks. The criteria for sponsored female athletes is more nebulous, and includes athletic ability, looks, and sex appeal. Akinwale is 100 percent correct, and the Holmberg/Clever commercial is clear evidence. By all accounts, Holmberg and Clever’s “athletic achievement” was equal in 2010, yet Holmberg was chosen for the national spot and Clever was not. It all boils down to this question: how many units can be moved?

“Female athletes have to play two games: one, their chosen sport, and two, the game of attraction.”

Akinwale goes on to comment in the Facebook thread: “Female athletes’ economic outcomes are more impacted by physical appearance and mainstream beauty standards than men’s. Period.” Again, this is indisputable. Let’s restate her comment with men out of the equation: “Female athletes’ economic outcomes are impacted by physical appearance and mainstream beauty standards.” Female athletes have to play two games: one, their chosen sport, and two, the game of attraction. Attractiveness, sexuality, and the willingness to use those qualities as marketing all figure into the equation of economic reward for female athletes.

It’s Not Just CrossFit

Don’t believe me? Check out what swimmer Ana Rodrigues said in her 2013 article, “Female Athletes Still Face Inequality”:

In some ways, good looks have led many female athletes to come into the spotlight, seemingly making appearances more important than skills. The women that are willing to show a little skin are the ones that are most recognizable and even though they may have the athletic skills, they only gain popularity after their exposure (literally).

Or consider Olympic snowboarder Hannah Teter. She enjoyed modest fame on the basis of her gold medal, but that recognition was nothing like the popularity she received after posing for Sport’s Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Look up racing driver Danica Patrick or tennis player Anna Kournikova. Or read up on Olympic gold medal hurdler Sally Pearson, who has 32.6k Instagram followers. Christmas Abbott, by all accounts a marginal athlete in the CrossFit realm, has 290k followers. The list goes on and on – average athletes who became the sport’s most popular female athletes on the basis of their appearance.

I will give you one guess as to why, much of which will be explored in Part II. There is even a documentary, Branded, about this very thing:

Women: It’s Up to You

Let’s revisit the subheading of the original article in which Akinwale was quoted:

In CrossFit gyms around the world, women deconstruct the longstanding myth of “the weaker sex” and continue the march toward true equality.

But women in the sport are not marching in step. If a CrossFit athlete knowingly uses sex over athleticism to brand and market themselves, she does not continue the “march toward true equality.” As the article states:

Cultural changes are needed as well. True equality has not yet arrived when the conversation surrounding the best female tennis players in the world is about their appearance.

Where will those changes come from? The sponsors? No. They only care about revenue. The sport itself? Laughable. CrossFit, Inc. thrives on its misogynistic portrayal of women. No, the change will come from women. The “march toward true equality” begins with the marcher. At least Elisabeth Akinwale can honestly say she’s on the march.

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Photo courtesy of CrossFit, Inc.

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