WE'RE GOOD SPORTS TOO; Women Step Up P Their Game in a Man's World: LACK of Time and Confidence and Poor Financial Support and Media Coverage All Conspire to Leave Women Standing on the Sidelines of sport.Kicking off a Week of Features to Mark International Women's Day, MARY GRIFFIN Asks: Is Sport Still Sexist?

Article excerpt

Byline: MARY GRIFFIN

'S OMEBODY better get down there and explain offside to her,' sniped Richard Keys, beginning what would turn into a media storm.

Derogatory comments from Sky Sports presenters Keys and Andy Gray threw the role of sportswomen into the spotlight as the abilities of assistant referee Sian Massey, from Tile Hill, came into question.

Sian, a teacher at Foxford School, had her skills as an official questioned, not because of a contentious decision - the match hadn't even started - but because of her gender.

What followed was a nationwide debate over the difference between "a bit of banter" and blatant sexism.

Before the Sky Sports saga a female assistant referee would be lucky to get any column inches, never mind pages and pages in national and local press across the country.

And the FA reported a flood of calls the next day from women wanting to know how to qualify as a referee.

Over the last few months the Coventry Telegraph has featured a series of women rising up the ranks in male-dominated sports, including the Coventry Jets' Jen Hilton, the first woman to play against men in the British American Football League, and Nuneaton's Annie Zaidi, the first Asian woman in the city to pass her FA level two coaching badges.

One such success story comes from 18-year-old Kiaya Bass, who has become the country's youngest referee in taekwondo.

Kiaya, of Radford, reckons the sporting divide starts at school, where many girls find PE to be a negative experience and are held back from trying different sports.

She said: "In schools, girls play netball, boys play football and rugby.

That's just the way it goes.

"So you're not really open to sports from a young age and by the time people get to 18 they feel they are too old to start something new.

"I really think if people were given the opportunity to do more they would take that opportunity."

According to a survey by the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation in the West Midlands only 11 per cent of women take part in sport on a regular basis, compared to 20 per cent of men.

Factors holding women back include financial constraints (with women in households earning more than pounds 52,000 three times more likely to be active than women in households earning less than pounds 15,600) and the demands of motherhood (with women aged 25-34 with children at home half as likely to take part in regular sport than women of the same age without children).

And women's sport amounts to five per cent of total sports coverage in Britain, leading women's sporting champions to claim that young girls will have no incentive to take up the challenge if they don't see women's sporting successes being lauded.

Most sportsdesks in newsrooms up and down the country are not only run by men but staffed by men - and they are catering for a male audience.

The fact that in the British press the most high profile women in sport are WAGs emphasises the message being fed to young women that being sporty is not a feminine aspiration.

Kiaya, who does cheerleading as well as taekwondo, believes she is treated differently depending on the sport.

She said: "If I'm going to a competition in my cheerleading kit there will be horns beeping and all the rest of it.

"But if I'm in my taekwondo kit there's more respect.

"People see cheerleaders as "blonde" and dumb. People see taekwondo as tough and hard."

And she thinks women have to deal with a level of competition from their male counterparts which can put many off - but spur others on.

"I think that when a man sees a woman pass them at something like taekwondo they take it more personally, especially in mixed sessions when a girl is fighting a boy. …