Women make up 40% of all participants in sports, but only receive 4% of media coverage.
While that number is slowly growing thanks to outlets like Just Women’s Sports, Togethxr and HighlightHER coupled with increased investment from major brands like Google, Budweiser and Dick’s Sporting Goods in players, teams and leagues especially the WNBA and NWSL, there also remains a major gender gap in performance research.
Only 6% of athletic performance research focuses on women, researcher Kelly Lee McNulty told the BBC in May. Out of 1,826 studies on performance supplements totalling 34,889 participants, just 23% of those participants were women, while 34% of studies included at least one woman, according to an audit published by the National Library of Medicine.
“Obviously men and women are very different creatures and a lot of different things happen in our bodies, so being able to really hone in on that for performance—and obviously everyday life is crucial as well—and to support women with that data is super important,” 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens said before the Her Health Advantage panel in New York City.
Stephens, who defeated Greet Minnen of Belgium 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the first round of this year’s tournament on August 30 and faces top-ranked Iga Swiatek in the second round today, is the latest in a series of high-profile female athletes speaking up for more gender equality in research.
British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith spoke out about the need for more funding into female-focused performance research after pulling up with a cramp during her defense in the 100 meter sprint at the European Championships on August 19 in Munich.
“I feel like if it was a men’s issue there would be a million different ways to combat things,” Asher-Smith told BBC Sport. “But with women there just needs to be more funding in that area.”
Fellow British sprinter Eilish McColgan echoed Asher-Smith’s sentiments in a column she penned for the BBC titled Why is menstruation still a taboo subject? where she revealed being on her period caused her to drop out of races and that she tore her hamstring because she trained too hard during a certain phase of her menstrual cycle.
Lydia Ko, No. 4 in the women’s world golf rankings, was praised for talking about her period following the final round of the Palos Verdes Championship in May which left a reporter surprised by her honesty. In November, Swiatek, 21, spoke about the impact of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) following her loss in the 2021 WTA Finals.
Thankfully for Stephens, Asher-Smith, McColgan and every female athlete, their calls for more funding and research aren’t going unanswered. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) announced on August 25 that it is launching a new study into how athletes are affected by the different stages of their menstrual cycle. Focusing on 26 participants, the study will monitor various aspects of their health and performance while tracking their menstrual cycles.
Wearable technology company Whoop is also responding to those calls by partnering with West Virginia University, Shape and Florida State University for a variety of studies geared towards female users and athletes around pregnancy and exercise. The company, which raised $200 million at a $3.6 billion valuation in August 2021, also introduced its Menstrual Cycle Coaching to help wearers track ovulation, trying to conceive, pregnancy, perimenopause and postmenopause.
“Obviously all the things they’re doing by having this data and these studies, we’ve never really had those before,” says Stephens, who in December became the first WTA pro to partner with Whoop. “There’s been period tracker apps and things like that but not necessarily a crossover into performance, so I think for female athletes to look at things on the days you’re having your period—if you’re overtraining, undertraining, not getting enough sleep—all those things matter if you’re playing a tournament and you’re on your period.”
Stephens praises Serena
Serena Williams shocked the sports world when she announced on August 9 she was “evolving away from tennis.”
While the 23-time Grand Slam champion never confirmed this year’s U.S. Open would be her swan song, many believe it would be the site the 40-year-old takes her final twirl.
While Stephens and Williams have had a complicated relationship on and off the court, Stephens, who is 1-6 all-time against Williams, had plenty of praise for the game-changing star.
“To me and I think in a lot of people’s eyes, she’s the greatest player to ever play tennis, which I strongly believe,” Stephens says. “All the girls I play with, we’re just happy to be able to play at the same time as her. A lot of players have never gotten to play against her let alone be in the same locker room as her.
“I think she’s done so much for the game, for women’s sports, for women’s tennis just in general, so obviously she’ll be missed. I think she’s done what nobody will ever do ever again.”