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In the depths of a Scottish winter last year, a group of female journalists – myself included – huddled in front of our laptops to discuss our annual mentorship program for promising female talent.

To remedy the fact that so few sportswriters applied before, we decided to reserve five places for them. But we ran into a problem: it was impossible to find enough journalists to fill the slots.

Our organisation, Women in Journalism Scotland (WiJS), which campaigns for equality in the sector, spent the following months investigating what we believed to be a diversity issue. We found that only three of the 95 editors in print Scottish sports media were women.

Then we found ourselves preoccupied with two questions: what barriers did female journalists face in the industry and what could we do to address them?

The answer was to work with two female research students in gender studies at the University of Strathclyde, who interviewed the few female journalists who work in sports print media, both freelance and on staff. It is important to differentiate print from broadcast, where the representation of female journalists covering sport is much better.

The same week as the publication of their report, the Scottish Football Writers’ Association held their annual awards. This year it celebrated the achievements of women in sport for the first time, yet I was one of the few guests to come out to protest the sexist comments of after-dinner speaker Bill Copeland. A tweet I posted out of solidarity with broadcaster Eilidh Barbour, who also came out, caught the eye of the press.

Sports journalism is less sexist than it used to be – but there’s still a long way to go |  Football
Rangers Women parade the SWPL Trophy on the day of the Football Writers Dinner. The rise of women’s sport has opened up opportunities. Photo: Kirk O’Rourke/Rangers FC/Shutterstock

By serendipity, two impressive young female masters students in the university’s Applied Gender Studies course, Hannah Nichol and Rowan Clark, were waiting to present their research that evening after dinner. Copeland’s speech serves as a concrete example of their conclusions – and proves that we still have a long way to go before gender discrimination is eradicated.

Female journalists interviewed said they suffered vile misogynistic abuse from football fans and were paid less than their male counterparts (UK government data puts the gender pay gap in newspapers at between 5 and 21 %). They faced sexist remarks in newsrooms and felt overlooked for promotion.

However, there was also good news. One participant said the sector has “come a long way” over the past few decades. Several female journalists said they believed their gender created opportunities, such as the men interviewed opening up to them. The rise of women’s sport has also opened doors; male sportswriters reportedly reacted positively to suggestions that women’s tournaments should be covered by female writers.

At the Football Writers Dinner, I saw the transformative effect of such allies in action. When I got up and left the room, a number of male reporters at my table followed me in solidarity. It’s hard to say how uplifting it was to have them by my side. In the days that followed, I commented on a dozen reporters – mostly men – covering the story; all expressed their disappointment and disgust.

I choose to focus on those positive experiences rather than looking at men’s replies to my tweet, who say I can’t take a joke, haven’t really dated, there’s no sexist joking or that people will not believe me because I did not name the speaker or describe the exact wording of what he said.

That’s why I didn’t. Because it’s not about semantics or canceling the person on stage. It’s about being honest about the culture that allowed him to be invited on stage in the first place, as uncomfortable as that truth may be. Our research suggests that this culture has made progress in recent years. But something has gone wrong lately, as Sunday night’s dinner proved.

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Above all, it is about using this event as a catalyst for change – change that is happening right now. Here is the proof. A few days ago an email fell into the WiJS inbox. It was about a male rugby journalist who volunteered his time in the form of work experience, which was one of the recommendations made in the report to help more female journalists print sports desks . Then came another offer, then another. A male sportswriter texted asking what he could do.

This kind of united approach is the only way forward. The last thing we want or need is a gender split in Scottish journalism. Gestures of support are crucial if we are to prevent future generations of women from being excluded from sports print media. I think the ice is already starting to melt.

Gabriella Bennett is a freelance journalist and co-chair of Women in Journalism Scotland

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