Sport is not much good at keeping pace with social and cultural change. But sometimes it can help make change happen, casting unexpected light on attitudes that are kept hidden in other arenas. Take domestic violence and rape in the world of football – both kinds on both sides of the Atlantic – where sport has been a catalyst to changes of attitude. This week it may be the turn of tennis to do likewise.

When Ray Moore – now the former chief executive of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, home of the eponymous tournament – said the ladies should get down on their knees to give thanks for the brilliance of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal because otherwise no one would pay any attention to female tennis players at all, he was talking the kind of gibberish usually heard from people who haven’t thought about the subject at all. Novak Djokovic – who ought to be a little more sensitive to the issues – underlined the ignorance by pitching in with some dim ideas about hormones and the failure of women to play five sets and, according to him, to appeal to viewers.

In the past couple of days, these eccentric sporting ramblings have gained a wider significance as two separate reports confirm, again, the depth and stubbornness of discrimination against women at work. First, MPs on the UK’s House of Commons women and equalities committee reported that the gender pay gap is still stuck at just below 20%, and is significantly worse for older women and, in particular, older women working part time. They blame the motherhood gap, with its impact on women’s earning potential of taking time off to care for families and – having criticised the government for failing to develop a strategy to ensure women do not repeat the pattern created by their mothers – they recommend better rights to flexible working and non-transferable parental leave for fathers and “second parents”.

That’s good; but not good enough. Hours after the MPs’ report, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published government-backed research showing that three-quarters of pregnant women and new mothers report harassment, which is getting worse, not better. That gives the lie to hopes that caring’s value will slowly become better appreciated. Clearly, stronger rights to ask for flexible hours will not be enough to deliver the revolution in attitudes that is needed.

That’s where the tennis Neanderthals might have a part to play. When Mr Moore and Mr Djokovic say women are different, what they really mean is inferior. They mean, say, that most top male players could easily defeat most top female ones. But, firstly, many tennis fans claim a good women’s match is better viewing than the kind of power shootout that men’s tennis sometimes becomes. That may be why, as Serena Williams pointed out, the US women’s final sold out before the men’s last year. And, secondly, women are willing to play five sets. It is TV that wants to keep sports events short. Another criticism of women, that their results are uneven, might be negated if they were allowed to play five sets, as longer matches tend to favour the stronger player.

The important point is that, as long as different is seen as synonymous with inferior, the idea that treating women equally isn’t fair to men is legitimised. See difference as the source of strength it is, however, and discrimination stops being just morally wrong, and becomes practically indefensible too.



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