23 May 2024

Professional sports have long been a male-dominated arena. Both regionally and globally, this prevailing domination of the playing field by men disadvantages women and girls from media to participation. A European Union study of five countries found the percentage of media coverage for women’s professional sports was, at best, 14 percent, and, at worst, as low as 2 percent.

Regarding the world’s children, in some countries before the COVID-19 pandemic, 90 percent of girls were insufficiently physically active, with rates recently worsening. Gender inequality in sports – whether at school or at the professional level – is indeed deeply rooted. This inequality is a symptom of a broader social condition where women’s pursuits are undervalued across many currently male-dominated fields.

But Thailand is bucking the trend impressively. For starters, Thailand has a rich history of producing world-class athletes, and recently, Thai women in sports have been dominating both regional and global headlines. In 2017, Atthaya Thitikul had the distinction, at the age of 14, to become the youngest-ever winner of a professional golf tournament at the Ladies European Thailand Championship. Then there was Panipak Wongpattanakit, who won Thailand’s only gold medal in taekwondo at the last Summer Olympics (Tokyo 2020) – a first for Thailand. And only weeks ago, Nutcharut (Mink) Wongharuthai became the first Thai woman to be ranked number one in the world in women’s snooker.

Thai player wins World Women’s Snooker Championship

In a world where sports remain dominated by men, such achievements can shift the gender equality needle by updating society’s understanding of women’s important role in sport.

Indeed, women’s success in sports can enhance society’s understanding of the potential of women’s larger participation in any traditionally male-dominated field. Fostering and highlighting women’s achievements in sports is a win-win for everybody – both at home and on a world stage.

When women professional athletes like Atthaya, Panipak, and Nutcharut achieve this level of success, they become role models of integrity and serve as an inspiration to girls and young women not only locally, but globally. The professional snooker tour, for example, is open to men and women alike. Due to participation barriers for women and girls globally, however, the professional tour remains male-dominated. Yet when Nutcharut takes her place on the professional circuit next season, she will inspire more women and girls globally to participate in the sport.

Nutcharut is only the most recent example of what heights are possible to achieve when girls and women are encouraged to excel at professional sports. This year on International Women’s Day (8 March), it is important for Thailand to reflect on how more women and girls might be better supported to meet their full potential, just like Atthaya, Panipak, and Nutcharut, all currently making a splash on the global stage.

This is not just a moral imperative, but a practical one. Women’s sports have been growing in popularity around the world, such as in Europe recently with the rise of women’s soccer, and Thailand has the potential to be a major player in this global development. But if Thailand is to rise to the challenge, the country needs to continue to invest in women’s sports, as well as expand exponentially upon current efforts, at both the grassroots and professional levels.

In the most concrete terms, investing in women’s sports at the professional level can have a significant economic impact on a country. Just recently, the Board of Control for Cricket, in India, sold five teams for over $US570 million for the newly formed Women’s Premier League (WPL), a lucrative cricket competition that will serve as a counterpart to the Board’s Indian Premier League (IPL) competition. This is only one of many examples of burgeoning commercial interest in women’s professional sports globally. Thailand could tap into this growing market and reap economic benefits by investing in women’s professional sports – whether through government or private sources. This investment is arguably doubly important to consider at present, as Thailand recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and faces the possibility of an economic downturn in the near future.

Thai youth finishes 2nd in bobsleigh race in South Korea

While there is a national financial imperative to invest in women’s sports, there is also a societal need backed up by the United Nations (UN). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, the lead UN agency for sport and physical education, strongly believes in the role sport can play in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 SDGs provide a global framework for making the world a better place by 2030. Sport is crucial in achieving SDG 5, which sets out to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ by challenging gender stereotypes and gender-based discrimination while promoting the overall empowerment of women and girls everywhere.

The accomplishments of Atthaya, Panipak, and Nutcharut demonstrate what women’s sports can look like in Thailand when they are properly supported. Investing in women’s sports is not only important to develop star athletes, but to empower women and girls in general. By continuing to develop strong women athletes, Thailand can act as a global role model for achieving gender equality in sports and for shifting perceptions of what is possible for women to achieve in every sector of modern society.

By Kim Encel

Kim Encel, PhD, is an International Consultant for the Social and Human Sciences unit of UNESCO Bangkok, where he specializes in designing sustainable sport for development projects which address a variety of societal needs. Kim’s doctoral dissertation was completed at Deakin University (2020) and focuses on the establishment and evolution of a professional women’s football competition in Australia. Kim continues to lecture and research in sport management at Deakin University; follow him on Twitter @KimEncel.