MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Professional athletes in all sports have been impacted by the global shutdown caused by COVID-19 but women may end up the biggest losers due to ingrained bias and discrimination, Australia's Winter Olympic trailblazer Zali Steggall has said.
Women have enjoyed some hard-won gains in elite sports in recent years, with pro leagues starting up in a number of countries and growing support for their fight for pay parity.
But Steggall, a former world champion skier who won Australia's first individual Winter Olympic medal at the 1998 Nagano Games, fears those gains could be eroded as cash-strapped federations cut costs to protect men's competitions.
She pointed to the fact that even in Australia, which is often held up as a world leader in investing in women's sport, discussions about restarting competitions have focused almost exclusively on the male domain.
"It is very concerning. It comes from that kind of unconscious bias that men are supposed to be the provider or the main breadwinner of the household versus the females," the 46-year-old told Reuters in an interview.
"So all attempts are made to ensure that (men) are able to continue in their profession and get back to work.
"We see that from our sports ... that there’s less concern about female professionals being able to get back to their livelihoods."
Cuts to women's sport have already been felt around the world.
Colombian soccer club Independiente Santa Fe sparked an outcry last month when they said they would suspend their female players' contracts but give only pay-cuts to the men.
Australia's National Rugby League (NRL) has lobbied hard to restart the suspended men's top-flight later this month, even as the clubs ponder whether they have the money to maintain a presence in the women's elite NRLW competition.
The Auckland-based Warriors, the only New Zealand club in the NRL, said their women's team might not survive budget cuts.
Warriors Chief Executive Cameron George said last week that their women's programme was an "additional spend".
"The women’s game has grown significantly in the New Zealand rugby league landscape over the last couple of years and we’ve invested heavily in it," he said.
"We take that very seriously but it’s also an additional spend that we’re going to have to reconsider."
New Zealand's rugby union federation confirmed on Monday that it would start a domestic competition for the country's five men's Super Rugby teams from next month but has yet to confirm any 2020 fixtures for the women's game.
Rugby Australia, which is battling to stave off a financial crisis, is also planning a domestic competition for its Super Rugby teams in July, while conducting a review of its women's high performance programmes.
RA's Head of Women's Rugby Jilly Collins said the federation was committed to maintaining the women's professional game.
"There will also be a financial element of that to look at where we can save money where possible or look at how we might do things in a slightly different way," Collins told Reuters.
"But certainly our board remains committed and supportive of the women’s game and have expressed that commitment."
The global shutdown has thrown the spotlight on sports' financial management and revealed the parlous state of reserves at a number of federations where boards and senior management positions are dominated by men.
The funding squeeze has fanned fears of budget cuts for community and grass-roots programs which promote women's sport and provide access for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"I’ve found it very concerning to understand that all these professional codes (sports) have very little backup plan for a rainy day," said Steggall, a sports lawyer and federal member of parliament.
"Granted these are exceptional circumstances, and it’s hard to say they should have foreseen (COVID-19) coming.
"But it is concerning to think that operationally, they were managing so close to the bone."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)