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WNBA and gender equality

2015 has been a phenomenal year for female athletes. From Serena Williams' dominance in tennis, to the USA Women's Soccer team Winning the World Cup, they have highlighted the excellence of the female athlete. And with the growth of the WNBA, the league is playing a vital part in bridging the gap of gender equality.

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WNBA President Laurel Richie
WNBA President Laurel Richie
Photo by Chris Poss

The Women's National Basketball Association hosts its annual All-Star game today. Two dozen of the greatest athletes to ever play the sport, including multiple Olympic medalists, will compete against each other in front of a sellout crowd in Connecticut.

It is one of the highlights of the year for the organization that possesses the toughest competition of any professional league in the world. Unfortunately the game and the WNBA, just like every major women's sports endeavor in history, has been largely ignored by mainstream culture. The question is why?

From the perspective of international basketball superstar and United Nations Women's advocate Lauren Jackson, the reason for the lack of acceptance is a systemic issue.

"It's ingrained in us to think that women's sport isn't as good as men's sport," Jackson said earlier this year in an interview with journalist Zoya Patel. "(T)here needs to be a push for equality for future generations coming through, and more of a focus on promoting women's sport."

Jackson, along with countless others, call for greater exposure for women's sports is finally beginning to be answered by the mainstream media. From Ronda Rousey's incredible 14 second knockout of Cat Zingano, to Serena Williams' utter domination of her competition, to the USA women's soccer team claiming their first world cup in 16 years in front of a record-breaking television audience, 2015 has been a breakthrough year for women's sports.

Never before has so much attention been given to so many female athletes from such a wide range of sports for such a prolonged period of time. At the forefront of this cultural shift is the WNBA itself.

"I think society is getting more comfortable with the notion of a female athlete," stated WNBA commissioner Laurel Richie. "Recognizing them as different (from male athletes) but not less than."

Richie's observation is reflected in the increased popularity of the WNBA. Currently in its 19th season, the league has seen a 4.4% increase in attendance compared to 2014, marking the third year in a row that ticket sales have increased. The 2014 WNBA finals had a 91% rise in TV ratings compared to the previous year, and the league's regular season games boast higher television ratings than those of Major League Soccer in the US.

"You just see women's sports becoming more mainstream," said Richie. "Not just because they're women, (but) because they're incredible athletes having an incredible impact on their sport, their team and (their) country."

That impact is becoming more and more visible with each passing day. Whether it be from the championing of Special Olympics programs by Chicago Sky superstar Elena Delle-Donne, the efforts of New York Liberty star Tina Charles to provide defibrillators to every gym in the country, or the increased cultural visibility Shoni Schimmel has created for the Native American population, the inspiration that the players generate extends well beyond the basketball court.

Even with all of these positive signs, however, there is still a long way to go to get women's sports on the same populist level as their male counterparts.

One of the greatest reasons for this disparity is the preconceived notions of what roles women and men are supposed to have within a society and how they should present themselves to the world at large.

"It starts really young," said United Nations women's goodwill ambassador Emma Watson in an interview conducted on international women's day. "With boys and girls being told what they have to be, and it can be really damaging."

Watson, who is the voice and face of the UN's He For She gender equality initiative, was spurred into action as a result of her own experiences, that included seeing her female friends quit playing sports in order avoid becoming ‘muscly', and in the process, less like the accepted ideal of how a woman should look.

"For some reason women are still in a place where we feel like we need to be given permission to be our full selves. To use our full voice, to lead." Watson stated. "That has to change with encouragement and role models. (We) have to change that mindset."

The first sign that change is beginning to happen was the hiring of Becky Hammon by the NBA's San Antonio Spurs as the first full-time female assistant coach in the history of major men's professional sports. Even though her hiring was an enormous and positive step forward, the initial reaction to it highlighted the fact that many still view women as inferior based solely on their gender.

Despite having a resume that included being named one of the WNBA's 15 greatest players of all time, playing in the Olympic games and spending an entire season interning with the Spurs coaching staff before being given the job, many NBA fans didn't take the hire of Hammon seriously.

"I think some people thought this was some kind of gimmick, or we were just trying to be cool," Spurs head coach Greg Popovich said during an interview with sports radio host Tom Tolbert. "I don't even look at it as, well; she's the first female this and that and the other.

She's a coach, and she's good at it. She's a leader, she's fiery, she's got intelligence, and our guys just respected the heck out of her. That's why we made her a full-time coach and gave her the opportunity to coach at summer league."

For the 2015 NBA summer league, Hammon was named head coach, another first for a woman in men's pro sports. The opportunity let Hammon put her knowledge and coaching ability on full display as she led the Spurs to their first ever summer league championship.

"They listened, and they played really hard for me," Hammon said of how the players responded to her. "I'm just really (appreciative of) their attentiveness and alertness and their desire to win."

When USA Today asked Hammon what she wanted out of her coaching career, she responded in the way one would expect:

"I want to be a head coach somewhere. At what level? I don't know, whether it's college or professional. Maybe it's in the WNBA; maybe it's in the NBA... Hopefully (women coaching men) becomes where it's not a story at all, where it's just commonplace."

Even with the ever-increasing positive impact the WNBA is already having on gender equality, it doesn't stop looking for new ways to further the cause.

In an effort to bring even greater attention, the WNBA and NBA partnered with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's and its social media campaign to create a television and web-based initiative focused on gender parity.

The partnership has created several television spots, that highlight the support that NBA and WNBA superstars including Delle-Donne, Lebron James, and their families have for the cause of treating both genders as equal.

Meanwhile, the United Nations "He For She" social media campaign has gained the outspoken support from global leaders including Desmond Tutu, Prince Harry and President Barack Obama, who is also a fan and champion of the WNBA and women's sports in general.

With the cause of gender equality becoming more and more mainstream, and so many new eyes turning towards women's sports, it seems all but inevitable that leagues like the WNBA will help lead society towards a more equal and equitable future in which women's and men's sports are both accepted and embraced on a large scale.

"I feel it is building. (The) interest and support for women's sports," said Laurel Richie. "I'm not even sure it's really a conscious thing. I think it's just becoming more of the fabric (of society). And then it becomes part of the norm. And it's really exciting to be on that journey."

The journey, while it is still only just beginning, is gaining speed at a rapid rate, and one thing is certain, it is already an exciting voyage to be on.