Shailaja Jain has noticed a trend in kabaddi tournaments in India. In all her years as a coach, all the competitions she has been to where there is a men’s and women’s event, the trophies available for the first, second and third placed men’s teams are always bigger in size compared to the winners’ trophy presented for the women’s team.

At the district level or at the All-India stage, a few decades earlier and even today, there is this disparity in the silverware. And in prize money.

“If the men’s team gets, say, a Rs 1 lakh award, the women will get maybe Rs 75 thousand or less, all at the same tournament,” said Jain, who led the Iran women’s team to the Asian Games gold medal in 2018, to Scroll. “Just from this you can tell how much men get a better share of everything.”

The varied size of a trophy may be a cosmetic touch, it symbolises the thought-process prevalent in the sporting landscape in India.

The sports industry in the country is a grossly male-dominated field. With men occupying the key decision-making roles in most sports federations, women often find themselves at the shorter end of the stick – be it as athletes or administrators.

Jain’s observations are just one example from a sport that still remains deeply rooted in the hinterland. But in football, after the Indian Women’s League (the prime domestic competition for women in the country) final last year, the winning team was hurriedly ushered off the podium to make way for a men’s team to receive their trophy from a local competition.

The top women athletes in the country today command a great deal of respect that they have earned through their efforts and achievements. But in general, all sportswomen have to fight through odds their male counterparts do not face.

The Indian women’s hockey team, for many years, remained in the shadows of the well-supported men’s team. But once the women’s side trailblazed their way to a fourth-spot at the Tokyo Olympics, they were starting to be taken seriously. But not seriously enough.

In February, the Indian women’s hockey team coach Janneke Schopman talked about how difficult it is to be a woman in a leading sporting position in the country. She mentioned how her opinions were not valued by the federation and that she could see a “difference at how men’s coaches are treated, or the girls and the men’s team.”

Schopman resigned from her post shortly after, and a few days later, the Hockey India CEO Elena Norman put down her papers as well, citing a difficult working environment. With their departures, the already low number of women in leading positions in sports in India has depleted even further.

“That is something that will be a challenge to get over because the system is so engrained and averse to change,” said former India No 1 women’s singles tennis player Manisha Malhotra to this publication.

“I’m a believer that putting women there without credentials is not the answer. A quota system is not what anybody wants. But we need to groom more competent women who can then be in leadership positions.”

The dearth of women in leadership roles is apparent when you consider the national federations of the 18 different sports that made up the Indian contingent at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Of those 18 federations, today, only two – table tennis and rowing – have a woman as its president. One of those, Meghna Ahlawat, the head of the Table Tennis Federation of India, is the wife of deputy chief minister of Haryana Dushyant Chautala.

Chautala was the former head of the federation and was forced to stand down after star Indian player Manika Batra had taken the body to court for alleged mismanagement in 2022.

But regardless of how the positions were achieved, the credentials of a woman are viewed through a different lens.

“It is similar to being a woman in a high corporate role,” explained Arjuna Awardee and former badminton national champion Aparna Popat.

“A lady has to be as good and that much better [than a man] just to get a chance to contest for a particular seat. The ultimate win will be when we stop having these conversations. That will happen when we get the right people there on merit.”

Despite a growing number of women athletes asserting themselves on the international stage, there is a lack of women working as support staff – in administration, coaching, or even roles such as a physiotherapist or trainer.

Speaking to Scroll in 2022, chief national rifle coach (10 m) Suma Shirur explained that administrators assume that a woman will get married and relocate.

“Or the thinking is that [women] won’t be willing to travel,” Shirur had said. “Sometimes these issues come about when it comes to hiring women coaches. There are certain perceptions in society that have to change.”

Shirur also added that a male-dominated administration often does not give enough recognition to the work, expertise and calibre that a woman may bring to a certain position.

This is something, Jain asserted, has kept her from achieving a personal goal.

ALSO READ: Janneke Schopman may not have earned an Olympic berth, but her impact on women’s hockey was immense

Now 67, Jain has groomed over 300 kabaddi players who have gone on to compete at the national level. What she has longed for however, is the chance to coach the Indian women’s team at the Asian Games. That goal has remained unfulfilled.

Instead, the Iranian federation roped her in to train their women’s team for the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, and she led the side to a gold medal, beating India in the final.

“Till date, nobody from the Indian federation has acknowledged what I was able to achieve,” Jain said. “I thought I had proven myself and that maybe for the Hangzhou Games [in 2023] I would be called up, but again nothing happened.”

Jain returned to train the Iran team to a bronze-medal finish at the delayed 2022 Asian Games in October.

She has worked through most of her coaching career in Nagpur, training a new generation of players. But has noticed the lack of opportunities that have been made available for women coaches.

“A woman may be a qualified coach, but it’s still a male coach who is given preferences,” Jain said. “That’s why so many women coaches disappear because of the politics. There is no incentive because they cannot go up the ladder.”

Providing opportunities to a new generation of coaches and administrators is essential for continuity. And with a greater number of elite women athletes taking charge on the international stage, there is a need to increase size of the women’s workforce in administration and support staff.

“The only way to sort it out is to have a sponsor or mentor to get the woman a seat at the table till such time that their value can be seen, and then step back,” Popat said about helping women grow in an administrative role.

“The performance we are seeing from our female athletes, they are great role models. But at the end of the day, the qualifications cannot just be only the sports performance. The understanding of the sport helps, but that individual has to be ready and empowered to call the shots [as a coach or an administrator].”

Empowerment means also giving them the authority to make necessary changes. According to Malhotra, Indian federations run entirely from the board room rather than the individuals at the ground level – who see the workings at a micro-level.

Deserving women actively not being given a greater role in running a federation is just one part of the problem, asserted Malhotra.

“Unfortunately, federations in India still run in a way where performance, competency and accountability is not the driving factor,” Malhotra added. “Federations in India are still run by people who have been there for a long time [without bringing in any significant results].

“[Federations] have to be results-driven. Olympic medals are not a benchmark of a federation, it doesn’t necessarily mean the federation is working well.”

This most certainly is reflected in how the Wrestling Federation of India has been run over the past decade. The sport has been one of the most successful for Indians on the international stage, with athletes returning with medals from the past four editions of the Olympics.

Yet two of the medal winners, Bajrang Punia (bronze in 2020 Tokyo) and Sakshi Malik (bronze in Rio 2016), along with three-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat were major figures in a protest the wrestlers had launched, in January 2023, against the former federation chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

The wrestlers accused Singh, a Bhartiya Janta Party MP, of intimidation and sexual assault.

A new federation chief was elected in December, who happens to be a close aide of Singh, leading to more protests.

There is a scramble in getting the wrestling house in order, especially with the Paris 2024 Olympic Games coming up in July.

In hockey though, there remains a void. Norman had proved to be an influential figure in bringing in a professional setup to the federation in her 13 years as the CEO. And Schopman, an Olympic gold medal and World Cup winner as a player with the Netherlands, had formed a close bond with the players and had helped them become more confident on the pitch.

There are, and will be many more, highly-competent women who are worthy of taking up leadership roles in a steadily growing Indian sports industry.

If only, as Malhotra, Jain and Popat assert, those individuals are given the opportunity.