Hurdle after hurdle: why sport still needs feminism


By Giulia Nicolini



The 2012 Olympic Games saw 4,847 women athletes take part: a record number for the games. For the first time in history, women were allowed to take part in boxing, and every participating nation was represented by at least one woman. And as billions of people around the world prepare to watch athletes compete on the tracks and in the pools of Rio de Janeiro, now seems like a good opportunity for feminists to shine a light on the problematic relationship between gender and sport.


Over the past hundred years or so, women have slowly been allowed to join the ranks of elite male athletes, reflecting the advances made by feminist actors and campaigners in wider society. Despite this, many obstacles to equality and equal opportunity remain to be overcome. For starters, in so many Olympic sports, women aren’t allowed to swim as far, lift as much, or jump as high. Women’s sports attire often sexualises the female athlete’s body. Women are subjected to meticulous scrutiny about their body image; they are caught in the middle: either too muscly to be feminine, or not muscly enough to be athletes. Women’s sport is underfunded and undervalued. And women’s sporting prowess is undermined by archaic attitudes which still conflate perceived ‘natural’ and opposing qualities in males and females with stereotypes about gender. In gymnastics, for example, men compete in events which flaunt strength, while women’s events display grace and flexibility – these differences are thought to reinforce gender binaries and stereotypes about ‘natural’ differences and physical qualities between men and women. Needless to say, only female gymnasts perform to music.


The world of elite sports may seem a far cry from women’s everyday experiences of sexism, but they reflect deep-rooted issues plaguing wider society.

Take the dispute over equal pay for example. In the UK, the England women’s football captain receives roughly 0.5 per cent of her male counterpart’s earnings. Some say this is an unfair comparison: men’s football has been around for 150 years, while women’s football has only been considered semi-professional in the UK since 2011. But in other sports, the excuses range from the fact that women do not garner as many revenues from ticket sales and broadcasting, to the (bizarre) notion that women’s sporting events are not as popular – or even as exciting – as men’s. Serena Williams challenged the latter claim when in 2015, tickets for the women’s tennis US open sold out first. As for the number of television viewers, it is impossible to make this comparison for most sports, given how little airtime is the women’s tournaments receive in the first place, tennis being among the few exceptions.


Given the high-profile media coverage from which sport benefits, and its often universal appeal, the way in which disputes over wage inequality, gender bias and sexism play out can have symbolic importance for feminism. How many little girls grow up thinking cricket or football are male-only professions, because they so rarely see a female footballer’s face plastered on a billboard, filling a widescreen at a pub or on the front page of a newspaper? The importance of role models cannot be understated; just recently, the passing of boxing champion Muhammad Ali prompted an outpouring of tributes from the millions he inspired. And although there are now an increasing number of female athletes in the public eye, like Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Jessica Ennis to name a few, the attention is comparatively limited and restricted to a few high-profile sports or international events. Furthermore, when women are granted a moment in the limelight, it is often to comment on their appearance or to remind them when the show ends, they can ‘go back to being mothers, partners and daughters’ as the England Football Association so tactlessly commented in 2015.


The implicit attitudes and prejudice embedded within professional sports (let’s take a moment to remember Djokovich and Moore’s comments on women’s tennis earlier in 2016) trickle down into the layman’s world of casual sports. For example, the issue of quotas in mixed team sports: just as in boardrooms and on comedy show panels, gender quotas in sports are a double-edged sword. As an amateur volleyball player, I have taken part in mixed tournaments where, for the men on court, a quota of two women on a six-player team automatically signified a maximum of two women. For every woman your team fails to recruit, the other team receives two bonus points at the start of each set. For many, this is a question of innate ability: men hit harder and jump higher, so they have a natural advantage. But these opinions are stubbornly held before anyone has even touched the ball, before women have had a chance to prove they have assets – be it strength, technique, agility, experience. Moreover, attitudes and assumptions about ability become ingrained, and can lead women to internalise their inferiority, discouraging them from participating.


In 2014, the sanitary towel brand Always launched their ‘Like a Girl’ campaign. The television advert showed boys and girls in their late teens being asked to mimic running and throwing ‘like a girl’ – cue stereotypical hair-flicking and flailing limbs. When ten year old girls were asked to do the same, they performed the actions sincerely, seemingly uninhibited by gender stereotypes.


It’s anyone’s guess whether the actors were prompted by the director, but the advert nonetheless sends a powerful message: when did doing something ‘like a girl’ acquire such negative connotations? Why are we teaching young boys and girls to see femininity as a weakness and an insult? The campaign is backed by a number of international studies which found that girls’ participation in sport declines rapidly during secondary school, usually coinciding with puberty. This is significant given the role which sports can play in mental and physical wellbeing, as well as being an empowering and self-affirming experience for those taking part.


The idea of playing sports ‘like a girl’ may be perceived as a joke, but when women do manage to perform to the standards of men, it is no laughing matter. Female sprinters such as Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand have been among the more high-profile targets of the degrading practices of ‘sex verification testing’ by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). For female athletes born with above-average levels of testosterone, or for intersex individuals, gender binarism is a hurdle that seems impossible to overcome. The IAAF and IOC are just two among a number of medical, social and other institutions that have sought to police a gender binary – the idea that people can be divided into two distinct and opposing groups, men and women. Especially in the case of the more recent ‘gender testing’, which is based on examinations of chromosomes, this gender binarism in turn perpetuates the idea that there are two distinct and opposing sexes. And although the IOC has recently sought to align itself with the changing debates around the issue, for feminists who see gender binarism as harmful, the world of elite sports should still be a prime target.


Sports are undoubtedly rooted in questions of physique and the body. But is biology the bottom line? Anne Fausto-Sterling, a prominent voice in the fields of biology and gender studies, wrote extensively about the history of intersex individuals, arguing against the assumption that there are two naturally occurring, distinct and opposing sexes. One of her major claims was that medical professionals are responsible for ‘sexing the body’: when the sex of a child cannot be determined at birth, and gender reassignment surgery is performed, surgeons make decisions on the basis of cultural, not biological, knowledge.


Fausto-Sterling goes even further when she discusses ‘women and athletics’ in Myths of Gender (1992). Having dismissed the existence of differences between men’s and women’s verbal and mathematical abilities, she acknowledges that ‘on average men are a bit taller and a bit stronger than women’ (214). But she does not take it for granted that these are ‘physiological, inherent, natural’ differences; rather, she points to women’s relatively recent (historically speaking) ‘unbinding’ – that is, only in the last few hundred years have women been allowed to take part in sports, and to train their bodies to build muscle mass in order to perform strenuous exercise (214). Fausto-Sterling points to the fall in relative differences between men’s and women’s times in running events as evidence.


Would our bodies have evolved differently, if social and sexual roles had gone another way? To what extent have our bodies been shaped by our culture – a culture in which men have had something of a head start in sports? This seems to be what Fausto-Sterling is arguing:

There are hormonal bases for some of the physical differences between adult men and women. Yet even these interact with culture and socialization to produce the final product. No matter how our ideas about male and female physique evolve in the coming years, one thing remains certain: our cultural conceptions will change the way our bodies grow, and how our bodies grow will change the way our culture views them.


The idea that our ‘biology’, the way we are born, dictates how we identify as individuals, as well as how others identify us and our place in society, remains one of the most contested and debated concepts within feminist thought. But even if we do accept that there are differences between men and women, the obstacles to achieving greater equality within sport are still rooted in culture. So long as we continue to live in a culture that does not value women’s contributions, sees women as naturally incapable, and treats women as second-class citizens, sexism will continue to be rife on and off the pitch.




Giulia Nicolini studied Sociology at the University of Cambridge and since graduating she has worked at Cambridge Sustainable Food, Chatham House and the Food Foundation. She is embarking on a Masters in Anthropology of Food at SOAS, in London. Giulia’s main interests lie in anything and everything to do with food, feminism and the environment, but she also dabbles in photography, philosophy of science and film.




Other references

Battle of the sexes: charting how women in tennis achieved equal pay, The Guardian (11/9/2101)

Is sport sexist? Six sports where men & women are still set apart, Bbc, (18/9/2014)