Why gender inequity in sports is everyone’s problem

By Jenna Johnson, Columnist

MOUNT BERRY, Ga. – There is a war on, and it’s not in Syria.

In order to be recognized – and fairly compensated – in their respective sports, female athletes must embody all of the competitive, masculine qualities associated with excellence in the particular sport, but somehow at the very same time be perceived by an adoring public as thoroughly feminine.

Serena Williams

While I don’t want to minimize the struggles and challenges men face to succeed in their sports, I do want to bring our attention to the fact that the men must embody or project the qualities or characteristics of but one gender; women have to embody and project both. Just ask Serena Williams.

Is this fair?

Shouldn’t all sports fans, who presumably care so much about fairness on the field, care about fairness off the field?

As Abigail Feder points out in her article on figure skating, “A Radiant Smile from the Lovely Lady,” women will always be judged on their physical appearance, especially when it comes to televised, commodified sport. A female athlete’s talent isn’t valued unless she can also be seen as attractive and beautiful. In figure skating, women have to dazzle as skaters, but not at the expense of appearing unattractive while doing it. Note the fake cleavage in the “costumes,” and the differences in rules for the women when compared to the men. In the early years of women’s figure skating, axels (jumps) were even forbidden as being too masculine.

Female athletes who are perceived to be “masculine,” such as those who play basketball or softball, are expected to also be able to assert their femininity, lest they be seen as too masculine or, heaven forbid, lesbian. Note the hair ribbons (softball) and headbands and ponytails (soccer). Female athletes perceived as more “feminine” have to keep up appearances in a different way, always asserting their beauty but simultaneously demonstrating their prowess athletically, as well. Maria Sharapova and Alex Morgan are examples.

It would be natural at this point to begin talking about equal pay. It is a hot topic at the moment. But, it might be more important to consider how we perceive women’s abilities compared to men’s. Our problem is more thinking we can lump them together in the same category in the first place than it is anything else.

Specifically, we stereotype in how we talk about women in sports. We’ve all used the phrase, “like a girl,” to identify a weaker way of doing something, and this is a phrase we see used in sports quite a bit. The image that comes to mind for me is watching a coach yell at young boys on a baseball field: “You throw like a girl!” His implication: Throw harder.

Why do men find it intimidating when women do in fact throw harder? When women like Serena challenge traditional notions of body type and femininity? Why do so many women willingly capitulate to those traditional ideas and “act like a girl?”

We do have female athletes challenging these false notions. Morgan and several members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team have led the charge toward equity in compensating our athletes, a movement that materially helped the U.S. women’s national hockey team even in the last month. This is a soccer team whose accolades, titles and accomplishments far outshine those of their male counterparts. 

But what about more fundamental change?

It might take generations to revise these gendered ideas as they relate to sports and, therefore, the rest of society. And they will not be revised until and unless they are seen as more than simply a sports problem. Media bear responsibility on this issue, as well. Sports broadcasters and reporters should be far more sensitive to these fault lines with respect to gender. 

So, I ask you to ask yourself, “How do I perceive female athletes? How do I label women in sports?”

Is there room in your answers for revision?

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