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Women in Sport: the Good, the Bad and the Standards

…“like a girl”. Three words designed to embarrass, to deter, to humiliate whoever be unfortunate enough to have their sporting ability compared to a girl. But when did this change in connotation of doing something “like a girl” happen? Would we look back on our younger selves competing with the boys and tell them to stop, that they would never win, that they’re just girls? So why, even now in the 21st Century is underlying sexism allowed to define who we are, and where our place is in the sporting world?

Growing up we are told to always try our best, told to keep going until we get it right, and that practise makes perfect. But there appears to be a lack of transferability of the ideology that shaped us, to the standards we can live by. Sport is more than just a game; it gives us a space to be free. Free to push ourselves to the limits, and to hold the space to work through emotions. To be free to express who we are and what we can do. That is why we need to continually push the boundaries to make sporting environments accessible to everyone, to level the playing field for all. To hold the same standards, irrespective of religion, race, or gender. Sport is not discriminatory, so why are people who gatekeep allowed to do so.

As a female rugby player, I’m no stranger to passing comments and stereotypical jokes – do you play by the proper rules? With tackling and everything? Or – the one which has the most homophobic basis, yet is constantly queried – Is everyone on the team gay? It is tiring having to defend your sport from the everyday sexism which has become so normalised, and almost accepted to ask, under the assumption that players will just correct you about being wrong. But why does it have to be the responsibility of the female player to correct and inform others? Why does being a female in sport have to be a ‘thing’, what will it take for society to reach the point where saying “I play rugby” does not require justification.

This feeling of sexism and gender-typical sports is not something reflected just in my personal experiences but is something which can be seen throughout the women’s rugby world. The current prime example is the comment section of the England Women’s Rugby Instagram account, with men leaving sexist, rude and misogynistic comments leading to the foundation of the #icare movement. This aims to address and fight the negativity and disadvantages women in sport face simply due to their gender. Lack of representation of female athletes in the media perpetuates the concept that being a girl equates to not being a professional athlete. However, it is not just simply that steps must be taken to achieve equality in the media. There is a massive pay gap between male and female athletes, where the men are paid enough to make it their full-time job, able to invest more time, training, and effort to dedicate themselves to the sport. Whereas women are paid minimally, if at all, resulting in them having to work alongside training to be able to support themselves. Time taken to work is time away from the sport, putting women at a biased, unfair disadvantage to their male counterparts at the same level. Not only are the differences in professional female and male sport just down to the issue of pay, but there also remains so many more issues rooted in the way in which female athletes are presented compared to their male counterparts. Take the example of promotional, pre-match material for a rugby game. While the men are seen to be strong, making big hits with exciting music and sounds, the women are often seen preparing, grooming, likened to images of nature and quite often with royalty free music. How can we expect the female game to grow and generate money in order for it to thrive if it is continually presented in this unengaging and less exciting way within the media? These are just some of the issues in the sporting world which need to be addressed, and rectified.

However, being a female athlete is not always bad news! Playing sport can be one of the most empowering choices a woman can make. Not only can you work on your personal fitness goals in a safe environment surrounded by your teammates, it is also an opportunity to push and express yourself as in individual whilst being part of a supportive sporting network. It also allows you to interact and build friendships with people you may never interact with usually – something of irreplaceable value. Further to this, being a woman in sport can help with issues of body image. While previously one may feel insecure about the size of their body, or how the muscle in their legs make them appear large etc, when you fall in love with your sport you begin to fall in love with these things about yourself too. You realise that what you once felt insecure about is now what helps make you good at the sport you love and you start to love it!

Overall, while a lot of acceptance, and progress, for women in sport has started to take place, there is still a long way to go for full equality between the genders to be established in the sporting world.

by Alice Fitzgerald (BSc Biology) and Caitlin Trevithick (MSci Politics with Quantitative Research)


This article is part of a themed content week celebrating Women in Sport. Thanks to all the teams and societies who have helped make this possible!

Hey, I'm a 3rd year BSc Biology student looking at a career in conservation and reef ecosystems
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