Apparently, the key to getting women more involved in sports is promoting “feminine sports,” or at least, so says Helen Grant, UK Minister of Sports, Equalities, and Tourism. She’s ruffled quite a few feathers in the UK with her suggestion that women aren’t as involved in sports as men because they feel “unfeminine” while engaging in sporting activities — a statement that manages to be simultaneously intensely sexist, offensive and ignorant of the actual barriers faced by women who want to get involved in sports. What’s really leading to decreased participation in sports among women?
Her heart may be in the right place — she said that it’s time to look at what’s on offer and what women and girls actually want — but it was very clumsily expressed, and it didn’t directly address the larger issues women face when it comes to getting involved in sports. Even as the UK team is bringing home the gold in Sochi, for example, female athletes in the UK remain underappreciated compared to their male counterparts, as elsewhere in the world; most of the nation’s sports stars are men, with women getting a fraction of the press, sponsorships and attention as the men.
It’s not just about media attention, though. While the media may not focus on women’s sports or celebrate women athletes, women also face discrimination and sexism on the pitch and in the locker room. Outdated social attitudes about the comparative weakness of women often lead coaches and other mentors to be dismissive of women athletes, and girls battle eating disorders, self-image problems and other issues that are less common among men. In a society where women are expected to meet a very rigid beauty standard, the heavily-muscled, powerful bodies of athletes may not necessarily be considered attractive, which traps women and girls between a rock and a hard place.
The minister went on to identify ballet and cheerleading as examples of “feminine” sports, in a manner that read to some critics as dismissive. Her examples were rather unfortunate — men participate in both cheerleading and ballet, and endure a considerable amount of mockery and joking even though they’re powerful athletes alongside the more famous women in their disciplines. Furthermore, if “feminine” means pink, weak and covered in ruffles, which Grant seemed to be implying, you’d better look somewhere other than cheerleading and ballet, two of the most demanding athletic disciplines in the world.
Cheerleaders and ballerinas (as well as ballerinos), are in training for hours daily to perform at the peak of their skills. In both disciplines, a high degree of athleticism is required along with artistic skill — thus, ballet companies spend hours in physical training in addition to dance classes, choreography sessions and more. Both disciplines are so physically demanding that participants are often forced to retire by their 30s because their bodies are no longer up to the task — just like the men of the gridiron and basketball court. And these sports aren’t for the faint of heart; athletes in both disciplines routinely work through severe injuries and witness devastating accidents that can ruin careers in an instant.
For true gender equity in sports, critics argue, it’s time to see more media parity in the coverage of women’s sport. That includes not just airing more coverage of women athletes, but also of shifting the tone of coverage. Women continue to be profiled in terms of their appearance and personalities rather than their athletic skills, which is something that needs to change in order to fight social attitudes about women and sport that may be keeping women on the sidelines.
Photo credit: Kyle Taylor.