Spare a Thought for Women in Highly-Gendered Sports

I have been thinking a lot lately about how sports perceived as “more for girls” are undervalued, even in sports where they dominate.

In North America, at least, the vast majority of amateur equestrians are girls and women, yet the story is much different at the elite level. Since 1964 women and men have competed together at the Olympics, but no woman has won a gold in show jumping or eventing, though almost as many women as men have won at dressage. Dressage is widely seen as the “girliest” of the disciplines.

A consequence of this may have been the undervaluing of equestrian as a “real” sport. No, the horse doesn’t do all the work; riding is intense and demanding, and it requires strength and bravery as well as athleticism, a good connection with the horse, and many many hours of hauling tack, shoveling manure, and getting 400-600 kg horses to go where you want, even when you aren’t riding. The size of the rider doesn’t seem to be a major factor; the key is how well they can manage their horse.

Other sports have also suffered from male flight (the term for men and boys being less likely to enter a domain once it becomes associated with femininity). They include cheerleading, which was a male sport as valued as football before women took it on during WWI, gymnastics, figure skating, dance and artistic (formerly synchronized) swimming.

These athletes all must all be strong and flexible; most compete in close formation so precision matters, and artistic swimmers do half of their their four-minute routines under water. Concussions and other injuries are common. But because they are women-dominated sports where costumes and make-up have a role, they are routinely mocked as not being true sports. Interestingly, all, including equestrian, are places that have traditionally been more welcoming of LGBTQ+ athletes, as well.

However, the most egregious undervaluing of women’s sport this week was at the men’s World Cup.

Soccer is not gendered at the early stages of learning the game; over 40% of all players in Canada are girls, and boys and girls play together on the same teams. As they age and become more skilled, the girls and women are relegated to a distant second place in the minds of some (check out Wikipedia to see just how little attention the women get). At the same time, the most-watched event of the 2020 Olympics in Canada was the gold medal women’s soccer game won by Canada, led by Christine Sinclair. Sinclair is the world’s all-time leading international play goal scorer among both men and women, and the second player in history to score in five World Cups (after Brazilian legend Marta).

The Canadian women have played in every women’s World Cup since 1995, reaching 4th place in 2003. They scored twice in their very first game in 1995, against England. In total, they have scored 34 goals. So when a TSN sportscaster gushed about the first goal for Canada at the men’s World Cup the “greatest moment in Canadian soccer history” while sitting beside Janine Beckie, a member of gold medal Olympic team, it’s not surprising this was her reaction:

Woman with long blonde hair and a black sweater holds a microphone while seated in a broadcasting studio. There is a crowded stadium in the background. The woman has an extremely sceptical look on her face.
Janine Beckie gives her co-host some well-deserved side-eye.

We all need to be more like Janine Beckie, every time we hear such nonsense.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She grew up watching or attempting every one of these sports, and still does some of them, so she knows just how hard they are.


Semenya’s future as champion in doubt

By MarthaFitat55

Earlier this week the Swiss Supreme Court denied Caster Semenya’s appeal of the IAAF’s decision to impose chemical modifications on the runner. Told in June that she would need to medically reduce the levels of testosterone in her body, Semenya said she would not comply and she launched an appeal of the decision.

The Swiss court had said earlier Semenya could still compete, unaltered, while a final decision was pending, but now the court has reversed that decision.

What that mans is that Semenya cannot compete in her preferred races (800 metres) because the IAAF says she she can only run in her natural state in races less than 400 metres or more than a mile in length.

With the Worlds coming in September and prep for the Tokyo Olympics next summer, there is no time for Semenya to comply with the medical demand (six months in treatment is required before she can race) even if she agreed to do it.

This is a problematic decision on a couple of fronts. One, supposing Semenya agreed to the chemical alteration while the Swiss Court continued its deliberations, if they decide to dismiss the IAAF ruling, she would have undergone medical intervention unnecessarily and perhaps negatively affecting her performance in the long term.

Two, upholding the IAAF ruling as an interim measure already gives the medical intervention some weight as a legitimate approach to dealing with individuals who have higher than expected levels of testosterone and who identify/consider themselves female.

Since the ruling only affects females (there’s no issue with males whose hormone levels don’t fall into the range considered acceptable for men), we have here another example of how medical intervention is being used to manage women’s behaviour.

Don’t get me wrong — I think there is a time and place for medical intervention when warranted. I know many people who have benefited from drug therapy and not only for mental health issues. However, we also know how often medical intervention has been used to control or modify women’s behaviour in the past, from hysteria to forced sterilization.

I think it is worth noting too, that Semenya as a black woman, is also facing a racialized challenge to her physical excellence on the track. While we may think we are more civilized in the 21st century, is the IAAF’s ruling that distant from the gynecological experiment performed on enslaved black women in the 19th century?

The IAF based its decision on limited science as discussed in this CBC article. In many respects, forcing Semenya and other athletes classified as having differences of sexual development (DDS) to undergo medical alteration through drugs is experimentation. While we have evidence documenting the effect of drugs used to aid transition from one sex to another, we have limited evidence on how above average levels of testosterone benefits athletes. To quote my earlier post on Semenya and the IAAF ruling:

There is a lot of disagreement about what the advantage means, and a key part of the legal argument put forward by Semenya’s legal team was the lack of rigour used by the IAAF in setting its standards. The CBC referenced a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal that cited several problems with the IAAF’s own methodology, and most damningly they said the IAAF’s results could not be reproduced:

“… the authors noted the criticisms of an analysis commissioned by the IAAF which found that women whose serum testosterone levels were in the top third performed significantly better than women with levels in the lowest third. Those results, Tannenbaum and Bekker claim, could not be independently reproduced, and the data does not reliably mirror the source track times of athletes from the 2011 and 2013 world championships.”

We should be worried about this latest development in the Semenya case. The value of women’s contribution and performance in sport has been questioned, with the most recent examples being the women’s World Cup in soccer, the Tour de France, and Serena William’s accomplishments in tennis. We should be asking why people, especially the men at the executive levels in sport, are afraid when women aim to be and succeed at being faster, higher, stronger? And yes, sometimes that means you will have someone who dominates a sport, like Semenya in track or Michael Phelps in swimming, but I see no effort to hobble him so others may exceed as they are doing with Semenya. Most importantly, we should be very concerned when courts and official sports bodies are making decisions, not based on science and established evidence, but on fear and emotion.

MarthaFitat55 is a writer based in St. John’s whose rage at injustice often fuels her workouts.

athletes · family · gender policing · stereotypes

Gender Policing of Girls in Children’s Sports

gender police comic

A friend of mine has an eleven year-old daughter, Maggie, who is gifted at sports. She is good at baseball, soccer, hockey, and has even played football on a boys team. Maggie also has a preference for keeping her hair short.

My friend got an email message from Maggie’s soccer coach the other day. Apparently, not once but twice recently the referees (young men) have literally STOPPED THE GAME and confronted Maggie about playing on U12 (under 12) girls team. Why? Because it’s a girls’ league, of course, and only girls are allowed to play.

My blood began to boil right then and there as my friend told me this story over lunch.

The coach was more than a little annoyed. She was writing to Maggie’s mother to let her know what had happened and how she (the coach) handled it. Instead of dealing with the referees directly, she felt strongly that the convenor should take this up with all the referees. The coach requested that the convenor send an email message to all refs outlining “appropriate conduct.” She emphasized that questions about eligibility should be directed to the coach, not the child. And the ref certainly should not stop play and confront the child in front of the entire field. The coach has players’ cards that prove eligibility and brings them to all games.

The ref was engaged in gender policing. Maggie defies gender norms and expectations for girls in two distinct ways that make people uncomfortable or even angry. First, she has short hair. It’s striking to see the team photo, where she sits among the rest of her long-haired, pony-tailed teammates. Second, she’s really, really good at sports, often ending the season as the team’s most valuable player. What conclusion do people draw from this? She must be a boy.

It’s also relevant, I think, that Maggie’s coach is a woman. Why? Because calling into question a players’ eligibility in the midst of a game also challenges the coach’s basic competence. The ref’s intervention assumes that the coach is so oblivious to the rules of the game that she doesn’t even know who is and is not eligible to play in the girls U12 league that she coaches in. Alternativelly, it is a challenge to the coach’s integrity, tantamount to accusing her of cheating by putting boys onto her team.

A more obvious inference would be that since this is a girls’ U12 league, all the players on the field must be girls under 12.

Gender policing in sport is nothing new, of course. Remember when Caster Semenya did so well on the track in 2009 that she had to undergo gender testing?

I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that this goes on in children’s sports too, but I confess to being shocked at the behaviour of the two referees who intervened in exactly the same inappropriate manner on two separate occasions.

This kind of policing is not new to Maggie and other girls who choose to wear their hair short. Hair length is one of the most obvious markers that our society uses to tell the girls from the boys, especially during childhood when parents usually have more say over the way their children present themselves to the world than the children do.

Maggie’s parents are committed to raising empowered daughters who believe that they are allowed to make their own choices. So she gets to cut her hair short. Her sister gets to keep hers long. Maggie gets to dress in androgynous styles, while her younger sister chooses clothes more easily recognizable as “for girls.” It is not easy for children to choose androgyny given how gendered children’s clothing is. Maggie’s style choice means that people frequently “read” her as a boy.

My friend is considering putting Maggie in boys’ hockey this winter because in general she is challenged less when she is on a boys’ team, at least for the time being. This is not because the boys think she is a boy. It’s more that, at least at this age, as long as she can play they don’t care much whether she’s a boy or a girl.

Maggie is learning about gender policing at a really young age. This summer’s lessons have not been her first. Even at age nine she was challenged on more than one occasion by strangers in the women’s restroom at the mall or the movies.

This type of policing of children’s gender identities doesn’t just happen to girls. Boys who are attracted to hairstyles and styles of dress, activities, and toys that are coded as being “for girls” are also given grief, bullied, and challenged. Their sexuality is called into question. Parents and other adults will, as they do with girls who do not conform to norms of femininity, often coerce or coax or simply order them to “fall into line.”

Parents who are more permissive about their children’s need to express themselves are often reprimanded by friends, family members, and other parents for allowing their child to flout gender norms.

Here are some things that are wrong with gender policing:

1. Calling someone’s gender into question, especially in confrontational manner, assumes that it is your business. It’s not. You don’t get to monitor people and keep them under surveillance and challenge them when you think they’re doing something that’s wrong for their gender.

2. Gender policing, most sadly, drives home the point that most people are completely confused about how to deal with someone unless and until they know whether the person is a girl or a boy, a woman or a man. Why does this make so much difference? Gender determines who gets taken seriously and who doesn’t, who has power and who does not, who has authority and who does not, who is a strong competitor and who is not, who we need to sexualize and sexually harass who we do not need to, who we need to worry about having an unfair advantage (e.g. a boy on a girls team, a woman who we thought was a man), who we need to marginalize, and a whole raft of other things.

3. Gender policing reinforces a false and harmful gender binary that slots people into very restrictive categories. It has been argued that both gender and sex are not binaries, but rather continuums. We don’t just have the femmy femmes and the manly men, or the girlie girls and the rough and tumble boys, but lots of people in between. Yet we demonize and castigate people who exist on what we perceive as the wrong side of the gender binary. Why else would people say of a girl with short hair that she has “a boy’s haircut.” She has short hair for goodness sake. Since when did boys get to have a monopoly on short hair?

4. Following on that last point, gender policing assumes that everyone is male or female. But it’s not just masculinity and femininity that exist on a continuum. Not everyone identifies as either male or female. Intersex is real and many argue that it ought not be considered a “medical condition.” Anne Fausto-Sterling has done extensive work on sex differences and launched compelling arguments against received scientific views about the biology of gender and sexuality.

5. Gender policing is insensitive and offensive to trans people. Again, it assumes that everyone ought to be a cisgendered male or female, that is, that their sex and gender identities should fit with the sex they were assigned at birth and that when that is not the case, there is something normatively wrong.

It may be that children and adults who present themselves androgynously or who, even further, present as a different sex or gender than that which they have been raised as (or, as Fausto-Sterling might argue, which has been chosen for them), might sometimes be misidentified in all innocence. That’s really not the issue. The issue is more about how pervasive gender norms are and how strongly they appear to be required for ordinary interactions.

Author and performer Ivan Coyote has a wonderful piece in which she wonders whether people whom she is interacting with, such as the cashier or the bank teller or the cab driver or the barber, are wondering whether she is a “she” or a “he.” Ivan questions how much information it is necessary to tell them. Does she clarify what her anatomy is to these strangers? She lists a host of intimate facts she could tell them about herself before the completion of their casual transaction or interaction, and then concludes: “But that would definitely be an overshare.”

And she’s right. How much do we need to know about someone before we can interact with them? Not so much in theory, but in practice people are completely flummoxed when confronted with ambiguous gender. Gender’s normative force is tremendous.

Maggie knows what she is experiencing. She is learning about the normativity of gender at an early age because she is going against what is expected and getting backlash as a result. Children who do not break from what is expected have an easier time of it because they are not forced even to notice the way gender shapes them into who they are.  But having an easier time by being less aware of the social forces that operate on them isn’t such a great thing.

Having girls like Maggie in the league can go a little way to re-shaping the preconceptions of every girl around her, possibly making them reflect enough to realize that it’s not as simple as they have been led to believe and that it’s okay not to conform all the time. When the ref called Maggie on her gender, a girl on the other team said, “Hey, I like her hair!”

[comic credit: Tatuya Ishida, “Don’t Fence Me In”, 2012-08-21]