Saturday, 20 August 2016

We need to tackle our own sexism in sport

One of the things that has struck me most about the Rio Olympics is the fact that in 2016 sexism is still rife in sport. When a male athlete wins a medal, the media focuses on his ability. But when a female athlete excels, often commentators refer to her husband, male coach or even pass judgement on her body.

Much as you'd like to think that this sexism is limited to the media, it's actually symptomatic of our society in general: even at grassroots level in encouraging children to participate in sport.

This week Elliot and Beatrix took part in a Exeter City Football In The Community (ECFITC) football summer holiday course. Beatrix was one of only two girls. She's been before and been the only girl.

Now, there are a few non-feminist reasons she goes to the football camp:

  1. It's easier for me to have children doing the same activity as it means I'm not wasting time picking up and dropping off in multiple locations.
  2. It's local. There are other activities and other sports available, but they tend to be further afield.
  3. I think physical activity is important for children, it teaches how to be a team player, about winning and losing. It also helps to develop spatial awareness, balance, ball control and improves her confidence in what her body can do. 
  4. And most importantly, she enjoys it. This week she won a medal because she was part of the winning team in the football tournament they played on the last day.

    Showing off medals from the Exeter City Football in the Community summer holiday course
And with my feminist hat on, I like her to go because I want her to believe that being a female shouldn't restrict her life choices.

Sadly, the lack of girls on the football course suggests that not everyone thinks the same way and that sexism in sport is firmly entrenched in people's thinking. Another parent expressed surprise that Beatrix was at the camp and said she hadn't realised the football camp was open to girls as well as boys.


It was an innocent comment, but it's been bothering me ever since. Why would someone not think girls could go to a summer holiday football course? Is it because the marketing is wrong? I went back to the ECFITC website to have a look. Nowhere in the text does it suggest the courses are for boys only and the images clearly show boys and girls enjoying the activities. The only thing I could think of is that, in a bid to encourage girls to take part, the football club offers girls only sessions. Perhaps this attempt at reverse discrimination has only served to reinforce stereotypes?

I'm not sure that's the case. I think it's a wider issue that affects pretty much every area of life where gender stereotypes are formed from an early age and reinforced with gender stereotypes: pink is for girls, blue is for boys and the separation of boys and girls with gender specific toys, books etc.

It's up to all of us to change society's thinking

There have been huge strides in women's equality over the past century: we can now vote, we are supposed to have equal pay. But the Olympics and my own experiences show there's still a way to go. It's up to all of us to keep on challenging gender stereotypes and to encourage children and even our peers follow their dreams and do what they enjoy no matter what their sex.

So next time you find yourself thinking, oh - that's just for boys/girls. Stop and challenge yourself to make a stand against entrenched sexism. And, if you can, lead by example. Last year, I started playing rugby again: because I enjoy it. I really, really hope my daughter will see me enjoy playing and training and be confident that being a girl isn't a barrier to whatever sport (or any other activity) she might choose.

Have you encountered sexism in sport and how have you tackled it?

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