January 10, 2020 Caitlin Rees

Chapter 2 – The problem with the word ‘sport’

According to the Oxford Dictionary, sport is defined as ‘an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.’ The origin of the word follows the same story; with the oldest definition dating back to 1300 being ‘anything humans find amusing or entertaining’. Neither of these definitions specify a gender grouping, yet for many women we found that, the word ‘sport’ itself holds a gender specific meaning and a negative connotation.

When I think of the word sport, my husband comes to mind, not anything else. It’s very male!
Woman, disengaged in sport – London

For some women, we found that just the idea of sport reminded them of negative experiences growing up; lack of confidence, body issues, peer and societal pressures contributed to an overall disengagement from sport. Why would these women start engaging and watching sport if it reminds them of a disagreeable time in their life? In addition, when asking women ‘how do you classify women’s sport’ we found that there was a conflict between what was historically perceived as acceptable and what is perceived as modern opinion. We continually heard women debate what was considered a sport or a ‘women’s sport’. Is dancing a sport just for women? Is dancing even a sport? It is clear that despite the growing success of women’s sport, the historic societal conditioning that women and sport are an unnatural combination continues to cut through.

Our research went on to find that even women who regularly participate in sport struggle to associate with the word. According to our findings, only 2 in 10 women who regularly participate in sport considered themselves as ‘sporty’ (compared to 5 in 10 men).

In addition, fewer women than men like to be considered as sporty; only 11% of women said they that they like people to think of them as sporty, compared to 27% of men. The term ‘sport’ is so masculinised and connected to an industry dominated by men that women can’t or don’t want to associate with it.

Cambridge University found that the term ‘sport’ is simply used more alongside the mention of men. The research showed that men are two to three times more likely than women to be mentioned when it comes to discussing sport. The research also looked at the words which were associated with sporting performance; men tend to be associated with words such as ‘beat’ ‘win’ ‘dominate’, whereas for women it was ‘participate’ ‘strive’ ‘compete’. The term itself is so intertwined with the concept of ‘male’ that many women find it difficult to identify and engage with sport.

We need to look at re-defining women’s sport and changing perceptions in order to appeal to more women. In particular, the media plays an enormous role in the ability to shift sport from a very masculine activity to one that women feel they can be part of. We need to encourage women to accept that they don’t need to be ‘tough’ or ‘masculine’ to engage in sport, it’s available for everyone.

‘I think we need to be careful with how we are presenting women in sport, often they are presented as ‘tough’ but not all women will identify with that, they may feel strong but not tough […] We can’t just present women’s sport so it appeals to men, it has to appeal to women too.’

Clare Briegal, CEO of International Netball Federation

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