By Manasi Nene
If you play sports, or know anything about how massive enterprises like sports events are set up, you know that there is almost always an underlying current of sexism. I was once warming up on a football field but was told to go back to the kitchen, by a boy in my college – who didn’t even understand what was sexist about his remark. That’s how insidious it is. Male athletes are treated different from female athletes (how would you feel, for example, if you kept getting asked about your favourite ‘male’ cricketers even though you’re captain of a world-class women’s team?), but we’re often unable to put our finger on it directly, to call it out.
Well, there’s some good news for you.
Cynthia Frisby, an associate professor of strategic communications at the University of Missouri, and undergraduate student Kara Allen, teamed up to write a report about the soft sexism prevalent in sports reportage. Analyzing newspaper articles about the Olympic games of 2012 and 2016, they tracked “microaggressions” – these include sexual objectification, treating women as second-class citizens, restrictive gender roles, sexist language, and a focus on the bodies of the athletes.
They found that microaggressions increased as the perceived “masculinity” of the sport increased – basketball, powerlifting and wrestling, for example, faced the worst of it. In 2012, they found 69 microaggressions against women athletes, and 96 microaggressions in 2016 – which indicates a forty percent rise in writing about women as exhibits, instead of athletes.
“We hope that we are making progress as a society toward inclusivity and acceptance; however, when examining the data for how the media cover sporting events related to female athletics, it is evident that we have a long way to go,” said Frisby. “We’ve known for a long time that female athletes often experience discrimination and other microaggressions, but now that we have statistical data illustrating this issue, we want to use it to educate media and members of the public on how to avoid some of these problematic pitfalls.”
The researchers wanted to find “how images…are portrayed in media and how they can be used to create a stereotype, sustain them or make them stronger,” she added. “We found that female athletes were written about in a number of different ways in terms of their attractiveness, mostly their bodies […] Women who are toned and extremely muscular are perceived to be masculine because women aren’t supposed to have muscles.”
She adds that reactions to the study have been generally positive, and some male journalists have also approached her on how to write in the future. “Those are the instances when I feel like my work has made the most impact,” she says. “When we can at least get the data out there to start the conversation.”