What Do We Have To Do To Get Women’s Sport Right?

When I first went to primary school (back in the early 80s) the playground was segregated into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ sections that were divided by a low brick wall. Whilst most of the girls were content with chatting and making daisy chains, I was desperate to play football with the boys who were on the other side of that wall. Probably spurred on by my mum, I went to see the headmistress to ask if I could play football with the boys. As a result I was given special dispensation and was allowed on both sides of the playground. I don’t remember how this made me feel at the time – I think I just felt special that I could go with either the boys or the girls, but the question is why the school thought it was appropriate to segregate the playground in the first place. When we moved house a couple of years later and I went to a different primary school, again I had to get special agreement to play football with the boys in the after-school club rather than go to the girls netball practice.

As a child, you don’t understand the politics and theory that influences these decisions – you just want to follow your interests and friends. I was lucky enough to have a mother that was vocal and believed in equality of the sexes (she actually got the sack from her first job for complaining that she wasn’t getting paid as much as a male colleague doing exactly the same work) and this gave me the confidence to think that there was no reason why I should be playing football or joining the Scouts (we lost the battle on the Scout front as they wouldn’t let me join). I was one of the lucky ones that managed to succeed in sport and I am still happy and confident to play with men in whatever sport I can. I accept my physical limitations and whilst I might get frustrated I’m not stronger or faster than I am, I don’t put them down to being a ‘girl’. I know that I’m not going to beat Usain Bolt in a 100m sprint but neither are 99.99% of men either.

As the excellent report by the House of Commons, Culture, Media and Sport committee has identified, there are no easy answers to getting more women and girls involved in sport. There are many complex and inter-locking reasons for the differences between men’s and women’s sport and their participation rates, ranging from cultural history and stereotypes, the way that girls and boys are brought up with different expectations, the fact that those that tend to teach girls PE are the few women that have succeeded in the system (and therefore are happy to continue it), the fact that power in politics, media and business has traditionally been in the hands of men… the list of reasons goes on and on.

As such, there are never going to be quick fix solutions and we shouldn’t imagine that one solution will fit everyone. There is a suggestion that PE in schools should be sex segregated but that will not be conducive to all girls; those that have excellent physical literacy are developed further by, and embrace, competing with boys. Equally, offering more ‘feminine’ sports may simply perpetuate the traditional sex stereotypes. The root of the problem is much deeper and will take time to address.

Yet, there are some really good suggestions in the report, most notably, ensuring that there is more communication and co-operation between various Governmental departments, and more recording of data on the way that money is spent on facilities and clubs and the affect that has on participation rates. There also needs to be much more time provided on ensuring physical literacy at the pre-school and infant stage of education – and this also requires training primary school teachers to address many of their traditional stereotypes about boys and girls.

I hope that if we get parents, teachers and the media to buy in to the fact that skill and literacy in sport is primarily dependent on practice and not sex chromosomes then things will get better for women in sport at the grass-roots level and at the elite. Australia, Canada and the US have all developed cultures whereby it is ‘cool’ for girls to be playing sport, and there’s no reason why we can’t too. But it has to mean we must do what we can to start to address the problem at all levels.

IAAF insensitivity over Semenya statement

Hours prior to the women’s 800 meter final, the IAAF released a statement asking South Africa to determine the gender of their athlete, Caster Semenya. Semenya had already breezed through the semi-finals and was expecting a podium position in the final, but the timing of the IAAF statement was heavily criticised as wholly insensitive and unnecessary. The IAAF conceded that questioning the sex of an athlete is a very difficult issue but they appeared to demonstrate further insensitivity to Semenya by suggesting that she hasn’t been accused of cheating as she may be unaware that she is not female.

Whether Semenya was aware of the media furore that was being created over the IAAF statement is not known, and fortunately it didn’t appear to have a detrimental effect on her result in the final as she finished first, a full two seconds ahead of her nearest rival. But the effect that the statement and interest subsequently generated from it is sure to cause concern, not least to Semenya herself. Since sex and gender, in our society, is one of the most fixed categories since birth and one of the fundamental tenets of our identity (nearly everything we do is labelled by our gender) to cast aspersions on it is to challenge the very core of who we are. This whole case, unfortunately, highlights the problem with maintaining the binary categories of male and female; categories challenged recently by Gerald Callahan in ‘Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the myth of two sexes‘. Callahan provides solid evidence that sex is a spectrum not a binary (or tri, if you want to include hermaphrodites) category. Taking Callahan’s argument seriously would cause serious problems for international sport which relies heavily upon the premise that only two sexes exist. This accounts for the IAAFs awkward and clumsy defence of their statement when faced with what they view as a someone who doesn’t fit the ‘standard’ mould.

This case highlights two issues; first, the problems that occur when we divide the world into fixed categories leaving no space for grey areas in between, and second, and more importantly, the insensitivity that is created when a real, feeling, human being is questioned over a core part of their identity based on such interminable categories. The IAAF needs to realise that whatever their rules and world view, athletes should still be treated with the respect and dignity that all sentient beings deserve.