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Sexism in university sport is a thing – here’s why we need to talk about it

Warwick graduate Charley Adams on sexist comments made from the side lines, why men should consider cheerleading and her hopes that we level the playing field once and for all.

 


 

Varsity. The sporting spectacle is one of the highlights of the sporting calendar.

As a final year competing in Varsity, I was thrilled to be representing the University of Warwick in the sport I loved: hockey. Throughout the week, we turned up to support the ice hockey, netball and basketball teams, and now it was our turn.

The anticipation built as we all got ready together – slathering on face paint and donning our hockey Varsity headbands before warming up, the sound of the Boombox filling the sports hall as the crowds poured in. 

We huddled together for one last team talk before the whistle blew, and excitement from both sides erupted. The atmosphere was electric and the crowds cheered, chanting their respective university chants as both teams battled to score.

But, soon came sexist murmurs from a few male members in the crowd.

I was shocked to hear patronising and degrading comments from the side lines on everything from the players’ physiques to what they were wearing - with minimal mention of how the female athletes were actually playing.

Conversely, at the men’s hockey game later on, the crowd were vocal about the great goal from the centre mid field and the vicious tackles from some of the players.

 

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I’m strongly in favour of sport camaraderie between different teams and sexes, but I’d love to see female athletes being praised for their ability first and foremost

 

This, of course, wasn't a one-off. A survey conducted by the BBC in 2015 which involved more than 300 elite sportswomen revealed that nearly 50 of these women said they had been criticised on social media about their appearance.

As a fresher, I played a match where we were constantly shouted at from the side line. While playing, the home side supporters were shouting our numbers followed by ‘bend over’, nice squat’, ‘she’s the most attractive player’ or loudly debating who looked best in skorts. 

Unfortunately, this male bravado seems to be an issue within the subject of sport in general.

For many sports teams, with men and women, people often dismiss these comments. Jolly spectators, often with some alcoholic beverages in their system, seem to naturally end up rating female athletes on their appearance, rather than their performance in the competition.

Believe me, I’m not trying to be a fun sponge. I’m strongly in favour of sport camaraderie between different teams and sexes, but I’d love to see female athletes being praised for their ability first and foremost. 

 

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 We should be celebrating strong and fit athletes regardless of gender

 

When Jessica Ennis-Hill won gold at the 2012 London Olympics, a disproportionate amount of the media coverage focused on what she was wearing. There seemed to be a dominating focus on how beautiful she was and how great her toned physique looked in her team GB kit, rather than her outstanding sporting achievement. 

During the warm up for the Anniversary Games in 2013, BBC freelance presenter Colin Murray even suggested to the crowd of 65,000 that a perfect athlete would combine ‘the stamina of Mo [Farah], the speed of [Usain] Bolt, the leap of [Greg] Rutherford and the bottom of Jess Ennis’ *insert puzzled face emojis*.

Yet as Chris Hoy cycled to success in 2012, people talked about his dedication to sport and his triumphs as an athlete. It’s plain to see that this doesn’t add up.

When watching sport, we focus on the ability of men and the appearance of women, and this is equally common in university life.

At Warwick, I frequently came across the so-called ‘lad banter’ that was unable to celebrate the muscly, toned female athlete. 

 

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At university there was a large men’s cricket team and women could join. But, obviously, with zero female members, this was a little intimidating

 

From personal experience, some men seem to consider a muscly female physique as a downfall. As a hockey player I came across this frequently, when often better players were not incredibly slim, but very fit, strong athletes. 

The BBC survey I mentioned above revealed that 61% of the women said they felt conscious of their body image.

In a university environment, these feelings are hard to escape. Sport at university is a sociable experience and teams mix regularly, which makes it one of the most enjoyable aspects of the student life. However, it also means these comments spread easily. 

We should be celebrating strong and fit athletes regardless of gender, athletes that show dedication to the sport and are great inspirations for aspiring sport fanatics. For example, Serena Williams, one of the most successful tennis players of all time, is strong, powerful, toned and muscly - all traits that have helped her sporting success.

Fortunately, these messages are beginning to spread throughout university life, with different workshops and campaigns encouraging people to appreciate the physique and talent of female athletes. The This Girl Can and Women in Sport campaigns are shining examples.

 

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I truly believe that sport is a platform that can lead the way in equality

 

One area in particular that I believe needs addressing is the sport clubs that don’t have female participation. 

University is a wonderful place to play sport and for many to learn a new sport, but, at my uni some clubs still didn’t have female teams or even female members.

At university there was a large men’s cricket team and, as far as I know, women could join. But, obviously, with zero female members, this was a little intimidating. I hope after the success of Heather Knight and the England cricket team at the Cricket World Cup that this might now have changed.

All sports need to be seen as equally accessible to men and women, which would encourage more women to try sports like cricket.

But this goes both ways - a conscious effort also needs to be made to encourage men to try sports that are stereotypically more popular with women, like dance, cheerleading and netball.

I truly believe sport is a platform that can lead the way in equality. Sport is such a powerful and wonderful thing, and it definitely increased my own enjoyment of university life.

More and more women are going to university and enjoying the great sporting opportunities available to them, which is one of the best consequences of the feminist movement.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to move forward with this? 

I’d love to be part of a society where women continue to enjoy sport, their teams supported by crowds who champion their ability and praise their strong physiques, without falling into sexist banter.

 

 

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