Gender Inequality Reflected in Sports

Women who participate in sports are often not given the recognition that they deserve as dedicated athletes who work incredibly hard to improve their skills. There is obviously a cultural divide that doesn’t allow men’s and women’s sports to be considered equal. Although women have gained great amounts of respect and now legally have all the same rights as men, there is still something imbedded in American culture that does not allow women to be equal to men in every sense.

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At the start of my research, I was determined to understand this issue of inequality in sports and how peoples’ perceptions of women’s sports are skewed by cultural beliefs.  I researched one woman’s relationship with collegiate club ice hockey and her struggle in the absence of support from her university.  I wished to understand how and why gender inequality in sports exists, and to also shed light on the inequality that women must deal nowadays on a larger scale, such as in the workplace.

To perform my research, I conducted three interviews with the main subject of my research, 33-year-old Catherine, over the telephone, as Catherine now lives in Maryland.  In the first interview, I asked Catherine a few questions about her experiences as a female hockey player, and with each conversation that followed, I rephrased questions that had not been fully answered to the extent I was hoping, and asked new questions to dig deeper into some of the topics.  I was also able to conduct one interview, again over the telephone, with Catherine’s mother Jane who remembers Catherine’s struggles with hockey in college well.  I asked Jane similar questions about Catherine’s experiences; obtaining an “outsider’s” view was important to understanding the situation.  I chose to use a structured interview style with both Catherine and Jane.

The object of my study was the women’s club ice hockey team at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont.  I was specifically studying one former player’s experiences from 1999-2001, and the possible gender inequality that was present; the university’s treatment of the men’s hockey team was very different from the treatment of the women’s team.  It is important to note that women’s and men’s ice hockey do have slightly different rules; most of the differences allow the men to play much more violently and aggressively than the women can.  Rules and regulations surrounding the rink and equipment are the same for both sexes.  The object of the game is to get the small rubber puck into the opponent’s net using a stick that is shaped somewhat like an L.  Each goal counts for one point against the opposing team.  Players are required to wear hockey skates, which do not have picks like figure skates, and extensive protective gear that includes a helmet, shoulder pads, a neck guard, and kneepads.  Each team is allowed six players, including the goalkeeper, on the ice at one time, unless there are penalties, in which case there will be fewer players.  There are three periods in each game, and each period is 20 minutes long. During this time, there are many possible penalties, including ones for spraying the goalkeeper with ice shavings, tripping, and for having a high stick.  However, checking, which is a huge part of the strategy in men’s ice hockey, is not permitted for women.  The NCAA says that “body checking occurs when a player’s intent is to gain possession of the puck by separating the puck carrier from the puck with a distinct and definable moment of impact,” and apparently this action is not acceptable for women.  

Catherine’s interviews revealed that she was a very committed hockey player.  She was an ice hockey player for two years in high school, then for three years on her college club team; she most often played left wing on offense.  Catherine’s team was not a sanctioned Norwich University team when she joined; it was merely a club.  Women’s ice hockey was new to the school, and was most definitely overshadowed by the men’s team, the infamous Norwich Cadets.  The stands of Kreitzberg Arena at Norwich boasts the ability to accommodate 3,000 spectators for hockey games; Catherine and her mother Jane both recall the stands being completely packed (with mostly Norwich supporters) during the fast-paced and high-energy men’s matches.  However, Catherine remembers the largest crowds at her games were only about 40 people, most of whom were family members of players, like her mother and younger sister. 

Catherine has memories of most of her peers and players on the men’s team being supportive of the women’s hard work and dedication.  However, Catherine did say that at one point in her college career, she and her teammates had to convince the school band that they deserved to have a band play at their games as much as the men did; the band did not want to put in the effort or time to play at a non-varsity hockey game.  Kreitzburg arena was the site of men’s and women’s practices, as well as free-skating opportunities for the community.  The men were given first pick of a practice time, then times were reserved for the community members, and Catherine’s team was able to use the rink during whatever time slot was left.  She remembers often not being allowed to practice until 11:30pm and not arriving home after practice until 1:00am.  Catherine explained that her team tried to make their games as exciting as the men’s game, but it was very difficult when they did not have everyone’s support and no one seemed to want to accept them as equals.  

The university itself definitely did not approve of the women’s team.  By Catherine’s account, for the first four years of Norwich women’s hockey, the university only contributed “cheap” game jerseys and a few pucks to the women, while they supplied everything to the men.  There was no university money set aside to pay women’s coaches, even a few years later when the university did agree to pay for nicer jerseys and equipment.  I had to wonder why Norwich University treated their hockey teams so unequally.  They were so generous with the men’s team and so supportive, but hardly acknowledged the presence of a women’s team.  The lack of support had to either have cultural influences, or financial, or a combination of the two.

The saying “old habits die hard” comes to mind when trying to analyze why Norwich University struggled with showing support for a women’s team.  It is difficult for old ideas to just disappear, and this was the underlying issue at Norwich.  Catherine revealed a very important piece of information in one of her interviews; the university was first founded as a college only for military men in 1819.  The first African American was allowed to attend the university in 1916, but women were not allowed until 1974, only 37 short years ago.  Civilians were barred from enrolling at the university until 1994.  I can only assume that it would take years for a college, that until 1974 did not even allow women to attend, to accept and recognize the existence of a women’s sports team.  The school most likely did not accept female applicants at first because they did not consider women and men equal, and it would be difficult for that same school to believe that women’s sports should be taken as seriously as men’s.

Jere Longman’s explanation of myths surrounding women’s sports are particularly important in understanding the origin of the unequal treatment of women in sports.  Longman, in his article “Babe City,” mentioned that there is a sexist myth about female athletes.  Many people believe that women who play sports are unfeminine, weak and not as good as men. The apparent lack of femininity among female athletes is the source of the “female apologetic,” another idea that Longman discussed. “Female apologetic” is apparently a term coined by feminists, and is used to describe what many athletic women do when they feel that they are “losing” or not fully performing their femininity.  These women often feel pressured to model for magazines, sometimes nude, paint their nails and do other things that symbolize femininity.  Some feel that these acts are necessary to maintain their images as women, others feel that they are necessary to draw a fan base to their sport.  Alternatively, many female athletes think that it is ridiculous that women feel they must present themselves using some kind of culturally-defined image in order to be successful in their sport.  In Longman’s article, Donna de Varona, the chairwoman of the World Cup organizing committee, expressed her dislike for this fact. She revealed that there is a definite double-standard in this case by saying, “We always have to prove that we’re feminine and sexy.  We can be tough and sweaty and a sex-symbol; if we do that, we’re acceptable.  Michael Jordan didn’t have to take off his clothes.”

The idea that women must make up for their lack of femininity in sport is a very common belief among people today.  The male athletes in this year’s Sports Illustrated Body Issue, like speed skater Apolo Ohno and baseball player Jose Reyes, had photos that focused on showcasing their amazing muscles and athletic bodies.  Most of the women’s photos in the issue, such as golfer Belen Mozo’s and surfer Stephanie Gilmore’s, are more artistic, and highlight the softness of their skin and their curves.  It is difficult for women to be recognized in sports unless they make a point to show their femininity.  Catherine and her teammates just wanted to play hockey and gain the respect that they deserved from their university as hard-working and committed athletes, but never made any point to show off their femininity.  It is a saddening argument, but evidence from Longman’s article suggests that perhaps many women’s sports gain a fan base only after the players show the world that they still have hips and like to paint their nails.

Mary Louise Adams’ discussion of how people perceive women’s sports is similar to Longman’s.  In 1998, just a year before Catherine began her hockey career at Norwich, Suzanne Laberge and Mathieu Albert conducted a study in which they asked students to define a “girl’s sport.”  One participant reportedly said that, “male sports are about strength and women’s sports are about beauty.”  Another said that women’s sports are, “finesse sports mostly based on movement,” and, “men’s sports are mostly rough, with physical contact and strategy.”  This is strong evidence that these ideas were present during Catherine’s experiences at Norwich University.  It is a part of the American culture to view women as more graceful but weak, and to view men as strong and rugged.  Considering this, it makes sense that a sport like ice hockey, which is largely about using bodily strength and agility to overcome another player, is largely believed to be a “man’s sport.”

Adams also discussed the work of a physical educator named Eleanor Metheny.  Metheny began work in 1939 on the science of races and athletic performance, but eventually shifted her focus to gender inequality in sports and released the results of her work in 1964 in an essay.  Adams wrote that Metheny’s, “work implicitly acknowledges that the gender characteristics accommodated by different sports are historically and culturally specific.”  Each sport has a particular set of gender characteristics that are acceptable within the sport, and these have been culturally defined since the invention of sport.  Although these theories were presented about 35 years before Catherine experienced ice hockey, they most definitely still apply today.  It is not easy for individuals who live within American culture to drop old ideas and alter the acceptable characteristics for a game like ice hockey that, Metheny believes, accepts the gender characteristics of men more easily than those of women. 

Adams also points out that Metheny believed that there are culturally acceptable “movement norms” that dictate how a man or a woman is to move their body in order to still be able to attract a mate.  Sports have made it fairly easy for men to show that they are fit to mate, but only certain sports do the same for women.  Although this idea sounds very primitive, almost like we are discussing the mating rituals of a wild animal, these kinds of ideas are definitely secretly encoded in US culture and in the minds of Americans.  It is not coded in the nature of an American to accept women who perform masculine acts, although I do believe we are becoming more tolerant as a society.  Catherine was truly witnessing a divide among the different generations at Norwich University; the younger individuals, the students, had evolved to accept women as equals, but the people in charge of the university, who we can only assume were older than the students, were harping on old ideas of inequality.  Now, ideas may have changed slightly and the university may be developing into an institution that is more accepting of women and their abilities.

Perhaps two of the factors that made the men’s ice hockey team at Norwich so valuable to the university were the team’s financial contributions to the university and the team’s ability to foster a sense of community among university students and within the town of Northfield itself.  I suspect that these same two factors were what made the women’s hockey team in the early 2000s unimportant in the minds of university officials at Norwich.  Catherine said that the men’s hockey team was a big deal, and still is.  Some of the best players in the country are recruited to play with the Cadets.  The success of the men’s hockey team means income for the university, both through tuition from the players and from other students who choose to attend Norwich for the strong men’s hockey program; talented sports teams are often a factor that students are attracted to when selecting a college to attend.  The university understands that if they input funds to improve the men’s hockey team by actively recruiting players, supplying nice equipment and advertising the team, they will make a profit from tuition as well as alumni donations. 

An excellent sports team is able to foster a sense of community and unity, both within the university itself and within the surrounding town.  One can only assume that this is a factor that determines the full success of a team and an institution.  In his book titled The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim discusses the significance of collective experiences and community.  He points out that when people share in experiences, lasting knowledge and perhaps relationships, form.  According to Durkheim, everything we know as humans comes from our experiences in society, and we are comforted when we have a specific place in the community.  Experiencing social gatherings is what makes us human.  Catherine highlighted in one of her interviews that Northfield rallied around the men’s hockey team.  The team truly brought everyone together over a common interest and a common goal, which was for the Cadets to win; and they did win, often.  Catherine said that Northfield is one of the most patriotic and supportive communities she has ever seen, and she has lived in many military towns.  It is amazing that just a hockey team from a small local college is able to unite an entire town, and this is what made Norwich men’s hockey such an important investment for the university. 

Catherine believes that her team did not have the ability to foster a sense of community, simply because there was little knowledge of the women’s team in the community.  She described Northfield as a “traditional” town in which men’s ice hockey has become customary.  Women’s ice hockey was almost foreign and questionable.  Catherine always thought that it would be hard for the university to evolve and learn to treat the women’s ice hockey team equally.  Community is obviously something that is very important in American culture and to social wellbeing, and the university is simply choosing to support a team that can easily unite an entire community over one that they do not believe has the same potential. 

As I have shown in my study of the women’s club ice hockey team at Norwich University, inequality towards women is truly present.  There are numerous reasons for this inequality; the university’s ideas are largely influenced by the fact that the school originally did not even allow women to attend, let alone play on a sports team.  It takes many years for old beliefs and old habits to fall away, and Norwich University may still be harping on old ideas.  The university has two things to gain from a talented and successful sports team- both money, through tuition and from selling tickets to matches, and the ability to create a sense of community within Northfield and among the students.  It is very logical that Norwich chose to contribute funds to a team that they knew would deliver the desired results, and this team was men’s ice hockey.  However, it is important to point out that the women’s ice hockey team was helplessly trapped within a cycle.  It is true, even by Catherine’s account, that the women’s team did not have the ability to foster a sense of community or bring income to the university, but the lack of support from the university was causing this.  The university did not give the same equipment to the women, did not advertise the women’s team to the community, and did not contribute funds to recruiting highly talented women to the team.  Catherine is thankful that she was able to play ice hockey in college, and does not believe that she had the skill to be able to make a varsity team; but, she said herself that the only way anyone will take a women’s hockey team seriously is if the players are recruited or professional.  Because the university was not treating the women’s team equally, people naturally did not believe that they had the same potential as the men’s team. 

My observations in this study can be used to help understand the broader issue of inequality in the United States.  Studies have shown that women are at a disadvantage, even today, in almost every facet of life, including in educational accomplishment, career opportunities, governmental participation, and in reproductive health.  The United Nations Development Program website has recorded the Gender Inequality Index value for many countries, including the US.  This value is on a scale of zero (men and women are equal in each of the areas previously stated) to one (men and women are as unequal as possible in every area previously stated).  Even in 2011, the United States has a Gender Inequality Index value of about 0.30.  This means that women are only given equal opportunities and treatment about 70% of the time.  Women have equal rights, but still do not always get equal treatment. 

The culture of the United States today is largely influenced by the culture of the United States decades ago, and by money.  Old ideas tell us that women are not equal to men, women do not have the ability to do the things that men do well, and women do not have the potential to achieve great things.  People who are still stuck on these old ideas are holding women back, simply because they do not believe that women have the talents that they truly do.  And because the American culture is so influenced by money, greed, and material items, many people assume that if women are not equal to men, then women will not make as much profit as a man.  It is beneficial to study inequality issues on a smaller scale, such as in a college women’s club ice hockey team, in order to understand inequality in other aspects of life; I think that the source of inequality in each situation is the same.  Old ideas still are very present in the culture of the United States today, as much as we may think we have changed.  The concern with profit in the US paired with old beliefs about inequality mean that women are not always given an equal chance to do the things that men do, and it may be many years before these ideas change.

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