MONTPELLIER, France – Women’s sports have come a long way in the last half century. But they are still nowhere near on par with men’s sports, in terms of participation, depth of field, or funding. What is stalling the progress?
One limitation is stereotypes, which in many ways have changed startlingly little. It’s taken as a fact that women’s bodies aren’t capable of the types of performances turned in by men. Yet in a recent review published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, authors noted that innate physical differences can’t fully explain the difference between men’s and women’s athletic performance.
Many stereotypes and expectations have psychosocial effects on women from the very day they are born: what they wear, how they play, how adults interact with them. As girls get older, there’s the expectation to look pretty, to get married, and to have a family – and maybe leave a promising career to take care of the kids. All of this contributes, research shows, to the differences in both participation and performance between the sexes.
Among the researchers who published that review is Julie Boiché. She’s a psychology researcher at the Epsylon Laboratory, a collaboration between three universities housed in this southern French city which bills itself as an “interdisciplinary research unit dedicated to the human sciences and health.”
Sports aren’t what Boiché, a slim woman with biceps that Michelle Obama would envy and an elegant streak of white through her dark-gray hair, set out to focus on. In her career so far, Boiché has studied gender stereotypes and expectations in many aspects of life, from academics to professional settings.
But it’s not a strange direction for her take, either. Boiché plays rugby, a sport which in France is definitely considered to be for men.
“There was a student who came [to our team] and did a survey about it, talking with some of the male staff members,” Boiché recounts. “She felt that we were tolerated, nothing more. And sometimes we had feedback where they’d say, ‘actually, we’re really surprised that you can play!’”
Of course, most people don’t come right out and say that, even if they think it. Stereotypes can be expressed in subtle ways, yet still have a huge impact.
And while nordic sports are pretty egalitarian – at least compared to rugby – there are plenty of ways that these gender expectations are ingrained into athletes’ daily lives: the relative rarity of female coaches, even for female athletes. The shallower depth of field at almost every level of racing. And, fairly uniquely to skiing, the different distances for women and men.
“I think it definitely marks differences, to say, ‘you can’t do the same distance because you’re just a woman’,” Boiché says of the setup. “Nothing legitimizes that, because you are just as highly-trained of an athlete. You can run the same distance, even if the male and female times are different.”
So what is the impact of being reminded, weekend after weekend, that you’re different from a man? And why are situations like this deemed “okay” by the sporting world and the general public? That’s what Boiché and her lab has set out to study.
Experiments and Surveys
In psychology, stereotypes are defined as sets of beliefs about behavior or personality that are shared by a group of people. There are two ways to consider their effects: as internalized, or as situational.
The internalization hypothesis tests the idea that the extent to which someone is affected by a stereotype depends on whether they endorse it or not. If they believe that a stereotype is true, then it will have an effect on them.
The situational hypothesis is more broad. It states that anyone can be affected by stereotypes, as long as they are exposed to them. It doesn’t matter if they agree with the stereotype, if they are ambivalent, or if they actively fight it.
Boiché gives an example of a situational effect from the academic realm.
“Some very famous studies show that if you present a task as a drawing task, girls and going to be better, but if you present it as a geometry task, they will be worse than boys, even if it is the exact same task,” she explains. “It is just the stress, the pressure induced when you know that your group is considered as worse and you are afraid of confirming those stereotypes. You become less focused.”
In sports, the internalization hypothesis is mainly used to study participation, while the situational hypothesis is used to study performance.
“In the [internalization] sense, what we are working on is to what degree people agree with the stereotypes that men differ, and that sports are not as appropriate [for women],” Boiché says.
This approach seeks to answer questions like those raised by Canadian Olympic gold medalist Chandra Crawford’s Fast and Female events: how can adolescent girls be encouraged to stay in sports?
“We assume that if people endorse such stereotypes, then girls would be less likely to engage in sports,” Boiché explains. “Maybe they associate their gender with other kinds of activities. The idea is that in adolescence, gender identity becomes increasingly important and young women that identify strongly with femininity, if they endorse the stereotypes, would be more likely to drop out.”
Assessing how people endorse these stereotypes is not an easy task for many reasons, but primarily because people are not always honest.
“Women won’t necessarily tell you if they consider sports not to be for women,” Boiché laments. “But they will make choices in different proportions in men. You see that females drop out more than males, but at the same time they would deny that this is because of stereotypes.”
The situational approach, on the other hand, can be studied in a less biased and more experimental manner; it is often applied to individual tasks. For instance, researchers can present a female athlete with a stereotype, and then ask them to perform a skill or technique. Women who take sports seriously probably don’t buy into the notion that athletics are a male domain – yet knowing that others do can still affect their performance.
In a world where Marit Bjørgen exists, along with Brittney Griner, Lindsey Vonn, Serena Williams, and Abby Wambach, and where women have made appearances everywhere from NASCAR to the Kentucky Derby – why do these stereotypes still even exist?
Changing people’s perceptions, says Boiché, is hard. She and PhD student Melissa Plaza recently completed a study looking at participation by sex in a variety of sports, as well as people’s perceptions of those sports. They found nearly a perfect match: if more women did a sport, it was considered “appropriate” for women. If more men did a sport, it was considered a “men’s sport.”
(There is also a stereotype against men doing sports that are perceived to be more appropriate for women, which Plaza believes is very important to study more. But the problems for women, she says, are greater: “It is not the same degree of conflict. For instance, a male dancer is going to be athletic anyway, [conforming to norms] since in social life men are expected to be muscular, even if they are not very large.”)
Boiché called it a vicious circle.
“As long as people think like that, it will be hard to change behavior,” she says. “Young children and adolescents don’t want to play a sport that is not ‘appropriate,’ and the parents won’t push them.”
The women recount a story about a young participant in one of their studies. The girl wanted to play rugby; she signed up secretly because she knew her parents wouldn’t approve. Her mother found out and actually forbade her from playing; she was worried, she said. It’s a dangerous sport, and her daughter might break her nose.
The kicker? It was a rugby family. The mother had not forbade any of her sons from playing.
“People actually believe these stereotypes, that women are just physical capital and you have to keep that,” Boiché marvels.
“It’s crazy,” Plaza agrees. “You have to change behaviors before you can change perceptions.”
It’s a seemingly impossible proposition. So in the last part of her PhD, Plaza hopes to study whether it’s possible to change people’s perceptions before changing their behavior.
For questions like this, researchers use computers and ask participants to do a task, like associating two words. Do they click faster, for example, when they’re presented with “men” and “sports” than with “women” and “sports”? This type of “implicit” study removes the bias and dishonesty the researchers encounter with survey-based methods.
The plan is to examine whether being shown images of female athletes affects the way that participants make these associations.
“That’s the question – if we present a model of someone that contrasts stereotypical behavior, will people realize that this person is as able in these sports?” Boiché asks. “And then that she’s not a man, that she’s feminine? Maybe that can change things.”
She could be talking about Plaza. Sitting across the table, the 25-year-old researcher wears a pink shirt with delicate shell buttons; and her long hair bounces as she moves. Her posture is perfect. She’s on point and slightly nervous, since she wasn’t sure she would be comfortable doing an interview in English. (She speaks, of course, very well.)
So when she talks about broadcasting images that contrast stereotypes, you imagine, well, her. Besides conducting experiments and writing papers, Plaza is a professional soccer player, which is why she’s so interested in these questions in the first place. The midfielder has played an average of 78 minutes in 16 matches of the French championship league; in that time she has received two yellow cards for the Montpellier team, which is ranked fourth in the country.
(For American skiing, this moment came when Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall – flipping their blonde hair and batting their lashes – marched atop the World Championships podium. Fast? Athletic? Feminine.)
Despite the many, many examples of women who go completely against the stereotype that ladies shouldn’t do sports, and that those that do are more like men because of it, Boiché points out that as yet, they have “no solutions.”
Even in 2013, women’s sports are often treated as a lower level. Plaza, for instance, is paid a fraction of what even the worst male players on French professional squads receive. Her team, she says, practices even more than the men’s team – and the women hold jobs or are students, while the men just play soccer. Sports aren’t perceived in the same way in every country, and soccer is a particularly striking example. In the United States, it’s seen as neutral, or appropriate for both men and women. In Europe, Boiché says, “it’s really the male sport.”
So Plaza, and other female athletes, are exposed to stereotypes all the time, even if they don’t buy into them.
“In the last few years, all these sexist declarations have been made by coaches,” Boiché fumes. “When you do the kind of job that we are doing, it’s surprising. You say, ‘what? We’re in 2013 now!’ Just this year there was a soccer coach who said – he was unhappy with what a woman commented on the radio – and he said ‘well, I never talk about soccer with women, they don’t get it and she should just go back to her kitchen.’”
And even within her team of highly dedicated athletes, Plaza still sees women who endorse the stereotypes that she studies.
“I often hear that they will have to stop their career at 40 so they can have children,” she says. “But what is the problem? You can have a child and then go back to your career. It’s not a problem for me.”
It’s just one example of what the researchers often encounter in their work: women who at the same time endorse and completely reject stereotypes. Another example has to do with body image.
“For women, at the same time that they are happy about their body because it is efficient, powerful, and strong, it also doesn’t fit societal expectations – like to be good-looking, you have to be thin, little, delicate,” Boiché says. “So not really muscular.”
This presents some athletes with a mental tug-of-war, an internal disagreement. Until the stereotypes disappear, these contradictions will likely continue to be a source of both conscious and unconscious stress for female athletes.
Besides their experiments, Plaza and Boiché discussed some more society-level topics that are often brought up when discussing women’s sports. For instance, what if there were more female coaches? Would that provide more role models, and keep girls playing sports for longer?
But the lack of female coaches is a product of the same stereotypes that limit women’s participation as athletes, plus all of those that go along with professional life, or even just the desire to have children and spend time with them at home.
“The characteristics of the job are more appropriated for men, because you have to be self-confident, you have to be a leader, you have to be many many things that are male-typed,” Plaza said. “So maybe that’s a barrier for women to be able to get this opportunity.”
Then there’s the media aspect. Women’s sports exist, but they aren’t broadcast as often. Plaza thought that changing that ratio might help change people’s perceptions, seeing female athletes more frequently might make it more “appropriate” to be one.
But Boiché wasn’t sure.
“I think the hard thing is that when people have a really strong opinion about something, it is really hard to make them change,” she said. “I’m not sure coverage would change this kind of vision.”
For Plaza, the best she can do to try to solve the problem is to keep researching, and trying to understand what drives people’s perceptions.
That, and keep playing soccer.
“For the moment we have no choice but to keep playing, to stay involved in the sport and to be better and better,” she concludes.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.