Gender Inequity in Sport: A Focus on Ice Hockey

It is no secret that sports have been, both historically and traditionally, built for and played by men.  “Males competed, coached, organized, publicized, owned, announced, wagered on, and watched sports in virtual exclusion from females” (Lumpkin, Stoll, and Beller, 2012, p. 120).  Society and culture have deemed human traits such as assertiveness, dominance, toughness, tenacity, and leadership synonymous with the typical athlete; and therefor, coupled these qualities with masculinity.

            Societal norms and constraints have invaded the way gender is perceived in the world of athletics.  Boys and girls have specific characteristics embedded at an early age.  Children learn that boys are encouraged to compete in sports while girls are not.  Toys meant for boys are nearly always associated with competitive and vigorous activities while girls’ toys “reinforced passive, cooperative, and domestic play” (Lumpkin, et. al, p. 120).  Sports reinforce and maintain male hegemony because it is viewed by society as an outlet for male aggression and physicality, which is therefore linked to masculinity (Poniatowski, 2014).

By the time girls reach puberty, most girls face “self-imposed, parentally imposed, or socially imposed expectation” (Lumpkin, et. al, p. 120) to leave the world of athletics altogether.  It is at this stage of life that girls risk the chance of being called a tomboy if they choose to participate in aggressive team sports such as baseball or basketball.  A limited number of girls partake in less rigorous sports like golf or tennis post-puberty.

Historical Perspective 

            “Historically, femininity and athleticism have been constructed in opposition, yielding the conventional wisdom that great sport was men’s sport and the corresponding view that women are intruders in the world of sport” (Theberge, 2000, p. 7).  Leading up to the 1970s, opportunities for girls in athletic programs were scarce; simply because society did not encourage girls to develop athletic skills. (Lumpkin, et. al, p. 120).  These limited opportunities were also the result of girls not seeing sport competitions in a professional setting; thus, not seeing a reason to develop these skills. To leap this societal barrier, girls who were interested in sports were required to demonstrate a determination in overcoming discouraging comments and cultural limitations.

            In 1971 the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was formed as the governing organization for women’s athletics at the college level.  Early women’s collegiate programs operated in a state that would pale in comparison with their male counterparts.  Schools did not provide travel accommodations, and coaches often were initially unpaid.  Student athletes had little to no access to training facilities, trainers or marketing.  Also, these student athletes rarely received grants-in-aide.

            Congress passed the Education Amendments of 1972, which became a watershed moment for girls and women in educational opportunities.  Title IX of this legislation stated no school could discriminate in any educational or athletic program on the basis of sex.  This change in the governing bodies of college athletics brought unintended consequences.  Schools have reduced the number of athletic teams or have threatened to do so.  “When teams for both genders are dropped, the stated justification is inevitably the lack of financial resources to support them” (Lumpkin, et. al, p. 126).  If a male team is eliminated, the excuse is largely an effort to achieve proportionality to meet the needs the under-represented gender.

Societal Attitudes & Perception

            “One illustration of societal or psychological pressure placed on females is the emphasis on participating in what some label as feminine sports” (Lumpkin, et. al, p. 127).  This illustration highlights how sport has been framed as gender appropriate.  Due to perceived physiological or physical differences and/or expectations, many people believe that graceful and individual sports such as figure skating or gymnastics are more suited for females.  Those with this viewpoint have a preconceived notion constructed from societal norms that these activities fit the expected images of female behavior (Poniatowski, 2014).

            These societal attitudes and the perception therein can be linked to the media coverage of sports.  Women are traditionally more sexualized with the intent of appearing more feminine, while also appearing to be dependent on men; which is more prevalent in aggressive sports such as hockey.  Poniatowski (2014) explored the framing of women athletes via commentary in order to maintain and preserve gendered and national hegemonies for American audiences.

            Poniatowski’s sampling included US and Canadian women’s 2010 Olympic hockey games.  The research was based on the television broadcast; pre and postgame analysis and interviews with players, and in-studio commentary.  Physicality and feminine constructions of women hockey players were the two main themes that emerged from the study.  The commentators persistently reminded the audience that bodychecking is not allowed in women’s hockey.  “The comments serve to remind audiences that the game is indeed different from the men’s game.”  Poniatowski states that this perception allows the viewer to presume that the women’s game is lacking, or inferior to the men’s game.

            While noting the physicality of the hockey games, the commentary created the notion that “women are still feminine.”  Doug Lidster, the assistant coach on Team Canada, referred to the teddy bears on the bus and the nail polish underneath the players hockey gloves.  In addition, commentators mentioned a pearl necklace worn by a Canadian player.  Doc Emrick, one of the voices on the broadcast, recounted a time when the player’s pearl necklace broke during a game, causing pearls to scatter on the ice.  He referred to the incident as an “embarrassment,” which, Poniatowski concludes, “positions female athletes as intruders into the male world of hockey.”  

Conclusion

            The battle of gender equity unveils paradoxes and contradictions that permeate throughout history; begging to be explored and untangled.  Gilenstam, Karp, and Henriksson-Larsén (2007), studied what they refer to as the “sport nexus” and gender injustice; which included non-normative genders, and the social and economic consequences.  “Much of the critical work on gender and sport that documents its role in reinforcing orthodox masculinity and perpetuating sexism, however, fails to challenge the sex segregated structure of sport itself” (Gilenstam, et. al, 2007).

            Gilenstam, Karp, and Henriksson-Larsén offer several conclusions and prognoses for gender injustice in sport.  One method they propose to solve this issue is to eliminate sex as an organizational category in sport.  They argue that differences in sport performances be solely attributed to “social, political, economic, and psychological discrimination rather than biological factors.”  With this hypothetical, one can assume Title IX would be eliminated, or reformed, to conform to these new factors.

            It may be impossible to understand what the correct path may be.  As it stands now, I believe women’s hockey is becoming more prevalent in the United States and is simply relying on equal broadcasting rights to be recognized as a peer to the National Hockey League.  However, without a major cultural overhaul, same-sex participation would include the still prevalent masculinist perception of the athlete, which would likely decrease female participation in sport altogether.  The future of athletics, and more importantly, the assumptions of the athlete from society, paradoxically relies on society to alter the norms that brought us here to begin with.

References

Gilenstam, K., Karp, S., & Henriksson-Larsén, K. (2007). Gender in ice hockey: women in a male territory. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports18(2), 235–249. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2007.00665.x

Lumpkin, A., Stoll, S. K., & Beller, J. M. (2012). Practical Ethics in Sport Management. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Poniatowski, K. (2014). “The Nail Polish underneath the Hockey Gloves”: NBC’s Framing of Women Hockey Players in the 2010 Winter Olympics. Journal of Sports Media9(1), 23–44. doi: 10.1353/jsm.2014.0000

Theberge, N. (2000). Higher Goals: Women’s Ice Hockey and the Politics of Gender. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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