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How language shapes gender stereotypes in sport

Copyrights: Creative Commons: Nick Youngson

How language shapes gender stereotypes in sport

What effect does word choice have on our perception of female athletes?

From knee push-ups becoming “girl push-ups” to the classic cliché “you throw like a girl”, language can reveal stereotypes about women in sport. This simultaneously links femininity with poor athletic ability and shames men for having these qualities.

While this type of blatant insult is becoming more and more stigmatised, women still face stereotypes, particularly in the media. The results can be damaging to the way we perceive female athletes and discouraging to young girls taking up sport. 

A 2016 study by the Cambridge University Press found that men are referenced in the media two to three times more than women. In multiple sources, male athletes are associated with ‘fastest’, ‘strong’, ‘beat’, ‘win’, and ‘dominate’, while female athletes are associated with ‘aged’, ‘pregnant’, ‘married’, ‘compete’, ‘participate’ and ‘strive’.

This reveals a clear bias associating women with their appearance and domesticity, and insinuating a lesser capacity to win. Much of this language comes from an inability to see beyond traditional gender roles, which are still prevalent in many cultures.

Another difference is that of titles: men’s sport is often considered the norm, while women’s sport is given a qualifier. For example, we often refer to the male team as simply ‘basketball’ whereas female teams become ‘women’s basketball’.

Changing the narrative

The problem with such differences are that they are often subtle and go unnoticed. This is why it is important to pay attention to language surrounding sport. One way you can get involved in calling attention to the subject is through social media.

A social media campaign launched by Nollaig O’Sullivan and Maire Treasa Ní Cheallagh is hoping to raise awareness of inequality by sharing the hashtag #ChooseStrength accompanied by examples (both positive and negative) of language use regarding female athletes.

As long as male athletes ‘dominate’ while female athletes ‘strive’, there will continue to be a difference in the perception of athletic ability. By pointing out everyday occurrences of gender inequality, it becomes easier to recognise and consequently easier to change. 


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Tuesday, May 23, 2017 - 08:46