Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Power of gender in sport

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Sport is a powerful global arena [1]. Burstyn asserts that sports engage people in a shared experience which can be a uniting force that bonds divisions of society[2]. However, it also possesses the normative power to strengthen the social standards that create these divisions, like gender for example.[3]

Given sport’s cultural and global relevance, it provides a key power base in the socialisation and presentation of gender[4]. As Hall argues, ""Sport today represents not only a global movement but also a highly institutionalised cultural practise that helps to maintain male hegemony in our societies"" (Hall, 1990 in Hovden and Pfister, 2006:p4)[5]. Sport has, historically, been male-dominated yet more recently has also been a medium in the movement towards gender equality. Sport thus holds a key position for both fortifying traditional hetero-normative gender identities as well as being a vehicle for social and cultural change [6].

Disciplinary viewpoints[edit | edit source]

Business [edit | edit source]

Business is an important discipline regarding the gender gap in sports, it illustrates the dominance of men in this sector through differences in sponsorships, salaries, and attention given by organisations and big companies. It has been observed by Vogue[7] that these inequalities are most represented in team sports with tennis being the one where the pays are the most similar.

Numbers are the best way to underline the issue. In WNBA (Women NBA), the highest salary in 2019 was $117,500 against $37.4 million for men. This discrepancy is proportional to what the organisation generates on top of the sponsors, WNBA generates “$25 million annually from its TV deal with ESPN” whilst the NBA is closer to $2.5 billion.[7] Another good example is football, where FIFA for the Women's World Cup gave out a total of $40 million to the winning teams against $400 million for the Men's World Cup[8].

The inequalities in money invested between men and women are purely the result of business statistics and decisions. There is an issue of the demography of the audience: according to a survey led by Statistica with 9,690 respondents worldwide in 2019, the audience for sports events is at 76% men.[9] As men tend to watch men, there are bigger investments there despite in some cases a lower revenue: still according to Forbes[7], the USA women's team with 4 World Cups are paid $4,950 per game against $13,166 for the men's USA team (22nd in the FIFA ranking and generating less revenue). Male-dominant audiences also pushed firms to sexualise women in certain sports to stimulate and grow its audience: the commercial logic of “sex sales”[10]. It is sometimes done through using lingerie as uniforms such as in Women's American Football or Beach Volley. Through man-targeted advertisements, bigger investments in men and sexualisations of women, the business of sports is man-oriented.

In order to see some change in business, there would need to be more women in positions of power in organisations like FIFA, UEFA, NBA and in multinationals. Additionally, marketing women’s sports as a distinct category instead of directly comparing to men's would build the logic that a female athlete is no longer a woman playing a man’s game but simply an athlete.[11]

Sociology[edit | edit source]

The advent of the second wave of the feminist movement in the second half of the 20th century indicated enormous changes in the social order and intellectual discourse of the Western world. The issue of gender inequality in sport has suddenly gained a lot of relevance and importance as a subject of sociological analysis[12].

Research in this field has been substantially pushed forward by the publication of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison which identified the notion of normalizing power[13] and demonstrated the involvement of social institutions in the construction of gender roles and cultural norms. By adopting this perspective, sociologists started to recognise patriarchal structures that prevailed in male-dominated sports associations which over the years extensively contributed to the marginalisation of women in athletics[12].

Feminist scholarships proved to be especially consistent and efficient in identifying instances of power abuse and gender discrimination in sport. Conducted studies show that predominantly masculine imagery of sports in marketing and education alongside a high negative discrepancy of women’s sports in global media coverage[14][15] (with only 6-8% of all sports news being devoted to women[16] ) have played significant roles in the propagation of asymmetrical ideologies of gender that legitimise the perceived natural superiority of men[17].

With the established theoretical framework, sociologists have continued to analyse power structures that reinforce oppressive gender stereotypes. Mackinnon (1987) argued that culture, by the means of normalizing processes, has evolved to perceive masculine identity to be a personification of strength, resilience, speed, physical dominance, aggression, competitiveness, and confrontational spirit, while feminine identity to be a representation of weakness, passiveness, sensitivity, and grace[18][19]. Further research provides evidence that adopting these characteristics and conforming to traditional gender roles often has a destructive effect on individual sporting experiences of both women and men. EIGE’s Gender Equality Index clearly shows that women who comply with the conventional paradigm of femininity, that confines them to caring activities, often find themselves participating less in other social activities such as sports and leisure[20].

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

There is an evident conflict in how disciplines view gender bias in sport. Business, although acknowledging the gender bias, has tended to ignore the social consequences of its’ sector’s decisions to champion male dominance in favour of reaping the economic benefits of the sport industry[21]. Feminist sociological scholarship provides a critical stance towards the cultural and social institutions which, they argue, fortify oppressive behaviours and undermine women’s capability to make life choices[20]. They view the acts of the business sector as perpetuations and normalisations of internalised gender stereotypes and thus, indirect assertions of power[4].

This friction between business and sociology can itself be seen as a power dynamic. Each discipline holds a unique epistemology and thus distinct viewpoints and contributions, an absence of communication or acceptance between disciplines causes tension. The business sector’s apparent ignorance or dismissal of sociological theory can be explained through the arguable incongruence of the two disciplines. Firstly, they seem to function on different operational planes with sociology championing theoretical application, and business, pragmatic action. Secondly, they tend towards contrasting methodological practices, despite significant overlap, sociology gravitates towards the qualitative, and business, quantitative empiricism[22][23]. These discrepancies are evident in this case study: business focuses on the differences between genders and sociology emphasises the similarities, business highlights the contrast in earning potential and performance where sociology attempts to discredit them. Gender bias in sport as a case study exhibits the difficulties of approaching a problem with fixed academic frameworks; mono-disciplinarity results in reductionist approaches to real-world issues.

Recently, interaction on this topic between these two disciplines has increased. Media campaigns and sponsorship of female sport with sociological foundations has surged. A notable mention is the Always’ ‘Like a Girl’ 2014 campaign which presented gender stereotypes as learnt, highlighting the importance of gender socialisation, empowering girls globally to regain power in sport.[24][25] [26]. This is just one example of the benefits of interdisciplinarity when approaching real-world issues.

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  24. Our Epic Battle #LikeAGirl [Internet]. 2020 [cited 13 December 2020]. Available from:
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  26. Case study: Always #LikeAGirl [Internet]. 2015 [cited 13 December 2020]. Available from: