Charlotte Greenwood writes for The Level Playing Field about how gendered separation in school sport can have a lasting impact on sport more generally, and our perception of women within it.
I won’t admit that I am an expert in this field, nor am I going to suggest that the whole sporting curriculum is turned on its head – but I do have some slight discomfort when I think back to sport at a young age.
Whilst it may have changed since the days of shorts and vests in the school hall, I do know that sport and PE classes, were, and still are, highly gendered activities.
I don’t think I am at fault for saying that whilst the boys were thrown into the cold, running around the school pitch, trying their hand at football and rugby, us girls were inside, practicing our pliés and gymnastic bends and countless pirouettes. Whilst I jest slightly, I think my point is clear – sport is gendered from the early stages of our education – from primary right the way through to secondary school.
Numerous factors are at play here, but it is no doubt that the way we are introduced to sport in our early years, is a key determiner in how we view the industry, and participation, as we grow older.
Within this piece, I hope to breakdown the impact of this gendered formation of sport, how it begins in infancy and manifests itself as we grow older. The way we learn, participate, and are ultimately grouped in sport, is a key factor in overall attitudes. Surely, if we challenge this structure at infancy, encourage participation without the separation, the change will manifest in positive ways for all?
But first, why do we historically separate activity by gender?
As children reach 10 to 11 years old and begin to hit puberty, size and strength differences become more pronounced, and discrepancies in height and weight can begin to pose security concerns.
Traditionally, girls enter puberty 2 years before boys do and after puberty, boys gain an advantage in both strength and size. For this reason, safety and fairness have dictated that boys and girls should no longer compete against each other in most sports.
However, whilst this reasoning is somewhat plausible, many experts are now beginning to refute this view, with the emphasis being placed on the real necessity for mixed-gendered sport to continue beyond these prior age cut-offs. It is no longer justified to pull the ‘boys are stronger than girls’ card, and there is in fact, a real need to push co-ed sports as a whole.
Why is mixed sport a good thing?
Beyond my own reasons for why I think mixed sport is a key determiner in our attitudes to gender, it doesn’t take a lot of research to find some great reasons.
Beyond the excuse of physicality, co-ed sports have been praised for the qualities it teaches in each group. I came across a quote from Tottenham Hotspur winger, Gemma Davidson, and her justification for the value in playing football with boys, that holds some useful insight:
“The boys bring out the physicality in the girls and the girls bring out the ‘when are you going to listen?’ … Secretly, for a long time, I used to play with my [male] friends on the local Astro. You can’t just sprint past a guy, because he’s quicker. That moulded me as a player, beating people with trickery and not just speed.”
Here, Davidson’s acknowledgment of physicality and skill, speed, and trickery, really encapsulates the benefits of boys and girls working, and most importantly, learning, from one another through sport.
This is definitely something I can identify with, but it is only towards my late teens and early-twenties, that I started to train alongside my male counterparts.
In my A levels, my Wednesday afternoons were spent trying out various sports activities from ultimate frisbee to skiing at the local indoor slope. The mixture of male bravado and the girls challenging the boys to think practically rather than forcefully was a refreshing mix that I hadn’t quite experienced in the lessons previously.
Then, just a few years later whilst at university, I joined the rowing team. Whilst we competed by gender at competitions, each and every training session, from warm-up runs, erg sessions, and weight circuits were all completed alongside the men in the squad. Our programmes varied, but not to much degree, and timings, locations, and session lengths, were a ‘one size fits all’ package.
Without a doubt, this changed the way I participate, watch and approach the topic of sport. From my own perspective, I have been challenged to work alongside women, whilst training with men, in an entirely level field.
I am well aware of the disparity in sport, I know that women are still extremely undervalued in sports such as football and rowing alike. However, from an isolated experience, playing sport with both genders, is not something I would just actively recommend but would deem it as one of the most significant contributors to sport becoming a more inclusive industry for all.
So, why is mixed sport so important for our attitudes to the industry?
The main reason why I place such a weighted interest on mixed-gendered sport, and training, is the added benefits it brings to participation, wellbeing, and generating real life-lessons.
Research has shown that there is a proven link between gender equality and building respectful relationships between men and women, whether that is on, or off the pitch.
Placing men and women in a competitive environment together, in the early years of sport participation, does not just build these positive values, attitudes, and behaviours towards sport, but it also works to normalise, and celebrate participation and success in the sector, irrespective of your gender.
Building positive attitudes to mixed gendered sport at a younger level builds up this respect that we can hope to see across the industry. If boys recognise and acknowledge the value of training with girls at school, as a unified group in their PE lessons, for example, the opportunity to build respect and acknowledge worth, is undoubtable.
We all know the common complaints of sports generally being male-dominated with the football leagues being a clear indicator of this imbalance. This article could have listed all the ways women and men are different, how men are suited to some sports and women excel at others – but this is not my focus.
My focus is shifting our expectations with action. Asking schools, universities, and local clubs to mix up their training structures is just one way to do this. Introducing sessions to train men and women together, encourage a collaborative approach where skills are exchanged and co-operation is prioritised. These simple steps can hope to normalise sport as an industry for all. That is the most important message here, and, shifting perceptions of gender in sport, can only start from the ground up.
This article was written by Charlotte Greenwood. Charlotte is an English graduate from the University of Bristol with a Masters in Sociology. She spent her years at university as a senior member of the University of Bristol Boat Club and now works in PR in Manchester.