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Women and Sports: Levelling the Playing Field?

FRIDAY FILE - The 2012 London Olympics was a remarkable moment for women in sports, chronicling the achievements of female athletes, while highlighting their continued struggle against sexism and stereotypes.

Maria Bobenrieth, Executive Director of Women Win, an organisation that uses sports as a tool to advance women’s rights globally, spoke to AWID about what women’s participation in the London Olympics and sports in general means for women’s rights and development.

By Amanda Shaw

Sports and Stereotypes

Women’s participation in sports[i] varies geographically and historically[ii] and social differences such as class, gender,[iii]age, race, sexuality and ability (among others) all influence what sports “count” and who gets to play. Sports are especially important sites for (re)producing ideas about femininity and masculinity, and the playing field is far from level -- males bodies are assumed to be ‘naturally’ bigger, stronger and faster than female bodies. Dworkin and Messner linked the development of organized sports to attempts to establish the “natural” superiority of white, middle-class males over women and race- and class-subordinated groups.[iv] Feminist movements have called for the redefinition of sports[v] and have fought to broaden women’s participation in existing sports through, for example, legislation such as Title IX in the U.S.

Maria Bobenrieth believes that “Girls want to play, every where in the world, given the opportunity -- girls play sports. It’s not just a Western thing, it’s not just a developed and developing country question. If you throw a ball out into kids, girls will play, every bit as hard as boys.” She goes on to say that “the barriers that prevent women from participating in sports are the same ones that prevent them from participating in broader society – poverty, cultural norms, sexism.” These barriers can materialize as gender norms that restrict or discourage women’s participation in certain sports or in physical activity generally; unequal access to or lack of sports programs for women; poor nutrition and health; lack of leisure time and financial resources and; risks of violence and sexual harassment in sports arenas.

The 2012 London Olympics

“When it was about Apartheid, when it was about other social issues, it seemed unfathomable that we would let countries compete who weren’t allowing all of their citizens to participate, and somehow in sport, it still felt okay to exclude women. Up until London.” Says Bobenrieth

Indeed, the London Olympics were historic for women’s participation in many ways. As has been widely noted,[vi] all participating countries agreed to include women on their Olympic teams, with Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia including female athletes for the first time. In fact, thirty-four countries sent more women than men to the Olympics and women collected the majority of medals for China, the U.S. and Russia. For the first time, women’s boxing was included, meaning all sports had male and female versions.[vii]

Women’s outstanding athletic performances also directly challenged gender stereotypes about women and competition, “completely throw[ing] out the window the idea that women aren’t competitive or aren’t athletes” Bobenrieth asserts. Female Olympians spoke directly about how sexism affects women's participation in sports and took sexist commentaries head on. There was also greater visibility and speaking out by lgbt athletes at this year’s games. Bobenrieth describes the Olympics as a “microcosm” of larger society, where gender and other inequalities both come to light and are challenged, “It became so obvious, the sexism that still exists around the world. [The Olympics were] kind of an amazing moment to watch it be called out and to have really concrete ways to celebrate the battles that are still out there for women to achieve their rights and equity.”

But the struggles continue. At the professional level, female athletes face higher costs, have fewer sponsorship opportunities, and are often subject to media coverage that objectifiesthem. They remain underrepresented in leadership positions in sports management[viii] and in the Olympic Movement.[ix] At the Olympics, these battles manifest in disparities in resources allocated to female teams, the elimination of women-only sports and sexist media coverage focusing on female athletes’ appearance rather than their performance, to name a few. And in spite of laudable goals, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a mixed record on promoting women’s participation at the games which includes controversial dress codes and sex-testing policies that may disproportionately impact women of color, reinforce gender binaries, and cast doubt on strong female athletic performances.

Sports for Women’s Rights and Development

Various UN processes establish sports as a human right and development goal with positive mental and physical benefits that help both women and men"do better in life." The Brighton Declaration and Windhoek Call for Action emphasize the need for promoting gender equality in sports; and girls who play sports are said to be more likely to attend school and complete their education, be healthier and even earn more.[x] But whether girls continue playing sports has a lot to do with the social pressures they face, how they view themselves and the expectations of women in the societies where they play.

Though these efforts focus on sports as a goal in itself, Maria Bobenrieth sees the value of sports as a tool to promote women’s rights more broadly. Women Win believe that “one win leads to another... because we believe if girls can win a small win around sports, it can really challenge norms and help them achieve their rights in other areas of their lives. It can really transform not only the way they see themselves but how other people see them and their communities… If you open that window, if you open that door, if you say ‘yes I can,’ even if you come in last, or you’re only on the mat for one minute and 22 seconds [like Judoka Wojdan Shaherkani], there is something that opens up for all of the women in your country and many of the men, to view you differently, to view women differently and to question some of the practices and cultural norms that probably are not very healthy for women in general.”

Women Win’s focus on sports as a tool to promote women’s rights helps girls address issues such as gender-based violence, access to sexual and reproductive health and rights and economic empowerment. “We’re a women’s rights organization, with three rights issues - agency, access and assets - front and center in what we’re trying to achieve.” Participation in sport contributes to girls’ ability to make decisions for themselves and gives them an opportunity to practice leadership. Being on a sports team provides access to a social network and girls become less isolated and have access to coaches and mentors. And belonging to this ‘network of friends’ also facilitates access to the assets in the ‘community’. “So a well-created sports program that is safe and inclusive, we think really helps develop girls’ confidence, physical and mental health, it builds agency, access and assets.”

The 2012 London Olympics marked many firsts for women, highlighting how gender inequalities affect women’s participation in sports; demonstrating powerful examples of female athletes speaking up for their rights. By positively showcasing women’s achievements, the Olympics and sports more generally may help shift how women and girls are viewed and how they in turn view themselves. For young women and girls, sports may offer unique opportunities to practice leadership and help to engage a new generation in redefining feminism. In myriad ways, the Olympics have offered hope that “small wins” in sports can contribute to big advances for women’s rights. As these achievements mount, let us be encouraged that they will help tip the pitch and level the playing field for women’s rights.


[i]For the purpose of this article, the analysis is centered specifically on institutionalized, organized and professional sports rather than physical activity more broadly.

[ii] See, for example, Hartmann-Tews, I. & Pfister, G (eds), (2003) Sport and Women: Social Issues in International Perspective, Routledge: New York.

[iii]For a good overview of the contributions of feminists to the study of sport, see Hall, A. “The Discourse of Sport: From Femininity to Feminism*” in Scranton, S. & Flintoff, A. (eds) (2001), Gender and Sport: A Reader, Routledge: New York.

[iv]Dworkin, S. and M. Messner (2002) Just Do... What? Sport, Bodies, Gender,” in Scranton, S. & Flintoff, A. (eds), Gender and sport: A reader, London: Routledge. Page 18.

[v]Dworkin, S. and M. Messner (2002) Just Do... What? Sport, Bodies, Gender,” in Scranton, S. & Flintoff, A. (eds), Gender and sport: A reader, London: Routledge. Page 20.

[vi] For example, see Longman, Jeré “Before Games, Wins for Women,” The New York Times, July 7, 2012. Available at:

[vii]For more on how specific Olympic games and how they are segregated, see “Official Website of the Olympic Movement”

[viii] Acosta, R., & Carpenter, L. (2006). Women in intercollegiate sport: A longitudinal study twenty-nine year update (1977–2006).

[ix]International Olympic Committee, “Factsheet, Women in the Olympic Movement: Update, June 2012.”

[x] Clinton, H. “International Efforts To Empower Women and Girls Through Sports” page 2.