20X20 Weekly – The Language of Sport

The 20X20 initiative is a campaign to raise media coverage, attendance and participation across all Women’s sport. As a long time advocate of parity of esteem, we have been strong supporters of the campaign which is being backed by Sport for Business members including the Federation of Irish Sport, Along Came a Spider, AIG, Three and Lidl.

It’s all about personal commitments to change and ours is the publication of a weekly column looking at different aspects of Women’s Sport both here and around the world that will be relevant in terms of advocacy but also in terms of commercial partnership and sporting administration.

The language we use around aspects of our lives is one of the most potent ways in which we form ideas. Whether we are raising up or putting down we do so most effectively through the choice of words we use.

The point came home for Women’s sport again in the past week with Three’s release of a video featuring Mick McCarthy and Louise Quinn about the kind of words that have been used to describe them through their careers.

It is perhaps inevitable that as Women’s sport takes it rightful and overdue place closer to the point of equality that we still struggle to describe what we are seeing.

It is different from sport and yet in most ways society has deemed that it should be on the basis of the original men’s game that women’s games are organised.

It makes sense in football to have eleven a side playing on the same side pitch.  Separate changing facilities for men and women are important but it does not need to be a separate building.  Men, through their different physiology, will kick a ball harder and run towards it faster but that does not mean we should create a smaller pitch for women.

And yet we are still inclined to judge quality based on similar physiological results rather than celebrating the differences in a game that may be based on different qualities.

In so doing we are setting up the different choice of language though that rates the men’s games at a higher level.

Research by Cambridge University ahead of the last Olympic Games showed that men are mentioned three times more in the Cambridge Sports Corpus, a database of billions of words from sources going back through written and spoken sources dating from before the printing press to the world of social media.

Men are mentioned twice as much in an overall context but the problem is exacerbated in sport.

The problem of visibility is obvious but will change given a stronger sense of confidence on the part of women playing and championing sport.  The challenge though is to set a new standard as that change happens.

A study of recent headlines as part of the same research points out a number of major anomalies.

Gender marking or differentiating a sport with reference to it being men’s or women’s is something we are guilty of, we would argue it as being necessary in order to carve out a space.

Hopefully, in ten year’s time, there will be no need for a Women in Sport conference, as we stage each November.  It will be like a medical or a technology conference without the need to differentiate.

The research showed though that such tagging was perhaps less common than we imagine with 75 per cent of Women’s sport tagged but 67 per cent of men’s also done so.

The worst offenders at that time back in 2016 were football, cycling, swimming, rugby and snowboarding.

There is also a difference in how we describe success.  No doubt subconsciously, but no less differentiating, Women were found more likely to have clinched a title whereas men would have claimed theirs.

Women’s appearance is more likely to be referenced than men’s, as is their personal life away from the track or the field of play.

Women’s success is also more likely to be attributed to someone that has helped, like a coach, than the men who seem to be more likely to just go out there and win things themselves.

Like so many areas this will not change overnight but we should think about the way we describe performance and athletes just a little more and stop ourselves from adding to the unconscious bias that has held women back from sport for too long.



Similar Articles