Gender Socialization and How Women are Seen and Judged in Sport

After many years of playing competitive sports as a young woman, it is evident that males and females who play sport are viewed differently.

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This perception starts at a very early age when children are socialized. Boys begin to play organized sports earlier than girls due to social constructions and understandings of masculinity and femininity. If women do choose to participate in sport, they must do so while maintaining a hyper-feminine image in order to avoid identity questioning. This can be detrimental to the health of females because it increases the amount of sedentary behaviour throughout life and discriminates women on their appearance. Today in our society, there is an excessive amount of sedentary behaviour as a result of inactivity among youth.

Many studies have shown that sitting is positively correlated with obesity, cardio vascular disease and type 2 diabetes (Owen, Healy, Mathews, & Dunsten, 2012). These conditions are the result of lengthy periods of low levels of metabolic energy exposure. Which have biological consequences that lead to diseases due to suppression of blood flow and glucose intake.  For example, Canadians who spend the majority of their day sitting had significantly poorer long term health; it is said that for each hour increment of TV was correlated with an 11-18% increased ris17t48tzmose95jpgk of cardiovascular disease mortality (Owen et al., 2012).

Another phenomenon is the Active Couch potatoe, which suggests that someone “can meet public health guidelines on physical activity but if they sit for prolonged periods of time their metabolic health is comprised” (Owen et al., 2012). This means that, even if people are getting the recommended amount of physical activity, but sitting for much of the day, they will experience larger waist circumferences, higher blood pressure and more difficulty absorbing glucose. This fact is especially concerning for female student athletes. An athlete will get many more hours of physical activity than the average person, although as a student they spend more time sedentary. As a result, the excessive sitting that I am doing in a day as a student has adverse effects on all the healthy physical activity I am also engaging in.

This sedentary behaviour is especially concerning for females because teenage females are less likely to be physically active than teenage boys. There are various theories that could explain this claim. The most prominent theory is that girls are socialized to be lady like and avoid being rambunctious or drawing attention to themselves. Yet, parents accept when boys exemplify rowdy or rambunctious behaviors such as throwing or running. On the contrary, there are “cultural tensions between athleticism and femininity [that] have long been managed by social control or strong encouragement for women athletes to attend charm schools, to wear long hair, painted nails, or other markers of emphasized femininity, and to emphasize their abilities and willingness to be mothers” (Dworkin and Messner 2002, 348). This cultural construct makes it difficult for women to participate in sports and avoid excessive sedentary behaviours because they may develop “manly” looking muscles, become sweaty as well as sustain various scrapes and bruises. This can also include having short hair or a high amount of testosterone. These perceived “manly” characteristics can have a detrimental effect because women who are perceived as “too masculine” tend to be accused of cheating on the grounds that they are not female.

In order to avoid looking “manly” female athletes are encouraged to act and dress in a hyper feminine style outside of the sporting competition. For example, many female boxers will dress in overly sexy “girly-girl” outfits out of the playing arena in order to make up for the excessive aggression they portray in sport as well as to avoid any unnecessary sex testing. This social

294652-caster-semenya construct adversely impacted Castor Senemya, who won gold in the women’s 800m sprint at the 2009 World Championships. She also won silver medals in 2011 and 2012. Following her gold medal performance in 2009 Caster Senemya was administer a gender test because of accusations of being a ‘sex imposter’ since she had a “manly physic” (Wiesemann,1). Senemya was then banned from competing in international competition until July 6 2010. This goes to show that if you are masculine looking and winning you are in trouble because you may not be perceived as feminine enough. But is this really enough grounds to be tested? You would think a natural, healthy and feminine woman comes in all shapes, sizes and hair length.

“There is no evidence to suggest that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful athletes”


Perceived masculinity can be attributed to a syndrome call Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which occurs when a female has an XY chromosome instead of an XX chromosome. Essentially all it means is there is an above average amount of testosterone in the body. This testing deprives female athletes of the opportunity to compete if the athlete is found to have this syndrome. At this point the athlete is neither eligible to compete in the men’s or women’s category on the grounds that testosterone has a positive effect on performance. Yet, “there is no evidence to suggest that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful athletes” (Karkazis, Jordan-Young, Davis, & Camporesi, 8) because of dramatically different responses to the same amounts in an individual’s body. The testing has no indication of whether or not an athlete is female; it is merely saying they have higher testosterone levels.  This is no different from any other biological advantages such as bigger hands in basketball, perfect vision in baseball or high aerobic capacity in cycling. Therefore, “testosterone levels alone are nearly useless indicators of advantage and certainly not an appropriate indicator for determining eligibility” (Karkazis, Jordan-Young, Davis, & Camporesi, 11). Gender testing also seems ambiguous and unfair especially when there is a high chance of harm to the athlete; such as “severe sex and gender identity crisis, demeaning reactions, social isolation, depression and suicide” (Wiesemann,1). Ultimately the athlete should have the right to not know in these cases.

The way females are viewed in the sports world stems from the way we socialize the children of our society. This social construct takes a huge toll on female athletes in the way they present themselves on and off the competition court. It also limits the amount of physical activity the women of today are getting which can also be associated with poor health. Maybe gender testing should be abolished and men and women should compete amongst each other?  Whatever it may be, there are many societal changes that need to be done to protect the athletes’ rights and to encourage the participation of women in sport without physique anxiety.

For further reading on this topic


Karkazis, Katrina, Rebecca Jordan-Young, Georgiann Davis, and Silvia Camporesi. “Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes.” The American Journal of Bioethics: 3-16. Print.

Owen, Neville, Geneviève N. Healy, Charles E. Matthews, and David W. Dunstan. “Too Much Sitting.” Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews: 105-13. Print.

Testoni, Daniela, Christoph Hornik, Brian Smith, Daniel Benjamin, and Ross Mckinney. “Sports Medicine and Ethics.” NIH Public Access. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Wiesemann, C. “Is There a Right Not to Know One’s Sex? The Ethics of ‘gender Verification’ in Women’s Sports Competition.” Journal of Medical Ethics (2011): 216-20. Print.

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