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Writers' Fortnight 2020: Women don’t belong on the field – why the stigma around women’s sport still remains

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Writers' Fortnight 2020: Women don’t belong on the field – why the stigma around women’s sport still remains

It is 7 July and the United States and the Netherlands’ Women’s Soccer Teams are playing in the finals of the Fifa World Cup. Both are unrelenting in their pursuit of the cup. The defending champions and the reigning European champions play determinedly, and the United States Women's National Soccer Team (USWNT) ended with a hard-earned 2–0 victory. That was the fourth time the USWNT had won the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

During the entire World Cup, we had not only the spectacle of the US Women’s team and their magnificent football skills, but also the US president Donald Trump’s spat with Megan Rapinoe. Arguably, one of the best aspects of her fight was watching him stutter and contradict himself.

‘Pinoe’ as she is known to her fans, had a few words to say about this. “We are everything he loves,” she says “– sportspeople, winners, Team America, with the exception that we’re powerful, strong women. And he was having a really hard time – you could see in these sets of tweets: you hate us, you love us, you want us to come to the White House – and you are threatening us, all at the same time."

Is this the attitude we want instilled in future generations? A generation that already feels the pressure to ‘save the world’ when they grow up? Donald Trump is the President of the USA, the ‘leader of the free world’. How will hearing his opinions affect us as people? Listening to a man that does not have any regard for women as human beings, who has been accused of sexual harassment, and clearly hates sportswomen for having a voice and being powerful?

Megan Rapinoe protesting racism during the US anthem ; Source: Jamie Smed from Cincinnati, Ohio CC BY (

As an Indian girl playing football, I have also experienced my share of discrimination. Most of the time, it was a comment or two about girls not being good at football, or subtle sexism and teasing. But once, the girls’ football team representing my old school in India was sitting in front of the head coach after coming runner-up in a district tournament. My teammates and I had been forced to listen to a 20 minute speech about the reasons we lost the final match. And the only words that I took home that day were, “You don’t carry yourselves like football players, you don’t walk like them, talk like them, or look like them”. After three years of struggling to prove to the school that girls could play football, we were being told we did not “look like football players”. The meaning was clearly implied. We were not boys.

Society has definitely made a lot of advancements in the way women are treated, viewed and portrayed and the world of sports is not far behind.

When I moved to Singapore, I definitely saw less of this. There is no blatant sexism and prejudice in sports. But unfortunately, it exists, albeit subtly. Even in an extremely inclusive school like UWCSEA, there are times that girls are treated differently than boys. PE lessons are examples of this.

“Whenever we are playing a game in PE the boys don’t pass the ball. It’s like they don’t trust me to score a goal,”  a Grade 9 student tells me about her experiences in PE.

“There have been times when the boys have to pick teams and they choose all the boys first,” Kruthi, a Grade 9 student said. She also mentioned that sometimes “teachers pit boys against boys and girls against girls because they think that we can't play with them.”

Kruthi is not the only student who thinks teachers may sometimes unthinkingly play a role. Vashti, another Grade 9 student says, “In Grade 8, most of the time it was only the boys who got to demonstrate different drills or things. Also, most of the time, when teams are chosen by captains, the captains are mostly guys.”

Why is it that even after there have been numerous reforms and changes in the world of womens’ sports, girls are often being treated as incapable of playing sports in PE lessons?

Frequently, girls are judged for small mistakes that they make, for being unable to receive a mediocre throw that would have been very hard to catch. Boys usually aren’t. They might be teased by their friends and laughed at a little bit. The girl is laughed at and it may take a while before she receives another pass.

The connection between responsible parenting and ‘risky-play’

Could it also be the way children have been brought up? In a TED talk, Caroline Paul, an ex-firefighter and paraglider, spoke about a study that involved a playground fire pole. The study showed that young girls were normally cautioned before being allowed to play and a parent usually assisted her, while young boys were encouraged to play and learn to use it on their own. “So what message does this send to both boys and girls?” she asked in the Ted talk. “Well, that girls are fragile and more in need of help, and that boys can and should master difficult tasks by themselves,” she concluded. She further reasoned,  “We are raising our girls to be timid, even helpless, and it begins when we caution them against physical risk.”

So how do we change this? It has to start with the growing up process. If we are all brought up to treat each other equally, these usual occurrences will turn into isolated incidents. We need to bring up children the same way, regardless of gender. Caroline spoke about how she was brought up the same way most boys were brought up. Her mother encouraged her to play and get hurt. Experts refer to this as ‘risky-play’.

Admittedly, the mindset that women are not made for sports is gradually changing all over the world. The last 20 years has brought about numerous changes in women’s sport. In 2007, Wimbledon, one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world, became the last of the major tournaments to award both men and women the same prize money. In October of 2018, The Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, became the first fully gender balanced Olympic event ever.

And yet, recently, the USSF (United States Soccer Federation) said in a report that “The job of a men’s national team player carries more responsibility within US Soccer than the job of a women’s national team player.” The report also pointed out biological differences and “indisputable science” to argue that women should be paid less because the men’s team “requires a higher level of skill” than the women’s team.

The USWNT players did not hesitate to fight back against this report. A lawsuit was filed and resulted in the resignation of the then President of the USSF, Carlos Cordeiro. He was replaced by the then Vice President, Cindy Parlow Cone, who was once a player for the USWNT and is also the first female president of the USSF. Amid all this drama, the USWNT players themselves took a stand and during the warmup before their game against Japan, wore their training jerseys inside out, showing only the four stars at the top of the crest, and not the US soccer logo.

The USSF report embodies the problem that sportswomen are constantly facing. Children need examples to look up to. As a fifteen year old girl playing sports, I can see the importance of bringing up children with examples and role models that believe in equality. Icons that believe that biology should not change the achievements of the sportsperson. That people should be judged on what they can do, regardless of gender and sex.

We should not be brought up listening to organizations that publish reports talking about women having less skill than men. It influences our beliefs as we grow up and we teach it to younger children unknowingly. This is why this stigma is still in play. Children are still being brought up reading and listening to these claims and growing up seeing boys go out to play while girls sit at home. This has to change if we are to see a more equal world of sports. A world where people are judged not by what they are, but by what they have done.

As football star Alex Morgan says, “I want young girls to dream about being professional soccer players instead of just watching the boys go out and play.”


TED Talk (TED)
Risky play (Psychology Today)
USSF Report
Article: USWNT wear training jerseys inside out (ESPN)

Top image:The US women's national football team players celebrate at the podium after lifting their 3rd FIFA Women's World Cup; Source: Flickr (Alan Lui)


27 Apr 2020
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