Do Distinct Labels Serve or Stifle Women’s Sports?
The euphoria surrounding the Lionesses' journey to the Women's FIFA World Cup Final in Australia, speaks volumes about the meteoric rise of women's sport. As fans packed stadiums and TVs broadcast matches to record audiences around the world, one question now dominates conversations: How long until we view this not as 'women’s sport', but simply 'sport'?
Throughout sport's history, men's tournaments have frequently been regarded as the default benchmark. Such presumptions have been ingrained in society for over 150 years, so it's hardly surprising that when you hear "England have won the Six Nations", the mind immediately races to the male team. As Sue Anstiss observes in The Guardian:
“If I asked a stranger about Arsenal, the Champions League or the England football team, they’d assume I was talking about the men.”
The move to neutralise gender from sport titles, as seen when World Rugby rebranded the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021 to simply the Rugby World Cup 2021, offers an appealing proposal for leveling the playing field. It’s a laudable attempt to place men’s and women’s sports on an equal footing. But does it really advance the cause?
There's a nuanced contradiction in this strategy. On one hand, eliminating gender designations could challenge societal biases and pave the way for true parity in sports. As Anstiss rightly points out, this could even ripple into addressing societal sexism, from the gender pay gap to gender-based violence.
On the other hand, at a time when women's teams are carving their own unique identities — with names like the Lionesses and Red Roses — and pulling substantial audiences distinct from their male counterparts, erasing the gender marker might detract from their hard-won individuality. This push for gender-neutral titles might unintentionally cast women’s accomplishments under a broad, androgynous umbrella, detracting from the narrative of their struggles and successes. As Anstiss notes, there is “so much that is brilliant and unique about women’s sport”.
As we contemplate the reframing of sports titles, the digital age's influence becomes unmistakably evident. You only need to search Team GB Rowing Champions to see this bias in action. Bar one or two images, you find the women's teams only after considerable scrolling. As tech giants like Google begin to address this inherent bias, a critical query surfaces: Might removing gendered designations inadvertently overshadow women's accomplishments online?
Moreover, the names for women's teams, despite drawing criticism, provide them a distinct identity. They serve as a light, distinguishing the Lionesses' roar from the larger cacophony. The question therefore might be better placed as:
"is there harm in clarity, especially when women's teams are scaling new heights?
An intellectual contemplation of the issue compels us to question the very essence of this debate. Is the move towards gender-neutral sports titles a natural evolution towards equality, or a misplaced effort triggering unnecessary complication? Given the increasing success of women's teams, perhaps the ideal approach is to celebrate their unique identities, achievements, and challenges, rather than subsuming them under a gender-neutral moniker.
The Lionesses' journey to the World Cup final isn't just about a game of football. It encapsulates the broader narrative of women's sports - their struggles, their triumphs, and their rightful place in the spotlight. Whether termed ‘women’s sport’ or simply ‘sport’, what matters most is that their roar is heard, clear and distinct.
Ultimately, it might be that the designations and titles pale in comparison to the narratives, the matches, and the unyielding spirit of the competitors on the field. While the discourse unfolds, the global audience anticipates the next captivating event — be it women's, men's, or just sport.