Set Up To Fail? Women and Sport Science

Women in Sport Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

One of my biggest passions is advocating for women in sport. I firmly believe that gender ideology around sport undermines women’s participation, whether that’s giving girls the impression that sport isn’t for them, selling the idea of cosmetic fitness above performance or sports science that privileges men.

Writing in The Telegraph, Caroline Criado Perez explains (extremely succinctly) the ways that sports science fails women and draws specific attention to ‘the gender data gap’. The gender data gap is the difference between the amount of data and research we have in relation to women verses the amount we have in relation to men. Where a gender data gap exists we risk drawing conclusions that potentially favour one gender over the other. Caroline outlines a really great example of this in relation to carb-loading (something very close to a lot of runner’s hearts, especially in the run up to London Marathon!):

The general advice for endurance athletes is to carb-load, with at least one expert specifically advising against fat-loading.

But it turns out that this standard pre-race advice is based on studies in men. And it does not hold for women, who have to eat 34 per cent more calories than they usually would to achieve even 50 per cent of the performance benefit men experience from carb-loading. Which may not be an “appropriate strategy” given “the potential deleterious effects on performance” of overeating. Rather, the authors suggest, because women burn more fat than men during endurance exercise, they might be better off fat-loading. Might. We do not know, because, of course, “few studies examining the effects of fat loading […] on performance have included women”.

In short, because of the gender data gap the pre-race nutrition strategy used by a lot of women might actually be undermining their performance. Not cool.

Women and Sport Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

This isn’t to say that the advice to carb-load is necessarily wrong, it just might not be right for women, because the majority of sports science research is carried out on men. More concerning is the impact the gender data gap could have on advice relating to more serious health conditions, which Caroline explores in relation to high blood pressure and highlights that if more sports science research included female participants we might take a different approach to managing this condition in women.

So why does this happen? You’d think scientific rigour would demand thought be put into sample populations when carrying out research, and it probably is, but in my mind the issue comes back to gender ideology. Gender ideology in sport is pervasive, modern sport is a symbol of masculinity and in turn that creates a powerful form of sexism. We see it everywhere, media coverage that is saturated with images of male sporting performance, interviews where female athletes are quizzed about their personal lives over their athletic interests, the challenge of securing coverage for women’s events (and accompanying mutterings that, really, they’re a bit crap). The world around us constantly reinforces the idea that sport is for men, so why would sports science be any different? Academics aren’t infallible, our choices are always informed by our experiences, that is ideology at play.

Women and Sports Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

The challenge in this scenario is that by its very definition ideology is a set of beliefs or principles on which social organisation is based. As I’ve mentioned, in my work I argue that modern sport is a symbol of masculinity which plays out as sexism in society. When I talk about gender in my work I am referring to the socially constructed roles of men and women. In British society gender has historically been categorised based on biological definitions, focusing on the idea that there is a ‘natural’ difference between people in each category. Overlaying this is the idea that men in British society experience privilege, and this is used to determine and justify the difference placed on people in each category.

Sport as we know it emerged during the Victorian era and were very much the domaine of men. They were symbols of masculinity, chauvinism and power. Women for the most part were excluded. If they did engage in sport they were deemed unattractive (aesthetic rationale), acting in opposition to femininity (social rationale) and at risk of endangering themselves psychologically and physically (medical rationale). The belief that there's innate biological and psychological differences between the sexes created a form of sexism so pervasive and powerful that the exclusion of women from sport felt like common sense. And so women’s participation was restricted to whatever activities society (men) felt were acceptable and outside of these narrow parameters was unwelcome.

Women and Sports Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

Although we’ve come a long way (and this post explains how), social and cultural ideas about how the genders ought to behave remain pervasive and continue to play a role in the choices we make, for example whether we choose to participate in sport, what sport and to what extent. Arguably ideology has had the effect of protecting sport as a masculine domaine and we are still in the very early days of overcoming this, which could be one of the reasons why there is such a significant gender data gap in sport.

You can help overcome this gap by challenging assumptions, share articles like this one and Caroline’s piece in The Telegraph, participate in sport and share your experiences, go to watch women’s sport, watch women’s sport on TV and encourage others to do the same, support publications that actively promote women’s sport and generally make some noise! If you come across someone who is disparaging help educate them, it’s chipping away that makes change.

*images: Kaye Ford