Angela Pippos headshot

Author: Angela Pippos

This is a man's world

Women playing rugby

An extraordinary transformation is taking place in Australian sport; from suburban footy fields to stadium cage fights, sportswomen are breaking through the ‘grass ceiling’ and competing for a fair go. Where recently horses received more media coverage than female athletes, women are now commanding attention with undeniable performances and fierce determination. Angela Pippos reflects on these changes in her book Breaking the Mould. Angela will be speaking at the Women's Leadership Symposium in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane so we are delighted to share an extract from Breaking the Mould.

The concept of gender is instilled in us from birth and is nearly impossible to shake. If you’re in need of some Gender Studies 101, here’s the lowdown: stereotypes around what traits are ‘male’ and ‘female’ lead to the creation of gender roles. Men are big, strong, competitive, determined and assertive – traits known as ‘masculine’; women are soft, gentle, nurturing and kind – traits known as ‘feminine’. Society latches on to these traditional gender roles, and they seep into the way we think, the way we act and the value we place on those around us.

The unconscious brain processes an astonishing 200,000 times more information than the conscious brain, and unconscious bias occurs when untested messages – for instance, about gender – are accepted as truth. The attitudes and behaviours that keep sporting culture so male-dominated are propped up by a mixture of unconscious and conscious biases, which influences recruitment and selection decisions, and keeps the same men around the oblong mahogany table. It’s not only men who show unconscious bias, either: our aspirations tend to reflect current norms, and with relatively few women in key roles in sport, other women find themselves doubting their abilities and holding back. This isn’t to say that gender roles always go unchallenged – in fact, these roles are continually tested and reshaped – but, for the most part, the stereotypes have stayed much the same throughout history.

Gender roles have become part of sporting vernacular, a frequent reminder of the voice of the past shaping the present. In playgrounds and parks across the country, boys tell other boys to ‘man up’ when they look sad, while unsporty kids are nailed with lines such as, ‘Stop playing like a bunch of girls.’ A bad miss is usually followed by, ‘My mum could kick better than that.’ (Or, as I’ve heard my partner say while watching his beloved Sunderland in the English Premier League, ‘My grandmother could kick better than that, and she’s been dead for thirty years!’)

All these seemingly innocuous sayings have power – and if you think that I’m over-reaching, you should google #LikeAGirl. What you’ll find is a genius social experiment. Its YouTube video (part of the larger #LikeAGirl campaign by feminine hygiene brand Always) recruited real women, men, teenagers, and pre-pubescent boys and girls, and asked them to show what it physically meant to run like a girl, throw like a girl and fight like a girl. The results were incredible. The pre-pubescent girls performed these actions confidently and proudly, while all the older participants performed them in a frivolous, self-deprecating manner. At a certain point, women begin to internalise all the negative connotations that come from doing things ‘like a girl’ – in other words, they start believing the bullshit. The only way to bury our hidden biases is to unlearn current beliefs and relearn new ones.

When you add conscious bias to the mix – discrimination, gender stereotypes, ignorance and nepotism – it’s hardly surprising that there’s a conspicuous sameness to the Australian sporting landscape that’s reflected in administration, coaching, umpiring, sports medicine and the Fox Footy wardrobe department on game day.

Casual sexism reinforces the well-established notion that women are inferior. When it comes to women’s sport, this kind of sexism is often contained in any or all of the following statements: ‘Women’s sport is boring.’ ‘Women’s sport is less exciting to watch.’ ‘It’s just not as physical.’ ‘They look like men.’ ‘They’re all dykes.’ ‘Why would I pay to see that?’

For a snapshot of this kind of elevated thinking, head to the online comments section at the bottom of any piece about women and sport. The lamprey that hangs off the story’s underbelly, this section provides a great outlet for frustrated people who want a voice. The anonymity of the internet gives them the freedom to unleash the full force of their insight. Fuelled by the sniff of any kind of positivity in a story on women’s sport, they’re off. Lights dimmed, curtains drawn and – pause for thought, because this is important, this is their message – followed by a slow finger jabbing at the keyboard, tap, tap, tap … :

‘Women’s sport is shit.’ 

This depressing little sentence is by far the most frequent of these online comments.

The popular default position of this kind of thinker is an insistence on comparing women’s sport with men’s. People who bang on like this firmly believe that men are the measuring stick of greatness. Even those who choose to frame their argument a bit less bluntly insist on toeing a very blinkered party line (and by the careful insertion of ‘no offence’, are clearly made reasonable): ‘No offence, but women aren’t as strong as men, they’re not as fast as men, they’re not as skilful as men, they’re not as aggressive, they’re just not as good, and if they were as good they’d be competing with men.’

Stop right there. I’m getting a flashback to the gold-coated rickshaw that carried Bobby Riggs (in his yellow Sugar Daddy jacket) onto court to play against Billie Jean King in tennis’s 1973 ‘Battle of the Sexes’, and it’s not pretty. For the record, King won the match in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 – but this was pure pantomime.

In general, pitting women against men isn’t the answer; that’s a circus, not sport. The obvious genetic differences should be embraced and not matched against one another to prove a dubious point. If Usain Bolt beats Elaine Thompson in a sprint race, does this mean that reigning Olympic champion Thompson isn’t fast? The cheetah is faster than the gazelle, but we don’t think of the gazelle as a slouch. Are male gymnasts stronger then female gymnasts? Yes. But are they as graceful? The comparisons become mind-numbingly stupid.

To assume that contests involving power and speed are better to watch than those that showcase grace and skill is a pretty one-eyed way to look at things. For lovers of boxing, it’s like saying that I’m only interested in watching heavyweight Mike Tyson fight – Sugar Ray Leonard as a welterweight wasn’t exciting to watch because he wasn’t powerful enough. Women’s sport is physically different to men’s, but that doesn’t make it any less strategic or passionate; in fact, you could argue that relying less on brute force puts more of an emphasis on tactics and strategy, making it more of a spectacle – well, certainly a more nuanced spectacle. Anyway, beauty and skill are in the eye of the beholder: where some people see two highly trained, dedicated professional athletes executing unbelievable hand-eye coordination under intense pressure, others see a couple of fat blokes throwing darts at a fancy-dress party.

Equality is about being valued for who you are, not being forced to take on the characteristics of others. Thank god we’re different: the world would be a boring place if we weren’t. Let’s embrace our differences and appreciate them for what they are.

As for women’s sport being dull, I’ve sat through a lot of sport for work and pleasure, and I can categorically state that women don’t have a monopoly on boring. I’ve been close to comatose on many, many occasions watching men’s sport. I’ve dozed off during many Formula One Grand Prix races, golf rounds and baseball games – and, I swear, my heart actually stopped beating during New Zealander Geoff Allott’s 77-ball duck against South Africa in 1999. This isn’t to say that these sports are boring, but they do sometimes offer up action so singularly devoid of action that watching them becomes less about following the sport and more about maintaining the will to live.

The only thing boring about women’s sport is the need for it to be continually defended against biased perceptions. Yawn. Female athletes are well used to being seen as less strong, less fast, less interesting – and just plain less – than their male counterparts. They’ve heard it all before.

Casual sexism also has an evangelical preoccupation with what women athletes look like. These online commenters show the same kind of enthusiasm for women’s couture that I had as a fourteen-year-old watching a punk-glam Madonna sail down Venetian canals singing ‘Like a Virgin’. The underlying message here is: it’s okay to run around and play sport, but it’s much better if you look ‘hot’ too. Just being an athlete isn’t enough.

If these preconceived ideas about women’s sport and sportswomen only belonged to keyboard warriors, it wouldn’t be so bad, but they also influence decisions made throughout the sporting community. Casual sexism is an industry issue, one with consequences that affect everyone who loves sport.

For a glimpse of that unwavering commitment to old-fashioned notions of femininity, let’s take a look at a few examples (there are plenty to choose from), starting with former AFL coach (and SANFL player) Graham Cornes. In 2015, after watching the AFL women’s exhibition game between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs at the MCG, he said, ‘It just didn’t look right! … Perhaps it was the outfits … Not particularly flattering … most of them looked like girls playing football. Boobs and all.’ Searing insights, Cornsey. They looked like girls playing football because they were indeed girls and, yes, they were playing football. As for it not looking right, and as for the boobs, beauty certainly is in the eye of the beholder.

Disgraced FIFA boss Sepp Blatter said that in order to make women’s soccer more popular, officials should ‘let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts.’ Sepp, you’re a genius. Why wear shorts at all?

And here’s what BBC commentator John Inverdale said about Marion Bartoli after she was crowned 2013 Wimbledon champion:

I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, maybe, ‘Listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5 foot 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that. You are going to have to be the most dogged, determined fighter that anyone has ever seen on the tennis court if you are going to make it.’ And she kind of is.

Inverdale later blamed bad hay fever for his comments.

Casual sexism also likes a scapegoat of the female kind. Over the years, I’ve heard some bizarre excuses for a team underperforming, but none more hilarious than one circulated by Ian Healy. In a desperate attempt to explain why Australia was bowled out for 60 in just 111 balls before lunch on day one of the 2015 Fourth Ashes Test, Healy pointed his finger at the WAGs. Oddly, I don’t recall any of the players’ wives or girlfriends pulling on the pads that day in Nottingham and striding out to the crease – admittedly, it was late when I was watching, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t nodded off. Healy’s argument was that women are a distraction for elite sportsmen; in order to allow their men to focus, they – and any accompanying children – should be invisible. Apparently, any reminder of life and responsibilities outside the dressing-room is just too much for male cricketers to handle.

My partner’s argument for the Australian capitulation was a little more succinct: ‘They’re crap, Ange.’

You may also enjoy these words of wisdom from tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga:

You know, the girls, they are more unstable emotionally than us. I’m sure everybody will say it’s true, even the girls … it’s just about hormones and all this stuff. [Men] don’t have all these bad things, so we are physically in a good shape every time and you are not. That’s it.

Tsonga’s thesis on ‘The Effects of Women’s Hormones and Stuff’ is being submitted to La Revue de Médecine Interne next year.

Too often, casual sexism is dismissed as a joke or a throwaway line. When AFL legend Billy Brownless was called out for announcing, ‘Here come the strippers!’ over a microphone as a woman and her eighteen-year-old daughter passed through the junior footy function he was hosting, there was an outpouring of sympathy for Brownless. The usual cries of political correctness gone mad filled the airwaves: ‘That’s just Billy, he’s a larrikin.’ The good old Larrikin Defence is a favourite of those who indulge in this kind of humour, but while there’s something charming about the Australian larrikin attitude, which writers and poets have romanticised for years, it has a darker side – it camouflages and subtly reinforces sexism, racism and homophobia. At the time, Brownless said that his remark was a ‘throwaway line’: ‘I didn’t mean anything by it.’ And I’m sure that he didn’t. Unfortunately, he said it, and it was very hurtful and humiliating for the woman and her daughter. Just as Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios’ ‘Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend, sorry to tell you that, mate’ was a throwaway line, and West Indian cricketer Chris Gayle’s on-air propositioning of (visibly cringing) sports reporter Mel McLaughlin was capped off with the throwaway line: ‘Don’t blush, baby.’

Eddie McGuire’s on-air suggestion that he’d pay to drown journalist Caroline Wilson, an idea enthusiastically taken up by his radio colleagues James Brayshaw and Danny Frawley, put this kind of sexism firmly on the map in 2016. I’ve known McGuire for many years and I wouldn’t describe him as sexist. But this example demonstrated just how innate sexist language and ‘banter’ is among men (in sport) – and, as unsavoury as it was, it generated lots of discussion about the links between casual sexism and attitudes that support violence against women. It also severely dented the ‘poor attempt at humour’ defence.

Not all poorly-thought-out comments are clearly offensive. Sometimes gender asbestos shows itself in surprising places, through casual sexism that’s well meant and can even appear supportive of women. When the England women’s football team had finished its 2015 World Cup campaign, this is how the official Football Association Twitter account, which had almost 1.2 million followers at the time, welcomed the players home: ‘Our #Lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today, but they have taken on another title – heroes.’ The tweet was quickly deleted, following criticism on social media, but many people didn’t understand why it was described as ‘sexist’ and ‘patronising’. Of course, the FA never meant for it to come across like that, but to me the message was clear: women’s roles as mothers, partners and daughters are incompatible with stellar international careers. Apply the ‘Would you tweet that about the men’s team?’ test, and the answer is obvious. This comment is particularly damaging because of the uncomfortable relationship between motherhood and elite sport – the industry rarely gets it right when it comes to support for mothers.

When you stack throwaway line on top of throwaway line, sexist ‘joke’ on top of sexist ‘joke’, and sprinkle well-intentioned sexism over all of it, you’ve soon got a pile the size of Everest and a systemic pattern of behaviour. Children see and hear this behaviour and think that it’s the norm; they then repeat what they see and hear – and the cycle continues. When attitudes like these go unchecked, sexism breeds like bacteria in a Petri dish: ‘Women’s sport is a waste of time.’ ‘Ladies don’t belong in our club.’ ‘Girls can’t kick.’ I’ve been watching the misogynists closely, year after year, and there’s a small part of me that sort of admires their resilience – in the same way that I admire cockroaches and ticks. (Did you know that ticks can live for years without drinking blood before they eventually starve to death …?)

Although things have changed since the days of Fanny Blankers-Koen (who won four gold medals in track and field at the 1948 Olympics and, because she was a mother of two, was called ‘The Flying Housewife’), sport is largely built on sexist assumptions – and some of these assumptions, like red wine spilt on a cream carpet, are extremely hard to shift.

Angela Pippos is a journalist, TV presenter, radio personality, author and MC. Angela's second book Breaking the Mould was published by Affirm Press in 2017.

If you want to hear more from the phenomenal Angela Pippos along with an incredible line up of women leaders, she will be speaking at the Women's Leadership Symposium in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

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