Gender & Society in the Classroom: Sport

Organized by: Joanna Neville, University of Florida
Updated by: Erielle Jones, University of Illinois – Chicago

The culture of sport is a key terrain for studying and understanding gender. Sport provides a unique way of understanding the ways in which society constructs the social bodies of men and women who participate in sport and how we assign masculinity and femininity to those bodies. These articles are organized in chronological order; however, they also reflect key research areas in sport and gender.  Some of the articles examine the construction of masculinity in sport as well as the climate of homophobia that may exist in the masculine atmosphere within sport. Others examine early representations of gender in sport, media representations of gender and sport, and how women construct femininity and masculinity in sport.

Hamilton, Justen. 2022. “Breaking Barriers? Examining Neoliberal–Postfeminist Empowerment in Women’s Mixed Martial Arts.” Gender and Society 36(5):652-676.

This article problematizes claims of women’s empowerment in “masculine” sports through an exploration of women’s participation in mixed martial arts (MMA)—a combat sport colloquially referred to as “cage fighting.” MMA, perhaps more than any other sport, allows women athletes to challenge patriarchal beliefs about gender by demonstrating women’s capacity for physical violence and domination. But whereas investigations into MMA have produced important findings for studies of men and masculinities, there has been surprisingly little attention paid to women’s participation in this hyper-masculine world. This article begins to fill this gap through an ethnographic account of this growing sport. Drawing from more than four years of ethnographic fieldwork and 40 semi-structured interviews with professional women’s MMA athletes, I show how the neoliberal–postfeminist culture of MMA undermines its empowerment potential by shaping gendered subjecthood in ways that are conducive to the maintenance of gender inequality. I conclude by discussing the implications of my findings for women’s empowerment in sport.

Bryan, Amée, Stacey Pope, and Alexandra J. Rankin-Wright. 2021. “On the Periphery: Examining Women’s Exclusion From Core Leadership Roles in the ‘Extremely Gendered’ Organization of Men’s Club Football in England.” Gender & Society 35 (6): 940–970.
In this article, we frame men’s club football as an “extremely gendered” organization to explain the underrepresentation of women leaders within the industry. By analyzing women’s leadership work over a 30-year period, we find that women’s inclusion has been confined to a limited number of occupational areas. These areas are removed, in terms of influence and proximity, from the male players and the playing of football. These findings reveal a gendered substructure within club football that maintains masculine dominance in core football leadership roles and relegates women to a position of peripheral inclusion in leadership roles. Through a discourse analysis of gender pay gap reports, we show that men’s football clubs legitimize women’s peripheral inclusion by naturalizing male dominance at the organizational core. These findings are significant because they demonstrate that men’s football clubs, as masculinity-conferring organizations, have excluded women from core roles to maintain their masculine character while superficially accepting women into roles that do not challenge the association of football with hegemonic masculinity. Therefore, organizational change may be possible only if women are granted greater access to core organizational roles. Here, we offer a new theoretical framework for “extremely gendered” organizations that can be applied to other sporting and male-dominated contexts to analyze women’s access to core leadership roles.

Pape, Madeleine. 2019. “Gender Segregation and Trajectories of Organizational Change: The Underrepresentation of Women in Sports Leadership” Gender & Society 34 (1): 81-105.
This article offers an account of organizational change to explain why women leaders are underrepresented compared to women athletes in many sports organizations. I distinguish between accommodation and transformation as forms of change: the former includes women without challenging binary constructions of gender, the latter transforms an organization’s gendered logic. Through a case study of the International Olympic Committee from 1967-1995, I trace how the organization came to define gender equity primarily in terms of accommodating women’s segregated athletic participation. Key to this was the construction of women’s bodies as athletically able but inferior to men, an arrangement formalized in codified rules and procedures and legitimized by external stakeholders. Defined in these terms, gender equity did little to transform the organization’s binary and hierarchically gendered logic, which continued to shape the informal norms and procedures associated with the organization’s allegedly gender-neutral and meritocratic yet male-dominated leadership. I argue that the exclusion of women from ostensibly gender-integrated leadership positions allows organizations to avoid revealing gender similarity between men and women. This maintains a logic underpinned by notions of binary gender difference and masculine superiority.

Gottzén, Lucas, and Tamar Kremer-Sadlik. 2012. “Fatherhood and Youth Sports: A Balancing Act between Care and Expectations.” Gender & Society 26 (4): 639-664.
Youth sports have been recognized as an arena for men to meet increased cultural expectations of being involved in their children’s lives. Indeed, in contrast to other child care practices, many men are eager to take part in their children’s organized sports. Drawing on an ethnographic study of middle-class families in the United States, this study examines how men juggle two contrasting cultural models of masculinity when fathering through sports—a performance-oriented orthodox masculinity that historically has been associated with sports and a caring, inclusive masculinity that promotes the nurturing of one’s children. Through a detailed analysis of how fathers’ sports involvement unfolds on the ground, we show how men, in order to portray themselves as “good” fathers, attempt to strike a balance between pushing their children to excel and supporting them regardless of their performance. We propose that although men may value inclusive masculinity when fathering through youth sports, at the same time they exercise orthodox masculinity in other domestic domains.

Anderson, Eric. 2011. “Updating the Outcome: Gay Athletes, Straight Teams, and Coming Out in Educationally Based Sport Teams.” Gender & Society 25 (2): 250-268.
The author looks at how gay athletes represent a “challenge” to traditional ideas of masculinity in the sport setting. Anderson explores whether a homophobic culture still exists in sports a decade after his first article on openly gay athletes in mainstream, educationally based sport. The athletes in the 2010 study did not fear coming out in the same way or same degree as the 2002 group. This research may suggest that the experiences of gay athletes may be better because middle-class white youth in local cultures are adopting more inclusive versions of masculinity.

Craig, Maxine, and Rita Liberti. 2007. “‘Cause That’s What Girls Do’: The Making of a Feminized Gym.” Gender & Society 21 (5): 676-699.
The authors explore the impact of a chain of women-only gyms on the image of the gym as a masculine place and whether or not these gyms have feminized the historically masculine gym. They examine organizational processes including the physical setting. Specifically, the authors look at the available exercise equipment, how women use these machines, and they also examine the interactional styles of the workers and customers. Because organizational processes can create gendered interactions, the authors argue that the use of technology and labor within this organization fosters customers to participate in a feminized social environment where gender is seen as “natural.” The authors note that within the organizational structure of the women’s gym, it was a place where women worked out to lose weight and discuss husbands and children to take their focus away from the workout.

Adams, Natalie, and Pamela Bettis. 2003. “Commanding the Room in Short Skirts: Cheering as the Embodiment of Ideal Girlhood.” Gender & Society 17 (1): 73-91.
The authors demonstrate how the sport of cheerleading has changed throughout the years for its participants. It’s not just a way to uphold strictly traditional ideas of femininity. The authors argue that a new understanding of cheerleading shows that cheerleading today offers a space to accommodate changing ideas of what it means to be a girl. They argue that the gendered activity of cheerleading offers its participants a way to reconstruct and reconstitute femininity in a way that does not threaten dominant ideas of what a girl and woman “should be” or “should do” in society.

Anderson, Eric. 2002. “Openly Gay Athletes: Contesting Hegemonic Masculinity in a Homophobic Environment.” Gender & Society 16 (6): 860-877.
The author examines the experiences of openly gay male athletes on an all-heterosexual sport team. He found that although openly gay athletes were not banned from participating in sports, they encountered resistance. The resistance they encountered was in the form of a culture of silence surrounding gay male athleticism, homophobic language, and segmenting gay men’s identities. Gay male athletes were able to combat some of this resistance when they contributed to the team’s success by having to prove their athleticism.

Messner, Michael 2000. “BARBIE GIRLS VERSUS SEA MONSTERS: Children Constructing Gender.” Gender & Society 14 (6): 765-784.
This research examines the construction of gender by four and five year-old children while at a youth soccer opening ceremony. The author finds that gender differences were shown as “natural” categorical differences between the boys and girls. Team names and language used by both the children and adults within the boy’s and girl’s teams reinforced this difference. There were also gendered divisions in adults’ participation in volunteering during the youth soccer program. By using a multi-level theoretical approach, the author discusses how individual gender interactions are part of larger social and cultural meanings.

Theberge, Nancy. 1997. “‘IT’S PART OF THE GAME’: Physicality and the Production of Gender in Women’s Hockey.” Gender & Society 11 (1): 69-87.
The author advances research on gender and sport as she analyzes the relationship between bodies, physicality, force, and power in sport. The author discusses how there is no body checking in women’s ice hockey and how this constructs ideas of gender in the masculine sport of ice hockey. Women’s ice hockey is often seen as “inferior” to the “real” game of men’s ice hockey, which is full of bodily contact, force, and power, and she argues that physicality, bodies, and force as represented in competitiveness help to create and sustain masculinity in sport.

Schacht, Steven. 1996. “MISOGYNY ON AND OFF THE ‘PITCH’: The Gendered World of Male Rugby Players.” Gender & Society 10 (5): 550-565.
Using ethnographic methodology, the author looks at the world of male rugby players and how they socially interact with each other and reproduce traditional masculine roles of a “real man” is in terms of who is strongest, who can take the most pain, and who is the least feminine. In addition, these roles that the rugby players assume often include misogyny and domination over women.

Messner, Michael, Margaret Duncan, and Kerry Jensen. 1993. “SEPARATING THE MEN FROM THE GIRLS: The Gendered Language of Televised Sports.” Gender & Society 7 (1): 121-137.
The authors compare and analyze the commentary of the women’s and men’s 1989 Final Four basketball tournaments as well as the men’s and women’s singles, doubles, and mixed-double matches of the 1989 U.S. Open tennis tournament. The authors found few overtly sexist comments but did find that there were differences in commentary for the women’s and men’s events. They conclude that televised sports commentary contributes to the differences in treatment of female athletes and athletes of color and depicts women’s sport and women athletes as less important by infantilizing women athletes and also to some extent male athletes of color.

Messner, Michael. 1989. “Masculinities and Athletic Careers.” Gender & Society 3 (1): 71-88.
Using in-depth interviews with former male athletes from different race and class backgrounds in the U.S, the author examines how men define themselves as men, and he shows how the choice to become an athlete and pursue an athletic career is an opportunity (for some, not all) to define himself as a man. The author concludes that organized sports contribute to gender, class, and race inequities.