Essay, 13 pages (3000 words)

Problems for women in sport

Women’s rugby is an ever growing sport; from the first game being played ‘seriously in Great Britain in the late 1970’s’ (RFUW) to England hosting the Women’s World Cup in September 2010. This report is to gain an insight into the thoughts, feelings and experiences of student female rugby players; how they perceive themselves and also how they feel about the RFUW. I have also researched into how male rugby players perceive the female players as individuals and players within the game as a whole. I have aimed to uncover how this specific group of female athletes are treated within society by their peers and how they feel about the media representation of them.


This literature review explores problems for women in sport, research into women’s rugby, the male dominated game and also how women’s ruby is represented by the media. Shockley’s (2006: 127) article presents the history of the emergence and decline of women’s rugby from 1974 to 1980 in the southeast of America, ‘in the year 1970 a group of pioneering women worked without varsity scholarships and little collegiate or community support to build rugby teams across the region. The effort of this group created at least fifteen teams throughout the region in 1980’. This is an example of the growth of women’s rugby and how a little unknown niche of women has become such a global sporting success.

Problems in Sport:

There are many factors which could shape women’s views on their chosen sport of interest; one of which is victimisation. Fasting’s (2008) recent research into the ‘participation in college sports and protection from sexual victimization, investigates female athletes experiences of various forms of discrimination including sexual victimisation from coaches and other male athletes’. The paper reports on the first ‘descriptive analysis to test the sport protection hypothesis’ among both female and male athletes. Fasting (2008) concluded that students were ‘significantly less likely to report sexual victimisation during their last high school and early college years than their non athletic counterparts’. Thus can become a major difficulty in the university setting, although my research is not based around this problem, it is still a highly important issue among females in sport and can affect a players views of their sport.

Female athletes in male dominated sports such like rugby are constantly bombarded with the issue of femininity. It is a term used by the media and also by many males when arguing that rugby isn’t a women’s game. Eitzen (2009) states that ‘the traditional conception of femininity, as passive and helpless is challenged today by the fit, athletic and even muscular appearance of women athletes.’ in contemporary society women have brought a ‘new standard of femininity that combines beauty with taut, developed muscles’ (Eitzen 2009: 82). In relation to femininity another factor faced by sporting athletes is gender inequality; Grace (1997: 25) speaks of her research as drawing connections between sport as a cultural institution and gender inequality in all areas of life’, Her ‘theories and ideologies demonstrate how ideologies of natural difference present socially constructed meanings of masculinity and femininity as rooted in biology.’ She also states; ‘because sport is located in bodily practices, those who control it hold a great deal of cultural power’. ‘Exploring the implications of social relations being shaped by the cultural institution of sport also raises questions about relative privileges held by different women, and how these are reproduced through sporting activities’ (Grace 1997: 25).

Dewar (1991), analysing sport is like ‘a set of selected and selective social practices that embody dominant meanings, values and practices which are implicated in the creation and maintenance of hegemonic social relationships’.

Femininity and Masculinity- Gender Roles:

Whilst studying women’s rugby I have observed the repetition of gender-role conflict theory’s which have suggested that ‘women athletes will experience role conflict because they are attempting to enact both feminine and masculine gender roles, yet research findings have shown mixed support for this notion’ Fallon and Jome (2007: 311), Their study explored how women rugby players ‘negotiate gender-role expectations and conflict as women participating in a traditionally masculine sport’. Fallon and Jome (2007: 311) found the participants ‘perceived conflicting expectations for their gender-role behaviour more than they seemed to experience conflict about those expectations’. They then state that the athletes tried to ‘avoid experiencing gender-role conflict’. ‘The resiliency displayed by the women athletes in coping with discrepant gender-role messages provides new considerations for gender-role conflict theory’. There is a problem with the expectations of how a female rugby player should look and act, this is due to the stereotyping of society today. Words associated with female players are ‘butch’, ‘big’, ‘lesbian’, ‘angry’ whereas words associated with a male rugby player are; ‘fit’, ‘athletic’, ‘strong’, ‘toned’, ‘muscular'(Fallon and Jome 2007); there is an obvious difference here which leads me to examine how the students feel about themselves and how they are perceived, also whether this has an effect on them as players striving to achieve success.

Furthermore Chase (2006: 229) investigates the ‘multiple and complex ways in which the female rugby body is disciplined’. The women who partook in the research resisted ‘disciplinary processes of femininity but at the same time were willing participants in disciplinary processes of competitive sport’. The research focuses on the physicality on women’s bodies in the game and the disciplines the players go through in order to become a successful player. ‘They and their bodies are shaped by multiple disciplinary processes’. This is yet another example of how the players were ‘drawn to rugby because of the physical nature of the game’. This is thus showing that women can be just as disciplined as men in the game and achieve success at an elite level. This investigation is a foundation to my research as it has shown the discipline some women are prepared to go through to play a sport they are passionate about.

In discussion about the development of women’s sport Hargreaves (1994: 273) states the RFUW then known as WRFU developed the women’s game from twelve founding members in 1983 to over 2, 000 women playing each week in its first ten years. She mentions how ‘women who play rough, physical sports requiring strength and speed express the sense of satisfaction and exhilaration they get from participating’ (Hargreaves 1994: 273). Hargreaves discusses how women playing men’s sports ‘still face harsh criticism and ridicule which reflect a particularly British, class-based form of sexism’ (1994: 274). Hargreaves (1994) also talks of women’s sports and the lack of funding available to them; a lot of teams have to pay the expenses themselves and are rejected from sponsors for being a female team. The Women’s World Cup in 1991 in Wales failed to attract sponsors when the men’s game was heavily fuelled with money. ‘Hundreds of applications were made to a range of sponsors, including corporations which sponsor the men’s game: refusals were based on traditional ideas about masculine and feminine appropriateness – but it’s a men’s game and they don’t drink lager!’ (Hargreaves 1994: 204). Hargreaves also states that ‘poor media coverage and financial support tend to mask the rapid increase in the numbers of women participating in sports and reproduce the present system of privilege’ (1994: 204); this is linking directly with my study as it can lead to a path for my questioning of the participants in my study.

A study which is highly important to my dissertation was conducted by Chu et al. (2003) which examined the experiences of New Zealand’s elite women rugby players which were based on reasoning for joining a rugby team and how they viewed women’s rugby as a male dominated sport. The article shows how the players felt before joining the team, why they joint and also how they felt playing a sport which is ‘strongly influenced and controlled by men’; the authors findings were offered to be used ‘for administrators and those wishing to promote women’s rugby’; which in my dissertation would be the RFUW; this links in with what is available from the RFUW in terms of research. The outcomes from Chu’s (2003) research showed ‘the prime reasons given by women for participation in sports traditionally considered as masculine, were the joy of participating in a sport requiring physical strength and speed as well as a love for the sport’. The authors comment that ‘all the participants were positive about being a black fern….. but that they also had to make sacrifices for the game, particularly with respect to juggling work, family and elite lever sporting commitments’. These last points raised questions about the ‘amateur/professional debate in terms of the black ferns being amateurs, but being expected to train and behave as professionals’. This is a key issue within women’s rugby which can raise many equality questions; why do only the male teams get paid well for the same amateur level as the women? Are female players expected to juggle a full time career as well as committing to partake in a professional sport?

Chu concludes from the interviews carried out that ‘there was a mixture of frustration and acceptance’ among the women in relation to playing a predominantly male game; some saw it ‘as a challenge in terms of having to break down barriers with respect to what women can do in the wider context’. They also felt that ‘some women participating in non-traditional female sports become empowered and feel that this affects women in society at large’. This research although gained in New Zealand is important to my dissertation as it is an example and framework to my research. I am homing in on a specific group of players which are students not elite players but their thoughts and feelings towards the RFUW are significant as they are the governing body of rugby for women in England.

Women’s Rugby:

Leading on from the previous statement; the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW) state the progression in women’s rugby as

‘the England elite side continue to demonstrate their strength on a global scale and recent successes include winning the Nations Cup, four successive Six Nations triumphs and a runners up place at the 2006 World Cup. England will be looking to go one better at the 2010 World Cup which is to played on English soil for the first time in the tournaments 19 year history. Women’s rugby as a sport has undoubtedly gone from strength to strength over recent years and participation is currently at an all time high, so whether you want to play for fun or be right up there challenging for honours, everyone is welcome to join in.’

This is from the welcoming front page of their website which proudly shows how much the women involved have achieved since first playing in the 70’s. It entices women and girls to play and shows just what females can achieve, but do they support their women throughout their rugby careers from school to adulthood? This is where my research will gain an insight into the experiences of support by the RFUW to young aspiring and talented students playing at an amateur level.

Research material by Fields (2008: 8) explores the reasoning behind American females and why they play rugby; she states ‘women in the country find rugby a challenging game in which they can have fun. It is stated that, women play this sport because it is aggressive and most of the women surveyed say they have always been interested in contact sports’ The research also found that they played the sport because of its health benefits. Additionally there is becoming a theme around the reasoning’s why players get involved with the sport from other countries, In my dissertation I will examine how these countries fit in with the view of England students. This can raise many questions about the treatment of females playing male dominated sports worldwide; Do we have a different culture of sport in England?

Rugby is traditionally a male dominated sport but is it still in contemporary society today? Eitzen (2009: 98) observes that ‘sport in its organisation, procedures and operation serves to promote traditional gender roles thus keeping order. Sport advances male hegemony in practice and ideology by legitimating a certain dominant version of social reality’. He states that ‘from early childhood games to professional sports, the sports experience is ” gendered”. Boys are expected to participate in sports, to be aggressive, to be physically tough, to take risks and to accept pain. Thus sport, especially aggressive physical contact sport is expected from boys and men but not for girls and women’ furthermore he concludes ‘these expectations reproduce male domination in society’. This is reflected in rugby as male players are seen to exert aggression and strength whereas female players are not seen to have the same abilities although they are playing the same sport. My dissertation is not seeking equality for women in terms of the game as both male and female games are on different levels but it is to investigate how female players feel about this gap in levels and how they are supported by the RFUW. Mangan (1981: 147) states ‘Late Victorian bourgeois imperialist ideology associated sport and exercise with the ‘muscular Christian gentlemen’; this is another example of the hegemony within society of the time, I wish to explore the society of this moment in time and compare with previous times.

The Media Influence:

When accessing four different newspapers online to search for articles on women’s rugby I found suprising results. The Sun newspaper online (2009) first page of ‘relevant’ results showed one 121 word article titled ‘Austin Healey Woes’. The Times newspaper online (2009) showed three relevant articles on the first page and The Daily Mail newspaper online (2009) had two relevant results. Most other articles in the search results were about rugby men’s wives or other female sports news.

Eitzen (2009) states ‘women in sport are minimized (and men maximized) when womens activities are ignored. The mass media in the United States have tended to overlook women’s sports. When they are reported, the stories, photographs and commentary tend to reinforce gender roles stereotypes. Women’s sports are also ignored when cities and schools disproportionately spend enormous amounts on men’s sports’.

‘Both today’s sport and the media are classic outcomes and icons of the far-reaching social, economic and technological change that characterised twentieth century’ Stead (2003: 184). In addition Stead adds that ‘both have developed extensively and rapidly as a major global industry’ (2003: 184). He expresses how the development of the internet extends further media activities. It being a global phenomenon loops everyone into a never ending source of news articles. He states that ‘more recently there has been a growth in specialist media sports products’ (2003: 185). When researching into the influence of the media it has to be stated that there are many hidden messages behind what is broadcast and shown in newspapers. Stead states that ‘research into the textual messages contained in the media sport output of various countries suggests the heavy influence of such ideological factors as capitalism, nationalism, patriarchy and racism. Each of these biases evident within the ownership and control of the increasingly dominant multinational media companies and indeed the dominant values in a particular society’ (2003: 192). Another significant point raised by Stead (2003) was whether the media’s representation of sport reflects reality or does it just reflect what the directors of that company feel? When commenting on the future of media sport Stead (2003: 197/8) states that the ‘media set fashions but are also influenced by wider social change media commitment to sport and more particularly to certain sports or events can change, leaving an ever more dependant world of sport venerable to instability. ‘Since the 1980’s the value of sport to media companies and their investment in sport have grown dramatically’; he also raises the point that the media have furthermore influenced the character and development of sport, it should be noted that there is little evidence of resistance to co modification from sports bodies or athletes’ (Stead 2003: 198).

An article by Mott (2002) entails an interview with Paula George one of the England elite female rugby players; George comments on the missed opportunities of the female elite team. ‘It would help if the Rugby Football Union would let them play a curtain-raiser international at Twickenham. So far they won’t. ” It’s silly, isn’t it?” said George. ” To have done it this year to raise awareness about the World Cup coming up in front of a good rugby crowd would have been awesome. Every time I see one of the England men or one of the boys coming out of the tunnel in their country’s shirt, I think: we want to do that. We so want to do that. It’s going to happen. We’re not going away. It might as well happen now.”‘ This article is a real insight into the opinions of our elite team which is highlighting the dreams and aspirations of the England elite team and how they will not back down until they have the same treatment as the male teams. This is a useful article to generate questions for my research participants.

Whilst researching online I came across an advert for the Guildford college rugby team which shared many common values of lots of women’s rugby clubs, their statement online states ‘through practices, socials, matches, fitness, fund-raising, and recruitment events, the team strives to promote an awareness of women in contact sports. The team hopes to strengthen and promote positive self-images and community building. Moreover, we recognize the historical and systematic oppression of women, people of colour, and queer people. By providing an inclusive and affirming space for individual growth of members of the above groups, the women’s rugby team hopes to perpetually dismantle oppression and structural violence’. This is suggesting a place for those who are otherwise alienated from parts of society; this is furthermore highlighting the impact of sport upon individuals lives and also whole communities.

The BBC is one of England’s highly trusted and representing broadcasters for the country; on their website there were articles titled ‘Women’s rugby is one of the fastest-growing sports around. It’s not just for boys and men anymore – and there are more and more women’s clubs all over the country’ this leads me to question why there is still a country of patriarchy and inequality in sport. Underneath the article is some advice for readers: ‘The Rugby Football Union for Women is responsible for getting more girls playing and learning about rugby. They will be able to give you all the information you need about getting started, and put you in touch with your nearest club. If you want to take your rugby seriously, Player Development Academies across the country hold open trials every summer. You can find out more by logging onto: RFUW website’. This is an interesting piece to revert back to once conducting my research as it shows that women’s rugby is being promoted by some media parties. Is this filtering down to the ammeter players? will be a question I shall keep in mind.

From personal research I am aware that there is a 1: 15 minute promotional video on Youtube a world wide online video broadcasting website for the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2010. This was added one month ago at the time of writing this research, when searching for the men’s world cup which is being held in 2011 there is a 2: 47 minute video which was added three weeks ago. This is just an example of how different the promotional side of the different gendered games is; To make it more acceptable within society for women to play what was traditionally a male dominated sport it needs to be out there in the public eye.


Research which has been conducted in various countries and the research is also dated somewhat. There is little about England’s young female players views on how they feel playing a traditionally male dominated sport; their thoughts, feelings and experiences whilst playing the game and how today’s contemporary society treats them accordingly. There is a clear gap in research and that it will benefit many organisations such like the RFUW and also will help young aspiring female rugby players to continue their successes and not let stigma get in the way of their goals.

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