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What are existing challenges to gender equality in extreme sports both

in terms of representation in media and opportunities to compete?

Emily Williams

Senior Project Advisor: Sara Price

12th Grade Humanities

Animas High School
27 February 2017
Part I: Introduction

One weekend this February I was competing in a local halfpipe competition.

While waiting for my run, I watched the younger age groups. As the kids went through their first

halfpipe runs I noticed that, while the little boys and girls were separated into categories, they

were all about the same ability. If anything the little girls went higher up the walls than the boys

did. So I thought: why are these little kids segregated? There is no difference in their ability, yet

they are being taught from an early age that they cannot compete against each other. This

segregation of genders happens in every sport, even though extreme sports, like snowboarding,

use skill sets that dont depend on gender. In this paper, Id like to explore what exactly

contributes to the gender inequality we see in extreme sports. This paper will focus on three

factors in which we can see this discrimination; objectification, gender expectations, and

stereotype threat.

Part II: Historical Context

The struggles that women face in extreme sports are rooted in the historical

attitude towards women's participation in all sports. The women's liberation movement of the

1960s culminated in the title IX act that was created to allow equal participation for girls and

boys in school sports in the United States; similar acts were enacted in other first world

countries. Whereas this created a legal basis for the access for women's participation in sports,

attitudes have changed slowly. The immediate result of title IX was to create opportunities for

women to play sports specifically designed for men, for example basketball or soccer. When

watching any major league sport, it becomes obvious that women are not as good as men. If

women are playing sports that cater to the strengths of men, of course they are not going to play

to the same levels.

While title IX did not entirely solve gender inequality in sports, it did increase female

participation exponentially, and without it women would have had less opportunities to play

sports. In 1972, the year title IX was instituted, only 300,000 girls, 7% of all high school athletes,

played high school sports. In 2010 that number rose to 3.2 million participants, or 41% of high

school athletes (Title IX and Athletics). This piece of legislation started the trend of acceptance

of female athletes, and affected not only school sports, but also the perception of females in

every sporting environment.

Title IX was a huge step in the right direction for women's rights, but how did it affect

female participation in sports like snowboarding, skateboarding, or freeskiing where there isnt

necessarily an official school team and thus a legal need for an option for women? Most extreme

sports were designed and became popular around the same time as title IX was being created. So

why have these sports become male dominated and surrounded by a masculine culture? This

refers back to the preexisting attitudes towards women in sports and the three concepts

mentioned above: objectification, gender expectations, and stereotype threat.

Part III: Research and Analysis


The objectification of women in extreme sports happens in several different places within

society and sporting subcultures. Because I participate in several extreme sports, I have

experienced this firsthand, as I am sure every other female athlete has. On multiple occasions

Ive been skateboarding, some boy has made a totally rude and unnecessary comment, usually a

comment about my various body parts. I shake these comments off because Ive been

skateboarding for several years now and am used to it. But I can definitely see how hearing

something like that would discourage a girl from participating in that sport. The most common

place where we see objectification is in the media. Everyone has seen the pictures of female

athletes in skimpy clothing that show off their bodies rather than their athletic skill. A recent

example of this can be seen in some of the skateboard designs of Hubba Company. There ads

frequently feature glamour models dressed in suggestive clothing. As Dani Abulhawa explains in

the article Female Skateboarding: Rewriting Gender, Skateboard companies and magazines

have increasingly used misogynist treatment of women as a way of selling skateboards

(Abulhawa 60). This objectification of women both reinforces the masculine culture surrounding

skateboarding and makes it clear that anyone who is not a heterosexual male is not welcome in

this sport.

The objectification of women in extreme sports goes deeper than the media's portrayal of

female athletes. There is an underlying masculine culture associated with every extreme sport

that is constantly objectifying women in their own sporting communities. Everyone has heard

some version of the common saying You throw like a girl. Whether youre a skateboarder,

freeskier, rock climber, or participate in any other extreme sports, there is some form of this

denigrating comment that gets thrown around in a casual manner, and people do not even realize

that this is offensive. In sports it is an insult to be told you perform like a girl, and you are not

truly accepted in that sport until you can present yourself in an unfeminine way. Women are then

faced with the challenge of either being constantly objectified in their sport, or entirely giving up

their femininity. The skateboarders discussed in the article Female Skateboarding; Rewriting

Gender, chose the latter. Alexis Sablone, Marisa Dal Santo and Elissa Steamer all have a very

masculine skateboarding style, they hide their femininity by dressing and holding themselves as

men. When a skateboard company sponsors a girl, she is represented in a separate section from

the regular sponsored riders. This puts women on a different scale than men, leading the general

population to believe them to be the inferior athletes. These women transcended the barriers of

this gender expectation and are presented in the same section as the male skateboarders

(Abulhawa 708). But to get to this point in their careers, they all but completely lost their

femininity. While these women should be and are an inspiration to every girl wanting to be an

extreme athlete, it is still unacceptable that the only way to gain respect in this sport is to

conform to the masculine culture.

Gender Expectations

Gender expectations play a similar role in discrediting female athletes. Gender

expectations are a set of societal norms dictating the types of behaviors which are generally

considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for people based on their actual or perceived sex

or sexuality. For example, men are supposed to be physically strong, while women are perceived

to be dainty. This plays a role in forming the masculine culture we see in sports, the discussion of

sports in the media, and sports competitions.

Most extreme sports do not involve very much of the physical attributes that would make

them be considered masculine. Yet every extreme sport is still male dominated. A large part of

what makes a sport more masculine is the subculture surrounding it. In practice, riding a

snowboard involves little that conforms to the dominant ideals of the sporting masculinity, such

as strength, aggression and teamwork (Anderson 60). The sport does not require these aspects

that legitimise the exclusion of women, so as a result men rely on other means to prove

themselves. Using social practices, snowboarders can turn the sport into something that will

convey their masculine status. Men create a culture around sports to adhere to their gender

expectations and in turn exclude women from them. If it were accepted that girls and boys could

be equally good at snowboarding, there would be no way for men to prove their masculinity in

this sport and thus live up to their expectations.

It is not only the expectations of men that cause inequality in extreme sports, the same

holds true for what is expected of women. We often see these expectations coming through in the

way women athletes are portrayed in the media. For example in snowboarding, on the rare

occasion that a women is featured in an ad there is always a footnote explaining how she is the

wife, girlfriend, or sister of another snowboarder represented in that ad.

Male snowboarders, use several strategies to define the acceptable and appropriate ways

of being a girl-snowboarder. Within snowboarding as in other sports female

snowboarders are constructed as the other against which masculinity is defined. The

data suggests that male snowboarders and the snowboarding media rely on two general

strategies to differentiate female boarders and retain the sports masculine image:

sexualization and devaluation (Anderson 71).

This perpetuates the expectation that female snowboarders are weak and need to be legitimized

and encouraged by a male presence. This subconscious presumption both discourages women

from participating in an extreme sport and allows men to continue devaluing female athletes.

We can see these gender expectations negatively affecting women in extreme sports in

the way gender is so heavily policed in professional sport competitions. As noted above, gender

expectations devalue the female athlete and reinforce the idea that men are more adept for sports.

By segregating the genders in sporting competitions, we are physically putting men and women

on a different playing field. It is assumed in sports, that it is necessary to have a level playing

field. In an attempt to achieve this the two genders are separated and since women are typically

the weaker category, they are vigorously tested to ensure that they are truly and entirely a

woman. These tests can be incredibly long and are often entirely unnecessary. In the case of

Caster Semenya, a track star from South Africa, gender verification tests took her out of

competition for close to 6 months before the IAAF ( International Association of Athletics

Federation) allowed her to return to competition. The tests were said to be requested because of

her deep voice, muscular build and rapid improvement in running time. The IAAF never released

the results of her tests (Cooky 1). This occurred in 2009 and has happened to countless other

female athletes. The gender of a male athlete has never been called into question. The unfair

treatment of female athletes in professional sports such as the case of Caster Semenya has been

happening since women were first allowed to compete and has not ended to this day. Men and

women are held to a different standard in sports because of their gender expectations. Because of

this female athletes are constantly scrutinized and devalued for breaking the norm.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat is a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be

at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group (Stereotype). In the context of

extreme sports, stereotype threat is referring to the risk for women of confirming the stereotype

that they will perform worse than men. Since I am advocating the desegregation of men and

women in extreme sports, it is crucial to understand that stereotype threat can and does exist.

Although there are no specific studies on stereotype threat in extreme sports, much has

been written on the concept. In the podcast, Studying Competition and Gender Through Chess,

Peter Backus explains a study on how stereotype threat affects women in professional chess. The

study was unique in that there is an enormous amount of very detailed data on chess

competitions and men and women do compete against each other. In the study, Backus concludes

that women perform worse on average when playing chess against a man then they do when

playing against a women. He also found that men take longer to concede the game when playing

against a woman, in other words, men get more competitive when competing against a woman

and thus take longer to admit they have lost. A key aspect of his research is the conclusion that

men and women are equally skilled at chess, but compete differently against each other (Polich).

Why? Through interviews with professional chess players, Backus was easily able to establish

that chess has a very masculine culture. But the question remains as to whether the stereotype

threat exists due to the masculine culture in chess or whether there are innate differences in the

ways that women and men compete.

Men and women compete separately in extreme sports. But we can still see some of the

effects stereotype threat has on women throughout the culture. The contributors to the article

"Women in Skateboarding - How to be a Lady (who shreds), explain how our current sporting

system is setup to the advantage of men, because they created it. Modern sports is a cultural

system created by men. It has a lot to do with urbanization, but it also has to do with

mechanisation, bureaucratisation - keeping records was big part of shaping the modern sports

system - and all this was done by men and all women could do after this was try to fit into the

system (Women 3). The only option for women is to participate in this environment that was

designed to the benefit of men. In these scenarios women are likely to react negatively to a

stereotype threat just as they do chess. Thus, the exclusion and segregation of women in extreme

sports is yet again unjustified. Women often do perform worse than men in sports, not just for

physiological reasons, but also because of the psychological barrier created by stereotype threat.

Part IV: Conclusion

Throughout this paper we have discussed discrimination against women in

extreme sports and its root causes: objectification, gender expectations, and stereotype threats.

Now that we have a deeper understanding of the issue we can discuss what solutions are possible

and what is already being done to right this inequality.

One necessary step towards gender equality is creating equal media representation for

women's sports and reducing or even eliminating the objectification of women in sports and ads.

Current sports coverage is highly focused towards men, only 5% of all media coverage features

women. Additionally, for every 53 articles written about male athletes, only one is written about

women. Womens sports receives only .5% of the total sponsorship income of the sporting

industry (Cat). Having more media representation for women will help womens extreme sports

gain the traction that it needs to create equality. To do this, we need more female athletes like

Arlene Blum, an incredible mountaineer who was the first woman to ascend many impressive

climbs. Or Jamie Anderson, who is both a professional snowboarder and has created her own

nonprofit to help other women succeed in extreme sports. These women gained respect by

becoming experts in their sport. They have become role models to the younger generations who

can then become even greater inspirations than the women who paved their path. Every amazing

woman can be a role model to countless other women, thus ensuring the constantly rising

participation and accomplishments of women in extreme sports.

There are many amazing programs going on all over the world to help women gain

equality in extreme sports. A recent example of this is taking place in Afghanistan currently. Its

a program called Skateistan that is introducing skateboarding to the youth of Afghanistan.

Skateistan aims to introduce and inspire a love for the sport while leaving the culture

surrounding it behind. Afghanistan has the highest percent of female skateboarder of any country

in the world, purely because the sport was introduced without the masculine culture that prevents

so many girls from falling in love with the sport (Women 2). Skateistan proves that, without the

negative influences of these subcultures, women can thrive much more in extreme sports.

Redefining gender expectations and masculine cultures surrounding sports, like what was

done with Skateistan, would greatly improve the image of women in sports and is a necessary

step in the right direction. Without the subcultures and expectations, stereotype threat would

cease to negatively affect women in extreme sports. It is unclear how we can redefine cultures

that have been created so closely with the sports themselves. Many people will say that the

culture is a vital part of a sport, and I do not disagree. Further research is needed on the

psychological effect of gender expectations, objectification, and stereotype threat on women in

sports to better understand what can be done to create a more welcoming culture. By supporting

one another and continuing to push the boundaries of gender expectations, we can further the

participation and accomplishments of women in extreme sports.

To conclude, the place of women in extreme sports is currently not ideal; female

representation in the media is low, and these athletes face many sociological barriers. However,

with every passing generation, women participation increases. Relative to traditional sports,

extreme sports are fairly new and do not carry as much entrenched cultural baggage. This

perhaps presents the opportunity to radically change the established masculine culture that has

developed in extreme sports. With a better understanding of the psychological problems holding

women back and an open mind our society will continue to improve gender equality in sports.

We have come from practically no female participation in sports in the early 70s to where we are

today, and we will continue to grow from here. Women have come a long way in the struggle

towards gender equality in extreme sports and I believe that one day in the near future this will

be achieved.


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