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Football, Feminism and You

Earlier today, I mentioned on Twitter that Grantland, a site of which I’m quite fond, had fallen into the habit of primarily using female writers for stories on women’s sport (or, since Grantland also covers pop culture, on pop culture stories)*.  I followed it up by mentioning something I noticed during my trip to Melbourne: the Channel 7 ad for its AFL coverage in 2012 highlights its commentary team. None of them are women.  Someone, whose identity shall remain anonymous, replied to me by direct message and said something to the effect of “I don’t think there needs to be a woman. Shouldn’t it be the best people for the job, not necessarily a woman.”

This is a can of worms I was hoping to get at least a little more than 24 hours into my return-to-sports-writing without opening. You know why? Because it’s boring. I hate it. I hate having to write about it, and I hate feeling compelled to speak about it. I hate using phrases like “institutional sexism” and “heteronormative”. I hate contemplating how much the gender pay gap has cost me. I hate saying these things, because it requires me to think about them, and thinking about them is pretty depressing.  Sometimes, I just want to bury my head in the sand and pretend it’s all ok.

But the thing is, it’s not. Because as long as it’s actually fathomable that of the fourteen best people for a sports commentary job, not a single one is a woman, there’s something wrong.

Feminism is something that’s often misunderstood.  Part is this is because there are as many different understandings of “feminism” as there are feminists.  Part of that is that the media– and yes, I’m bored of blaming the media too– perpetuates an understanding of feminism that’s either really old school or really inaccurate.  I don’t hate men. I don’t want to overthrow the patriarchy and implement a matriarchy. I don’t want to burn my bra– but you know what? Neither did they.

But I am interested in the way that our culture is set up so that it structurally disadvantages women.  This is what I mean when I talk about institutional sexism.  It’s not the sexist nature of any one act, but the sum total of the way groups and organizations act toward women. Or men.  But when you’re talking about sport, the structural sexism is very clearly directed toward women.

This culture certainly exists in Australian sport and Australian sports journalism.  It’s not that women don’t have a place, or that women can’t make it at all.  It’s that the place that does exist is often very restricted (for example, to sideline reports rather the commentary box or to the reception desk or junior management rather than senior management), or that achieving a position is more difficult.  It’s not about the inherent sexism of any one appointment, but at the broad trends that suggest more underlying problems.  It’s the difference between saying “Andrew Ireland should not be the Sydney Swans CEO because a woman should have that job” and saying “Of the 18 AFL clubs, none currently has a female CEO. What’s going on here?”.  At the broad trend level, the notion that no woman could be one of the 18-most-qualified people to run an AFL club has to lead you to start asking what the qualifications are.

And this is where the sexism really lies: it’s in requiring attributes or skills that preclude women from doing the job or justifying the appointment of men over equally-qualified women.  It’s in building systems and cultures that fundamentally prefer a mainstream kind of heterosexual masculinity so that those who fall outside it can never fully participate in it.  There is nothing fundamental about sports administration or sports journalism that requires a straight male brain.  So the question must be asked: why aren’t there women AFL club CEOs? And why does Channel 7′s ad for its 2012 football coverage not feature a single female journalist?

Saying “I don’t believe in affirmative action- equality means the best people for the job get the job” ignores the tremendous structural barriers that exist for women (and non-straight-identifying men, and individuals with other gender identifications). It ignores the fact that social networks (the old school, offline kind) to which women don’t have access still exist. It ignores the fact cronyism is still a massive part of sport and, for the most part, it prefers men to women. It assumes that the best people for the job do get the job. They rarely do. While many people are disadvantaged by this cronyism, women are particularly so. Furthermore, it ignores the way we internalise social norms.  We become participants in a sexist culture because we accept it as inevitable and natural.  The combination of these factors means that far more is in play that “X was better for the job than Y”.

But rather than seriously considering and engaging with the structurally sexist nature of Australian sport, the conversation can often turn either dismissive or to rationalization.  This is by no means restricted to sport- in thinking about this piece, I found some pretty interesting examples of similar stuff from fields as diverse as music criticism and the Open Source software community.  The idea that it is not sexism, but some widespread deficiency in talented and qualified women is both a common comfort and entirely false. Neither music criticism nor open source nor the world of professional sports journalism and administration are a pure meritocracy: all exist with cultures and structures that must be examined and considered in light of their incredibly male-dominated output.

Saying “I’m not sexist” or “I don’t mean this in a sexist way” doesn’t mean you’re not participating in a sexist institution.  To quote from another article on Open Source:

That brings up another point I’ve learned: people who are not consciously sexist themselves tend to be unable to see institutionalized sexism around them. They are not aware of any prejudice against women in themselves, so how could there be any sexism involved? They seem unaware that institutions and customs can be sexist simply by what they value or how they operate, that even something like a discourse developed by men talking to men can institutionalize sexism. Nor do they understand that, by simply accepting such institutions or ways of acting, they become supporters of sexism.

And of course, the very nature of a spectator sport that only men can play professionally is sexist.  But when women are crowded out from the avenues of participation that should, for all apparent reasons, be open to them, we at least owe it to ourselves to ask why. 43.1% of the AFL viewing audience is female. 0% of Channel 7′s advertised 2012 commentary team is. There’s a discrepancy there that, at the very least, warrants examination.

Every time an AFL or NRL club is caught in the middle of a sex scandal, I heave a heavy sigh.  Because, once more, the attention will be focused on young men who did the wrong thing.  The problem, though, is that while that’s indicative of the sexist nature of sport in Australia, it’s merely one part of it. As long as women are restricted to very narrow and specific roles within sport, sport will remain inherently, structurally sexist.  You can’t change a culture from the bottom, you have to change it from the top. Australian sporting culture is inherently, structurally sexist. Even if nobody wants to change that, we should at least recognise it.

*edit* I should have noted, the exception to this is Katie Baker, whose stories on the NHL are a welcome exception to this trend.

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