Aesthetics or Athletics? Battle of the Sexes in the Unequal Language of Sport


Cambridge University Press, which has looked at the way we talk about men and women in sport


Aesthetics or athletics?

Cambridge University Press research shows gender divides in the language of sport.

As athletes around the world descend on Rio for the 2016 Olympics Games, the pinnacle of the global sporting calendar, a new study of English language reveals wide discrepancies in how the media and fans alike talk about men and women in sport.

Using the Cambridge English Corpus (CEC) and the Sports Corpus, multi-billion word databases of written and spoken English language from a huge range of media sources, experts at Cambridge University Press have analysed millions of words relating to men and women and how they are described in language associated with the Olympic sports.

That is, when we’re talking about female athletes at all; we’re more likely to be talking about the heroics of Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford or Bradley Wiggins than their gold-winning female counterparts Nicola Adams, Helen Glover or Laura Trott. The research found that in the CEC ‘men’ or ‘man’ is referenced twice as much as ‘woman’ or ‘women’, but in the Sports Corpus (a sub-section of words in relation to sport) men are mentioned almost three times more often than women.  

The only context where women are mentioned more is to mark their sports as ‘other’.  Overt gender marking is much more common for women’s participation in sport, both in terms of the sport itself (ladies’ singles) and the athletes participating (woman golfer). Men’s sport is often considered the default – for example, we are more inclined to refer to women’s football, whereas men’s football is just called football. According to the Sports Corpus, the sports where this is most likely to happen are: athletics, golf, horse-riding, sprinting, football and cycling.

While some sports may have made strides towards equality, with tennis now offering the same prize money for men and women, research suggests we will be discussing the length of Heather Watson’s skirt, rather than her chances of winning the first UK women’s gold medal in tennis since 1908.  Language around women in sport focuses disproportionately on the appearance, clothes and personal lives of women, highlighting a greater emphasis on aesthetics over athletics.

It would also appear that whilst returning female athletes, such as Jessica Ennis Hill look to defend their Olympic titles more is being made in the media of recent births and marriages than their hopes for Rio.  Notable terms that cropped up as common word associations or combinations for women, but not men, in sport include ‘aged’, ‘older’, ‘pregnant’ and ‘married’ or ‘un-married’.  The top word combinations for men in sport, by contrast, are more likely to be adjectives like ‘fastest’, ‘strong’, ‘big’, ‘real’ and ‘great’ – all words regularly heard to describe male Olympians such as Usain Bolt.

When it comes to performance, it seems as though men also have the competitive edge: we see ‘men’ or ‘man’ associated with verbs such as ‘mastermind’, ‘beat’, ‘win’, ‘dominate’ and ‘battle’, whereas ‘woman’ or ‘women’ is associated with verbs such as ‘compete’, ‘participate’ and ‘strive’.

The research also showed higher levels of infantilising or traditionalist language for women in sport, who are more likely to be referred to as ‘girls’ than men are called ‘boys’.  Women are twice as likely to be referred to as ‘ladies’, compared to ‘gentlemen’ who are frequently referred to by the neutral term ‘men’.

Sarah Grieves, Language Researcher at Cambridge University Press said: “The breadth of sources we’ve analysed means we’re able to give a unique insight into the language used to describe women and men within the context of sport.  It’s perhaps unsurprising to see that women get far less airtime than men and that their physical appearance and personal lives are frequently mentioned.  It will be interesting to see if this trend is also reflected in our upcoming research on language used at the Rio Olympics.”

The study by Cambridge University Press looked at over 160 million words within the domain of sport using the Cambridge English Corpus, and aimed to examine how the language we use could indicate our gendered attitudes to sport.  The Corpus is a huge collection of data, taken from a variety of different sources, including news articles, social media and internet forums.

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Reference: CNN, Cambridge