by Michelle Martin

After defeating top-ranked tennis player Ana Ivanovic at this year’s Australian Open, nineteen-year-old Eugenie Bouchard became the second Canadian to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam event. Following the biggest victory of her career, Bouchard was interviewed by former British tennis player Samantha Smith. Smith inquired about Bouchard’s emotional state during an injury time-out and a pre-match advisory meeting with her coach, Nick Saviano, and about her level of composure off the court. Smith went on to discuss the tradition Bouchard’s fans have of gifting her with a stuffed animal after every match, stating, “If you win on Saturday you get a really, really big stuffed animal.” Smith then launched into the now infamous “Who would you date?” question, which was widely decried as sexist and to which a visibly embarrassed Bouchard replied, “Uhh … Justin Bieber?”

Aside from the obvious inappropriateness and blatant sexism of this last question—which undermined Eugenie Bouchard’s tremendous accomplishment—Smith’s entire mode of inquiry revealed ugly gender biases. By questioning Bouchard’s emotional stability during the match and off-court, Smith reinforced the prevalent sports-world stereotype of female athletes as temperamental and irrational even when, as this instance demonstrates, they appear calm and composed. Smith’s comment about winning “a really, really big stuffed animal” further served to devalue Bouchard’s athletic performance, portraying her as a frivolous teen eager to win carnival prizes. Clearly, Smith’s completely irrelevant question about dating was the worst of the interview. By taking a question straight out of the pages of J-14 magazine, Smith managed to infantilize Bouchard and reassert her heterosexuality.

Unfortunately, the interview’s sexist undercurrent is barely surprising for anyone who follows sports. Female athletes are consistently subjected to the trivialization of their accomplishments by the popular media, which prefers to report on women’s emotional state and sexuality. Indeed, Smith’s interview neatly exposes the confines of the roles the sporting world sets out for its female athletes: You are a woman first and an athlete second.

Women who play sports defy gender stereotypes, particularly those associated with aggression, physical strength, and overall athletic ability. From a young age, girls are taught to doubt their physical abilities, to be afraid of being hurt, to believe they are inherently weak, to be passive, and to accept their fragility as a fact. To “throw like a girl” is an insult used to describe an unskilled and embarrassing attempt at a sport. The expression, which associates femininity with physical incompetence, serves as an example of how girls are alienated from sports and considered generally poor athletes. Unless they are actively encouraged and properly trained, girls and women will continue to approach athletic tasks already believing they can only fail.

Not only do female athletes need to overcome their social conditioning, they also must contend with the reaction their engagement in sport inspires in the public. Men are expected to be physically stronger, more aggressive, and naturally more athletic than women. By disrupting established gender roles, female athletes threaten patriarchal norms of masculinity and femininity. Their participation in sports is met with a constant questioning of ability, a desire to reassert their “feminine” qualities, and a well-established attitude that puts their contributions second to those of men.

While the participation of women in sport has increased since the beginning of the twentieth century, their designation as second-class athletes remains. Female athletes, for instance, continue to receive less funding and support than their male counterparts. To address this gap in funding, Canadian sporting bodies, such as the government branch, Sport Canada, have formed gender-based policies. While the idea of engaging, promoting, enhancing, and inspiring women in sport is admirable, how effective are policies that aim to improve women’s position in sport? Furthermore, what measures are sporting organizations taking to actually ensure gender equity?


Founded in 1906, the Canadian Interuniversity Sport/ Sport interuniversitaire canadien (CIS/SIC) acts as the governing body for university sport. For the 2013-2014 sports season, the CIS/SIC received $800,000 from Sport Canada to distribute among university sporting programs. As a crucial intermediary between elite national programs and amateur sport, and as an organization clearly aligned with post-secondary education institutions, the CIS/SIC plays a key role in fostering athletic development in Canada and in ensuring fair conditions for all student athletes.

In 2001, the CIS/SIC developed its own Equity and Equality Policy in order to address gender-based discrimination in university sport. Definitions for equity and equality were outlined as follows:

Equity refers to treatment that is fair and just. This definition of equity includes gender, race, ethnicity, language, disability, income and other diversities.

Equality means that all persons enjoy the same status regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, language, disability, income and other diversities. It means that all persons have equal conditions for realizing their full right and potential and to benefit from the results.

Twelve goals were outlined in the policy, seven of which pertain directly to achieving gender equity and equality. In particular, the CIS/SIC committed to:

• Encouraging young women to pursue sport as a career option
• Developing coaching initiatives for women at the post-secondary level
• Promoting gender equity in the distribution of sporting awards

A year after releasing its Equity and Equality Policy, CIS/SIC identified a number of items that could be improved upon. Ensuing discussions at a roundtable meeting found that “the current gender equity policy … was not necessarily the best way to measure or gauge the extent to which university athletics programs are implementing gender equity.” In particular, CIS/SIC recognized that its current policy did not adequately alleviate the under representation of women in sports or provide sanctions for members who failed to comply with its policies.

Also missing from the first draft of the Equity and Equality Policy was a real focus on proportionality, a concept first introduced by the US Office of Civil Rights. In the early 2000s, the American organization developed a compliance test to measure “[w]hether intercollegiate level participation opportunities for male and female students are provided in numbers substantially proportionate to their respective enrollments…”

Proportionality, as a strategy for achieving gender equity, ensures that the number of roster spots available to women is proportionate to the number of female students. Although CIS/SIC recognized proportionality as a tool for effectuating change, their policy was never amended to include it.

Since student fees substantially contribute to varsity athletics, funding for sports should reflect women’s increased enrollment in post-secondary institutions. Given that women constitute the majority of the student body at Canadian universities, proportionality would result in more opportunities and better funding for female athletes. While proportionality provides a concrete and measurable goal for gender equity and equality in sports, it is a policy that Canadian universities continue to fail to implement.

The CIS/SIC’s ambivalence towards proportionality is mentioned by the Centre for Sport Policy Studies (a University of Toronto initiative) in one of its biannual reports on gender equity in Canadian Interuniversity Sport. Published in 2011, the report contains the first comprehensive analysis of gender equity at CIS/SIC member institutions across Canada. As an independent third-party study, the report provides reliable information on the effectiveness of the CIS/SIC’s policy. Using data collected from the 2010/2011 academic year, the Centre for Sport Policy Studies focused its research on leadership in sports, as well as participation opportunities for female athletes. For leadership, the report looked at the number of women occupying head coach and athletic director positions. To analyze participation opportunities, data on the number of full-time students, the number of teams, and the number of student athletes was collected.

While the report concluded that the number of varsity teams for men and women were nearly equal, at 431 and 425 respectively, the opportunity to play on a varsity team disproportionately favored male students. In 2010-2011, 9,933 varsity roster positions were available to men in comparison to 7,815 positions for women. Consequently, the report demonstrated that males benefited from 2.9 opportunities for every 100 students, whereas females saw only 1.8 opportunities for athletic participation for every 100 students. The size of male-only football teams is often thought to contribute to this imbalance, yet even when football was removed from the data set, men still disproportionally excelled in the sports world.

Based on the results from the 2010-2011 report, The Centre for Sports Policy Studies made several recommendations to the CIS/SIC board and Canadian university athletic departments. Specifically, it advised implementing proportionality, encouraging female leadership, and setting concrete targets for equality. The Centre for Sports Policy suggested that the CIS/SIC:

[R]evist their gender equity policies … and in the spirit of the progressive plans that were outlined by CIS/SIC between 2002 and 2004, evaluate and determine how leadership opportunities may be made more available for women in coaching and administration and … immediately establish a preliminary equality target of 50% participation opportunities for female athletes.

The CIS/SIC, however, has failed to implement the report’s recommendations, effectively leaving the Equity and Equality Policy unchanged since 2004. Seeing as the data provided by the Centre for Sports Policy Studies clearly demonstrates areas for improvement, the CIS/SIC’s lack of response calls into questions its commitment to gender equality.

Although the CIS/SIC espouses gender equity as an organizational value, it has no framework to ensure it is practiced within universities. CIS/SIC’s inaction in developing and enforcing gender equity policies maintains the status quo and suggests that gender equity in interuniversity sport is a fait accompli.


Academic studies of gender relations in Canadian university athletic departments have explored the difficulty of realizing equity. According to Larena Hoeber and Wendy Frisby’s study of gender equity and organizational values in sports, when athletes, coaches, and administrators are confronted with gender imbalances, they tend to deny or justify them. Those who denied that sexism in sports exists supported their position by arguing that improvement was gradual or that these problems of representation were a non-issue. According to a female hockey player, who was interviewed by Hoeber and Frisby, “You need to be patient and you can’t expect all of a sudden that I’m going to get the exact same thing as [the male athletes].” Respondents also justified inequities by arguing that they were inconsequential or unimportant when compared to other institutional problems; overall, unequal treatment of male and female athletes was viewed as “normal.” Hoeber and Frisby’s study demonstrates how gender inequality in sports is perpetuated by stifling dialogue. When certain ideas are “positioned as common sense and others [are] ignored,” it becomes increasingly difficult to change the existing system.

Also latent in many of the attitudes of Hoeber and Frisby’s interviewees are neoliberal assumptions about deregulation (equity will improve gradually without intervention) and individual responsibility (equity is not a shared responsibility and inequity is normal). The gendered production of knowledge that fuels the status quo and the pervasiveness of these neoliberal ideals work together against advances in gender equity. Female athletes are constrained by gender norms, but the responsibility of overcoming inequity is placed on their shoulders. Hoeber and Frisby conclude that although administrators “perceived the athletic department to be gender equitable, the fact that they provided examples of structural inequities supports the contention that organizational values serve to bolster a particular image, but may not be reflected in actual practices.” Equity policies, according to this view, are no longer about actually creating equal opportunities but are rather an exercise in marketing progressive values.


If the situation for female athletes in Canadian universities seems grim, it is only more disheartening to examine the place of women in North American sport as a whole. The Women’s National Basketball Association’s highest player salary is $107,000, approximately 284 times less than the National Basketball Association’s maximum salary. Other professional women’s leagues cannot even pay their players. In extreme cases, female participation in sport has incited violence. Katie Hnida, the first female placekicker to score in a NCAA Division 1-A game, was reportedly sexually assaulted and raped by her male teammates. On an international level, the Olympic Committee has subjected female athletes such as Caster Semenya to gender testing, and in doing so, effectively enforced rigid biological constraints on femaleness and maleness.

The conditions female athletes are subjected to obviously need improvement. Policy within athletic institutions must uphold gender equality, and consequences must exist for those that fail to meet the standard. Governments, moreover, should ensure equal funding for women and men’s sports and encourage the development of women in athletic leadership roles. Women’s sports require increased resources and support in order to effectuate serious change

While policy enforcement and added resources provide concrete solutions for rectifying inequities, altering attitudes towards women and sport is seemingly more difficult. Undoing the work of socialization, which inculcates the view that women are physically inferior to men, seems a nearly insurmountable challenge. If girls grew to discover their ability not only to participate but to excel at sport, our narrow vision of femininity would surely change.

Abeyant within sport itself are modes of resistance against discrimination. As a site of contestation, sport provides an emancipatory potential for women to reclaim their physical and mental strength, and presents a space in which to challenge and reject patriarchal ideas of feminine behaviour. As a social practice, we need to recognize sport’s glaring inequities and work towards creating a truly even playing field. ♦



The report also found other glaring gender equity issues in the distribution of Athletic Financial Awards (AFA) and in the representation of women in leadership positions: during the 2009-2010 academic year, men received 58% of the total funds awarded nationally. In 2011, only 19 percent of women held head coach positions, and even fewer (17 percent) were hired as athletic directors.


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