Sport is supposed to be the great equalizer; the one part of society where the playing field isn’t slanted. Sadly, though, if you’re born with two X chromosomes that just isn’t true.
The barriers to entry for female athletes are higher than those faced by their male counterparts and the rate of attrition is more rapid: Teen girls drop out of sport at six times the rate that boys do. According to Statistics Canada, 41 per cent of girls aged three to 17 don’t participate in sport and 96 per cent of girls aged six to 19 don’t meet the daily requirements set out in the Canadian government’s physical activity guidelines.
These are cold, hard facts, but like many men I have trouble wrapping my head around the root causes and understanding importantly how it feels for Canadian women to endeavor in sport without much support.
So, I enlisted the help of some elite female athletes to help shine a spotlight on the lack of female athletic representation in the Canadian media, as well as how we can inspire more young girls to participate in sports and stick with them long enough to reach the elite level.
Maya MacIsaac-Jones, Chandra Crawford and Heidi Widmer are cross-country skiers with the Canadian national team. Sasha Gollish is a distance runner on the national team. Danielle Wotherspoon-Gregg is a long-track speed skater on the national team. Rachel Klassen competes in the luge on — you guessed it — the national team. They are just six of the more than 400 elite female Canadian athletes registered with the not-for-profit group Fast and Female whose mission is to keep girls healthy, happy and active in sports through their teens.
I posed the following questions with the only guidelines being they could pick and choose which ones to answer and their responses could be as short or long as they’d like.
1. What was the biggest barrier you had to overcome to get involved in sports as a girl?
Sasha Gollish: Feeling like I had to play with the boys. My school was small and the only way I could be on a team was to be on the boys’ team. You had to be comfortable being smaller than the guys, having the girls tease you, and just saying, “I’m OK with this.”
Chandra Crawford: The benefits of sport are enormous, but girls are very sensitive to feeling that they “don’t belong,” and this is the top reason they quit sports six times the rate of boys in their early teens.
2. Why is involvement in sports important for girls?
Heidi Widmer: Young girls’ involvement in sport is critical to their development of genuine self-worth, confidence, independence and cooperation. Through the interaction with their peers as well as learning their own selves and bodies, young girls develop crucial skills of physical literacy to help them become emotionally and physically stable adults — active and capable adult citizens.
Danielle Wotherspoon-Gregg: It helped me to understand what it means to live a healthy lifestyle, and to be able to stay active and healthy beyond sport. It has given me confidence as well as an opportunity to meet many amazing female role models. I saw firsthand that women can be strong physically, mentally and emotionally — breaking down many gender stereotypes. Being in sport as a young girl helped me to see beyond these gender stereotypes and believe that I could do anything I put my mind to.
Gollish: Sports opens up doors that you may not see at first. Forget the health and fitness aspects — yeah, they’re great — [but] I remember my first ‘big girl’ job interview. I think I got the job not because of my resume or my education, but because we talked about alpine skiing for an hour. Sports crosses all sorts of paths in life and is relatable to so many people. Plus, all of my best friends today are the girls I played sports with through high school.
3. What factors lead to girls quitting sports?
Gollish: In my opinion, peer pressure is the No. 1 factor. I mean, the media really doesn’t help — so many pictures of girls just chillin’. I think if the media showed that being active was cool, you would see a lot of young girls stay active. I also believe that not having an avenue to just play sports because it’s fun is part of the problem. There is so much pressure to be the best that we forget that it’s good to be active just to smile and laugh with your friends.
Maya MacIsaac-Jones: In my sport, many female athletes drop out because they feel like there aren’t enough options to go to school while cross-country skiing at a high level.
Wotherspoon-Gregg: Girls drop out because of lack of opportunity. I know as a young girl I wanted to do everything my brother did. He played hockey and there was a girl on his hockey team and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. So, I asked my parents if I could play hockey with the boys, but they did not want me to be the only girl on an all-boys team. At the time there were no girls’ hockey teams, so I did not end up playing hockey. Lucky for me I found another sport I loved but not every girl is given these opportunities.
Rachel Klassen: Girls drop out of sport because of a number of reasons including cost of organized sport and feeling pressure from society to be “girly” or more feminine — something not usually associated with many sports.
Widmer: When I was growing up, the No. 1 reason that I watched girls quit sports was simply because “it wasn’t cool.” As soon as it became more intense and not solely about fun and more about results and competition, the rate of drop out of my peers increased dramatically. I can only hope that all girls have the chance to discover how rewarding pushing your limits is — exploring outside and going beyond “cool” to self-discovery.
4. How has being involved in sports helped you personally?
Klassen: The biggest thing is teaching me about myself. I learned what mattered to me in my life. It revealed who I was and what my personal values were.
Wotherspoon-Gregg: I started travelling at a young age [to compete] across Canada and then all over the world — this was an education in itself. By high school, I had visited almost every province in Canada, which is a really cool experience. I also met my husband in sports, so I guess that was a huge personal gain!
Gollish: I think if I was a child today I would be diagnosed with ADHD; I just can’t sit still. Sports allowed me to channel that energy into something positive, so when it was time to work, I got to work.
Crawford: Sport has given me everything. All that effort and failure has made me the resilient person I am today.
5. What is the biggest misconception about female athletes?
MacIsaac-Jones: That we need to train less than male athletes.
Klassen: If you think in terms of male and female physiology, women have to work a lot harder to put on muscle in comparison to men.
Gollish: That you have to look a certain way to be an athlete. Athletes in every sport, even within the same sport, come in all shapes and sizes. I think we need to stop seeing athletes as one ideal.
Wotherspoon-Gregg: I think that females being weaker than males is a misconception. Yes, men tend to have more testosterone, which helps, but there are a lot of strong women out there — and specifically mentally. A lot of times you have to fight harder to keep up as a girl.
6. What is the biggest difficulty you face as a female amateur athlete?
Widmer: Finding the financial support to pursue sport full-time.
Wotherspoon-Gregg: I think it’s harder to make a living off sports as a female because there are more opportunities for males. Not getting the same financial support as male counterparts makes it very hard to compete on the same stage.
MacIsaac-Jones: Since female athletes are often expected to be like male athletes (lean and muscular) but yet also expected to look feminine, many of us struggle with body image. Many of us also find it challenging to maintain a balance between a body that is healthy and a body that will be optimal for performance.
Klassen: Personally, the biggest difficultly I have found is always being compared to male athletes in how our bodies respond to training. As females, we do not put muscle on as quickly as men can, and we also can’t get our body fat percentage as low either.
Gollish: One of my challenges is defending my choice not to have kids and my choice to pursue athletics. I love kids — absolutely love them — but as a 35-year-old runner I had to pick, and sport won for me. That’s my choice but at times I feel judged for it. What I mean is people give you a funny look when you say “I have to head out for a run” as opposed to “I have to do something with my kid.” But in my life, that run is top priority.
7. Is there a double standard in the treatment of female athletes in relation to their male counterparts?
Widmer: In my experience, explaining that I am a full-time athlete is often met with the question “What else do you do?” As in, for a female, it is often expected that we have to pair [athletic endeavour] with being a mother of five, working part-time or studying to be a lawyer. For a male to say he is an athlete is more readily accepted.
Klassen: People and the media focus significantly more on our looks or our emotions during and after events, instead of the incredible performance of skill coming from female athletes. Also, I find our accomplishments mean less to the media. A man might be the first one in 20 years to receive a certain award when in reality a female received it just two years prior.
8. Have you had female coaches or mentors in your career? If so, is there benefit to having instruction from a woman instead of a man?
MacIsaac-Jones: I think it is important to have both male and female role models, but in terms of the coach-athlete relationship, I don’t believe that there is a benefit, necessarily, to having a female coach as opposed to male — success in this area depends largely on how well the athlete and coach can communicate and work together. However, I think it is important for male (and female) coaches to be comfortable discussing issues that are unique to female athletes.
Gollish: I think it’s really awesome when male and female coaches work together. Everyone brings something unique to the table and all athletes respond differently. Whenever possible, I think it’s really important to have both the sexes working together.
Widmer: There is a benefit but it takes a very specific female for the job. I have my own prejudices and harsh judgements of female coaches and athletes. There are certain qualities that females in a coaching position would be more equipped to deal with. For example, questions regarding menstruation, body image, eating disorders, relationships, sex, mental health and family issues and emotional topics. I’ve avoided those questions with male authority figures because I didn’t feel comfortable asking. I never had a particularly influential female coach, but there is definitely a role a female could fill as far as listening and providing empathy and considerate advice.
9. Do you feel oversexualized as a female athlete?
MacIsaac-Jones: No, I do not. That being said, I do find that in general in sport, a lot more attention is paid to female athletes’ appearances than to male athletes’. Male athletes seem to gain more recognition from their athletic achievements, where female athletes seem to gain more recognition for their appearance.
Klassen: To be perfectly honest, I think almost all females do.
10. Is there adequate coverage of female athletes in the mainstream media?
Wotherspoon-Gregg: No, definitely not. There are so many professional athletes that are male but very few household names for women.
Gollish: The media does a terrible job with female athletes. Advertisements with female “athletes” typically are not athletes. They shame women for having muscles and pick these really skinny, unathletic-looking girls to be their models. It just sends the wrong message to young girls. In terms of event coverage, I think the sports that are popular and can sell advertisement get their fair share of eyeballs compared to men’s sports.
Klassen: I think we need much more coverage of women’s sports. Right now, it feels like we only have coverage of the sports that are oversexualized or where the uniforms show more skin, such as tennis.
11. Is there an appetite among women for more sports coverage?
Klassen: Definitely. I know growing up I would have loved to see more women’s sports on TV. It provides awareness that females are just as talented as men, and it gives young girls access to many more role models.
Wotherspoon-Gregg: I think there needs to be more sport coverage for amateur sports in general. Limiting amateur sport coverage essentially limits coverage for women as there are not many professional female athletes.
Gollish: Yes, and I think the newer forms of watching athletics are changing that conversation. I think the ability to watch online is changing how we engage with sport.
Widmer: The families that I have come into contact with all over the world take genuine interest in learning what it is like to be a female athlete, what my training looks like, what I eat, what I do on race day. There is definitely enough interesting material for mainstream sports coverage.
12. Is there a particular reason we’ve seen such strong results from Canadian women competing internationally in recent years?
MacIsaac-Jones: I think living in a country that promotes gender equality has contributed a lot to this.
Wotherspoon-Gregg: Here in Canada we are lucky that, in comparison to a lot of other countries, our women are very well supported and we celebrate the success of our women.
Klassen: People are seeing us in a more serious light and because of that we are being provided more opportunities.
Widmer: Women have shown more consistent international success because we are receiving more unconditional support from families and communities. My favourite example is Erica Wiebe, 2016 Olympic wrestling champion. She is a compassionate and caring role model who has achieved her level of success not because she didn’t have people doubting her along the way, but because she had unwavering supporters around her, encouraging her to persevere despite the sexism and negativity that she encountered.
Gollish: It is cool to be an athlete in Canada. The conversation around being athletic is shifting: it’s becoming the norm to participate in activities. There were a few great female athlete role models about a decade ago and now there are so many. When young girls see their older counterparts smiling and loving what they are doing, you know they are going to want to follow in those footsteps.