The differences in how we talk about male and female athletes are staggering
Women are often branded ‘unmarried’ or ‘aged’ instead of talking about their ability
As all sporting eyes turn to Rio this Friday for the opening ceremony of the 31st Olympic Games, new research from Cambridge University Press highlights the huge disparities in how we talk about men and women in sport.
Using the Cambridge English Corpus and the Sports Corpus, multi-billion word databases of written and spoken English language from a huge range of media sources, language experts have analysed millions of words relating to men and women in sport, finding that men are three times more likely to be mentioned in relation to sport than women, compared to men being referenced twice as much as women in general, non-sport specific language.
Research also found that words associated with women place a greater emphasis on aesthetics and their marital status with words such as ‘aged’ and un-married’ commonly cropping up while by contrast men were referred to with adjectives such as ‘fastest’, ‘strong’, ‘big’, ‘real’ and ‘great’.
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.
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’. Female athletes are also often referred to as “girls” or “ladies”.
Sarah Grieves, Language Researcher at Cambridge University Press said the depressing findings were “unsurprising”. She said: “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.”
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