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How Language Is Harming Sportswomen

30/09/2016 09:30 BST | Updated 28/09/2017 10:12 BST

I study language. July 2015 was a month of women's sporting achievement with England reaching a World Cup Semi final and Heather Watson taking Serena Williams to the very end of one of Wimbledon's greatest ever games. That July came just before my final year at University, and was the perfect excuse to study the language of women's sport in detail in dissertation form. Here was my idea.. I would gather as many UK press articles as I could from 2015 that included the words 'sportswoman', 'female athlete' and their retrospective plurals. Then I would do what is known in the linguistic field as 'collocation analysis', the analysis of words that often co-occur with these words. For instance, a collocate of 'book' is 'shelf'. Fairly simple, but very telling. I would look at each collocate in some detail, seeing how it occurs and in what sentence. Then to finish, I would look at some of the statistically 'key' sportswomen in 2015: Serena Williams, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Ronda Rousey.

Ok, methodology in place. Here are the 3 main findings:

1) In language we have something called agency. In simple terms, the agent in a grammatical clause is the 'one doing' (thanks Wikipedia). So here is my first finding. You know I mentioned women's sports are never on TV? Well they're also never the agents of doing anything. Very often they are on the end of things, being 'treated' differently or 'talked about' by wider society. This all ties in with the fact that journalists didn't seem to quote women in sport, they never appeared to have a voice or able to talk on their own terms. Their fate is in the writer's hands. Perhaps most astonishingly, women were granted that active agent role when they were 'showing off their tan' on their summer holiday. Amazing. Oh, and by the way, what the hell does any of this has to do with actual sport?

2) To the second finding, which relates closely to those collocates I was talking about earlier. Sportswomen were commonly referred to based on their relationships. Collocates such as 'affair', 'man' and 'married' were enough to confirm this. Not only do relationships tend to downplay the sportswoman's role in, you know, sport.. But I also think they bring in other personality traits such as fragility, mischief or reliance on another. As I think you would agree, all are pretty harming to their status. Framing women like this sends out a pretty powerful societal message beyond sport: If you're a woman, are you really newsworthy if you aren't in a relationship?

3) ... And finally a finding related to sport. When looking at Serena, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Ronda Rousey closely, an interesting pattern started to emerge. I think we can all agree that these 3 are pretty elite athletes all having been or at the top of their sport. So when I found out that newspapers had a tendency to undermine their sporting achievements, it was surprising. First up, Serena. She wins a lot.. but according to the article I followed, she only beat Sharapova because it's a 'lopsided rivalry' with little competition for the American. Another thing on Serena, the sociological sport literature seemed to suggest that women are granted more coverage in tennis because it is a 'female appropriate sport'. I know, it's just getting worse. Ok, so let us try Ronda Rousey. Martial arts can hardly be considered 'female appropriate' on that premise. But then we start to see the newspaper focus on that stereotypical 'babe' image and Ronda became a victim to the 'male gaze', where the focus of the article wasn't her physical prowess in the arena, but her choice of clothing outside of sport. So that leaves us with national heroin Jessica Ennis-Hill. This article wasn't even in the sport section, but showed great admiration for how Jess can maintain the life of an elite sportswoman and mother. Mother.. we're heading back to relationships again, aren't we?

By the way, this research is by no means groundbreaking. There's plenty of sociological and linguistic research on women, men and sport in general by academics who know a lot more than I do.

The point is, language is to the detriment of sportswomen's societal image. We focus very little on the actual sport, and when we do, the athlete is undermined by something else that functions to take her out of a sporting domain. Given that newspapers are read nationwide, I would consider this a problem larger than the need for more coverage and attention. This article focuses just on women, who made up for 14.5% of my articles collected. That's 85.5% male sporting content. I don't know what the next avenue for change is.