“Playing Like a Girl”: When Gender Disparity is Truly Engrained

A little over three years ago, I started look at hockey- and sports as a whole – as a viable option for a career path.

Before that, I had toyed with the idea of international diplomacy, or maybe being a lawyer. I’ve never been outrageously feminine, but I’d never been quite tomboy-ish enough to really look at sports as something I wanted to do forever. Being healthy, maybe, but never centreing my livelihood around a predominantly male-populated profession.

Of course, that means that I now have over three years of experience with talking about my job (at first just a dream, then a reality) with both men and women. I’ve had to learn how to explain what I do to guys on dates – which means gauging their interest in sports and figuring out exactly where the line is between talking about a common interest and boring them with lectures about my job.

It sounds like a gender disparity issue, but it really isn’t. If I was an accountant, I’d have to learn that same line — and how not to cross it. If you’ve ever been trapped with someone at a dinner party who just won’t shut up about quarterly financial reports, you know; that’s a line that not everyone learns how to toe, but probably should. If a guy is a casual hockey fan, it’s not emasculating to correct his every opinion on teams and players and lecture him about the best U18 DI forward from Poland — it’s boring. Good conversation is about finding that boundary between interesting banter and a patronizing lecture, and adding in the facet of being a woman among men is just another piece of that puzzle.

In finding that line, though, I’ve learned to pick out cues from those I speak to — and while that means I think I’ve learned to be a better conversationalist, it also means that I’ve gotten better at picking out cues that my conversation partner doesn’t respect me.

“I don’t watch women’s pro sports. I’m a heterosexual male.”

That’s a legitimate response I got last week — and from someone who I won’t outright name, but who does something very similar to me for a living.

It wasn’t a response to me trying to goad him into watching an NWHL broadcast or tag along for a women’s soccer game, either. I had simply dropped out of the conversation between himself and a few others for a moment; I caught complaints that the game they were talking about attending “had lower attendance, so the concessions are only open in one part of the arena,” so I had asked if they were referring to a WNBA game. That’s literally all I had asked.

I consider myself to be less sensitive when it comes to gender phrasing than a number of women I know. One of my friends, who plays ACHA hockey, referred to me as ‘just one of the guys’ a few weeks ago — and I see nothing wrong with that. I don’t mind using gender-discriminatory titles like ‘steward’ vs. ‘stewardess’ or ‘host’ vs. ‘hostess’, particularly if they aren’t being used in a derogatory manner. I’ve been told by some of my more headstrong friends in the past that I’m too passive in my feminism.

Yet, that comment by someone I consider an equal of mine — implying that only women or gays watched women’s sports, whether he meant it that way or not — was, in my opinion, way out of line. It told me, from the get-go, that this person considered me less worthy of respect than him or our other peers.

It’s not a one-time comment from this individual, either. When a group of us were complaining about an oft-injured player in the NHL just yesterday, he scoffed.

“He just hurt his vagina again.”

Another in the conversation tried to make it more acceptable. “Actually, it was his groin,” they added. He ignored that.

It may seem like there isn’t, but I think there’s a huge difference between that and many of the existing gender-discriminatory remarks being made on a daily basis, both in my job and in everyday society.

I was recently told by a friend that they’d caught a women’s ACHA hockey game, and the quality of competition ‘wasn’t nearly as good’ as in the men’s leagues. This is the same friend who introduced me to a teammate as a goalie last week, boasting that I probably knew my stuff better than half of the room. This is the same friend who asked me how they played last week, because they insisted they know they can trust my answers. Their remark about women’s hockey wasn’t made in a “women can’t be as good as men” way, but stating a fact — and one that’s very true. There are still huge gaps in competition quality between men’s and women’s sports, and a lot of it has to do with the recency of athletic exposure for women. Title IX has barely scratched the surface of all it will contribute in time; right now, there’s still a gap that needs closing, as there are in many areas of society between men and women.

No; comments about gender disparity aren’t always made out of a lack of respect. Identifying when they are, though, is something I think we need to do more often.

Being the Problem vs. Identifying the Problem

I think it boils down to the fact that there are two types of comments made that discriminate by gender: those that identify the problem in society and those that are the problem. Making that distinction, in my opinion, is important: it’s the difference between shouting into the void and identifying problematic behavior.

I’ve never pretended to be much of a crusader, and I don’t see that changing any time in the near future. I’m never going to be the person who’s fine with losing their job to call out problematic individuals, and I know that there are many out there who think that makes me part of the problem. That’s perfectly okay with me; we’re all entitled to our own way of thinking, and I respect that.

What I don’t mind doing, though, is pointing out: if you’re a man and you think that being interested in an activity either performed or managed by women makes you lesser, weaker, or pathetic, then you’re a big part of the problem. You don’t want to watch the WNBA? That’s fine, neither do I. I have less than zero interest in watching women’s basketball (although I enjoyed going to college games to see my friends play back at St. John’s).

That doesn’t make me a straight white male, though. Do you see how ridiculous that sounds?

This is my open letter to you — and if this sounds like something you’ve said in the past, suggesting that liking something either accomplished by women or geared towards women somehow makes you less of a man, check yourself. I don’t think women should get jobs over equally qualified men just because they’re women, I don’t think you should have to automatically love reading Jezebel and watching Girls and attending WNBA games for the sake of female empowerment. That’s equally ridiculous, to me.

Suggesting that your interests are either qualified or discounted because of your gender, though, is something that too many people still subtly do — and this may be a pointless blog post, but it needs to stop.

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