The Problem with Stereotypes in Tennis
Any casual observer can see how much sport has changed for women over the past ten or twenty years. Back in the 90s when I was grinding out a living on the tennis tour things could be rough for us: not only was equal prize money at my home Slam a distant dream, the very idea was ridiculed whenever the debate arose. The then Wimbledon referee told me it would never happen in our lifetime. It did, unfortunately just not the lifetime of my tennis playing career.
Whilst the progress that’s been made might be phenomenal, there’s still so far to go. Starting with the bigger picture, in the UK not only do we struggle to get enough girls into tennis, but when we do we can’t keep them. Girls are outnumbered by boys at all junior age groups by at least 3:1, and are twice as likely to drop out around puberty. Only 23% of the UK coach workforce is female, and at more advanced qualifications this difference gets even wider. We know this is not just a British problem, and governing bodies around the world are at various stages of recognition and/or action in trying to tackle their nation’s ‘female problem’.
There are many proven psychological benefits of role models, but clearly in tennis we’re falling short. Little girls need older girls to look up to. Older girls should see young female coaches assisting in sessions and working around the club. Female assistants should be mentored by female senior coaches and head coaches and programme managers. This would show girls of all ages and stages that a future in tennis could be for them – you have to see it to be it as they say. In reality, there are too few females to fill these roles, meaning little girls look around their club or coaching programme and see a sea of male faces – groups full of little boys all coached by male coaches and assistants. If you don’t see yourself mirrored in your environment you leave, and tennis girls do in droves.
This is not just a problem for those of us within sport, it’s also a problem for the image of sport, with studies showing that it retains its traditional masculine identity. How could it be seen any other way when female athletes and sports receive less than 8% of all coverage in the mainstream media?
However, on a more individual level, it gets even worse for those resilient girls who haven’t been deterred by being outnumbered and being the odd one out on a court full of boys. The few girls who do persevere carry the heavy psychological burden of negative gender stereotypes. Any one of you reading this will have heard it all at some point: “women are too slow”; “too fat”; “lack power”; “have no stamina”; are “uncompetitive”; “unathletic”; “should be doing more feminine activities”… the list goes on. These messages are constantly streaming, explicitly or implicitly, from all sorts of sources, including peers, teachers, parents, coaches, television, and social media. Short term consequences include poor performances, inhibited learning, and a lower rate of retention, and over the longer term these build up to cause disidentification and drop out.
Stereotype threat is the name coined for the negative consequences of operating under the burden of stereotypes. When aware of a negative stereotype, a person’s performance declines due to the very effort of attempting to combat the stereotype. There have been hundreds of studies across a range of environments using different stereotypes, and anyone can fall victim to it, whether they believe the stereotype or not. Effects have been observed on both adults and children.
Children develop consciousness of gender, and gender stereotypes, from the age of two and a half and at that point start to conform to appropriate behaviours and identities. A study on infant girls showed that those who were gender-aware adapted their behaviour – becoming less aggressive and more introspective – than the girls who didn’t yet understand gender. Another study, by Harvard psychologists, looked at the effect of gender stereotypes on kindergarten girls. The girls’ identity was primed using a simple colouring in task before the test (in maths) with staggering results; when colouring in a picture of a girl holding a doll their test results were significantly worse than when they coloured in a landscape scene. Just to be clear, simply being reminded that they were girls in a gender-stereotyped environment was enough to affect performance. This means that some environments are so replete with negativity, e.g., for females in sport, that the threat can self-generate. In effect, even when coaches and parents are trying to do and say the right things, the environment could be working against them.
The good news for tennis, is that there are some quick and easy fixes we can make a start with. Females and males must feature equally in photos and discussions in all publications, on all websites, in all press releases and tweets, and in all public-facing communications. Even though the reality is that females make up less than a quarter of the tennis environment, federations have the power to change that perception, and perception shapes reality.
We could also provide education for players, parents, and coaches to demystify and diminish stereotypes. No one is claiming that women and men possess the same physical or psychological characteristics, so let’s educate and explore the real similarities and differences. Let’s stop little girls from thinking that they’re rubbish at sport because they have heard comments like “playing like a girl” by teaching them that actually the measurable performance differences between the sexes usually falls within a modest 8-12%. The fastest woman in the world is only a second off Usain Bolt – women are amazingly athletic and sport is a great place to express that physicality.
Federations and major tennis institutions need to examine their internal structure. With more than 75% of senior level positions in sport occupied by men, viewing masculinity as the norm is unavoidable. Unfortunately, this means that girl’s and women’s issues, challenges, and potential solutions are rarely part of the conversation in the boardroom in any meaningful way.
Parents also have a role to play in shaping a more equal future. They are the filter through which children experience the world, and it takes hard work to keep that filter positive and encouraging. Studies on parental expectations show that they unconsciously believe their sons are better than their daughters at sport even when actual ability is the opposite. Over time daughters adopt their parents’ false beliefs, and under-estimate their own abilities. This can be the moment we lose girls from sport, as there are established links between self-belief, competence, and the motivation to continue participating.
Coaches, too, must play a role in combatting negative pressures on girls. They should praise boys and girls in the same way – for their work and effort and not the way they look. They must educate themselves on the similarities and differences between the sexes across the performance factors in order to properly coach the individual in front of them. Coaches also need to be armed with female examples and stories when discussing tournaments and top players, and use women equally to demonstrate good tactics/technique etc. I know it’s beautiful, but tennis is not all about the Federer forehand!
The future is looking positive for women and girls in tennis. Sure, there are still many hurdles to jump, and many tough conversations still to be had, but there’s no doubt we’re in a golden period of opportunities for females in sport. True equality doesn’t just mean in prize money, although that was a great milestone for women, it must also mean equality of consideration, participation, and respect. And that, I hope, is achieved not just in my lifetime, but in the lifetime of my tennis coaching career.
Jo Ward... back