Women’s soccer is still viewed as inferior to the men’s game simply due to the influence of gender stereotypes, according to a new study.
Researchers found that when genders are blurred people perceive the quality of male and female soccer players to be similar.
As England’s Lionesses prepare to take on Colombia in the Women’s World Cup quarter-finals on Saturday, the study showed that the quality of female footballers was only perceived as less than their male counterparts when people were aware of their genders.
An experiment showed viewers highlights of both male and female soccer players, whilst another group viewed the same videos without being able to tell the players’ genders.
The same technique was used in a French advert for the women’s World Cup when CGI was used to turn female players into recognizable male stars of the game before revealing their real gender.
The results showed that male players were rated significantly higher only in the group viewing the unmodified videos, leading the study’s authors to suggest our perceptions of athletes’ quality is ‘filtered through gender stereotypes.’
The fascinating study, from researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, sought to explore why, despite a recent boom in women’s soccer and record-breaking fan interest, the game still lags far behind the same sport played by men.
The research team said that in sports, as well as in other male-dominated professions, female athletes are very closely scrutinized and even criticized for their skill, talent and toughness.
The researchers said that though comments that women’s sports are boring, slow and unattractive in comparison to men’s have recently become far less widespread, they do still exist.
Combined with poorer coverage and lower investment than men’s sports, the study team believes these stereotypes can still make women’s sports appear less attractive than men’s and negatively affect how we perceive the quality of athletes’ performances.
To measure this, researchers at the University of Zurich (UZH) created an experiment to test whether people judge players’ performances differently if their genders cannot be identified.
A total of 613 participants were shown a series of ten videos showing professional male and female soccer players scoring goals.
The highlights shown included goals from the captain of Croatia’s men’s national team, Luka Modrić, as well as the US women’s national team and San Diego Wave FC captain, Alex Morgan.
In one group the genders of the players were ‘blurred,’ rendering it impossible for participants to know whether the players they were watching were men or women.
In the control group, however, the videos were unmodified and players’ genders were clearly visible.
Both groups were shown the same ten videos – five of male players and five of female players – and were then made to rate each player’s performance on a five-point scale.
The results showed that, when genders were visible, the male players were rated significantly higher than their female counterparts.
However, in the group in which genders were blurred, participants’ ratings did not drastically differ between the male and female players.
Study lead author Dr. Carlos Gómez-González, a researcher at the Department of Business Administration at UZH, said the findings show we may perceive quality through the filter of existing gender stereotypes.
He explained: “Many people assume that men’s sports are simply better than women’s sports because men tend to be taller, stronger and faster.
“However, the existence of stereotypes should alert us to another possibility: what if the perceived quality is filtered through gender stereotypes?
“Our results refute the assumption that low demand for women’s professional soccer is based on the quality of the female players’ performances.”
The study also suggests that, despite the England women’s national team’s success at last year’s Euros, and the widespread excitement and anticipation which preceded the current Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, women’s soccer and other sports are yet to have reached their full economic potential.
The study was published in the journal Sport Management Review.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker