Jessica Ennis

Men are two to three times more likely than women to be mentioned when it comes to discussing sport and sporting achievement, according to new research by language experts at Cambridge University Press.

Women get far less airtime than men and their physical appearance and personal lives are frequently mentioned.

Sarah Grieves

The research draws on the Cambridge English Corpus and the Sports Corpus – multi-billion word databases of written and spoken English from a huge range of media sources – which also highlight a pronounced gender divide when it comes to the way sporting men and women are discussed.

Academics found that in the Cambridge English Corpus ‘men’ or ‘man’ is referenced twice as much as ‘woman’ or ‘women’, but in the Sports Corpus (a sub-section of words in relation to sport) men are mentioned almost three times more often than women. 

Meanwhile, language around women in sport focuses disproportionately on the appearance, clothes and personal lives of women, highlighting a greater emphasis on aesthetics over athletics.

While returning female athletes like Jessica Ennis-Hill look to defend their Olympic titles in Rio, more is being made in the media of recent births and marriages than their medal hopes in the 2016 Olympics. Notable word associations or combinations for women in sport (but not men) include ‘aged’, ‘older’, ‘pregnant’ and ‘married’ or ‘unmarried’. The top word combinations for men in sport, by contrast, are more likely to be adjectives like ‘fastest’, ‘strong’, ‘big’, ‘real’ and ‘great’ – all words regularly heard to describe male Olympians such as Usain Bolt.

When it comes to performance, it seems as though men also have the competitive edge: interrogation of the databases sees ‘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’.

Sarah Grieves, Language Researcher at Cambridge University Press, said: “It’s perhaps unsurprising to see that women get far less airtime than men and that their physical appearance and personal lives are frequently mentioned. The breadth of sources we’ve analysed means we're able to give a unique insight into the language used to describe women and men within the context of sport.”

The only context where women are mentioned more is to mark their sports as ‘other’. Overt gender marking is much more common for women's participation in sport, both in terms of the sport itself (ladies’ singles) and the athletes participating (woman golfer). Men’s sport is often considered the default – for example, we are more inclined to refer to women’s football, whereas men’s football is just called football. According to the Sports Corpus, the sports where this is most likely to happen are athletics, golf, horse-riding, sprinting, football and cycling.

The research also showed higher levels of infantilising or traditionalist language for women in sport, who are more likely to be referred to as ‘girls’ than men are called ‘boys’. Women are twice as likely to be referred to as ‘ladies’, compared to ‘gentlemen’ who are frequently referred to by the neutral term ‘men’.

“It will be interesting to see if this trend is also reflected in our upcoming research on language used at the Rio Olympics,” added Grieves.

The study by Cambridge University Press looked at over 160 million words within the domain of sport using the Cambridge English Corpus, and aimed to examine how the language we use could indicate our gendered attitudes to sport. The Corpus is a huge collection of data, taken from a variety of different sources, including news articles, social media and internet forums.

More information can be found here

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