Skip to content

Valuing Women Role Models in Sport

One of the things that drew me to ultimate was the many nuances of gender equality that are embedded within the sport. One example is the mixed division – a division in which men and women play high-caliber ultimate together on one team. Another example is the ‘Open’ division, which is open to all genders and all ages.

My appreciation for equality in ultimate was reinvigorated last week when Ultimate Canada announced the addition of the Women’s Master’s division in CUCs for Vancouver, 2013. This was reminiscent of the excitement when Canada agreed to send its first-ever women’s master’s team (+30yrs of age) to Japan to compete at the World Ultimate and Guts Championships 2012.

These achievements don’t come easily.They often require a lot of mental work, discussion, and carefully argued rationales.These achievements, however, are huge milestones that set important precedents and pave the way for gender equality.

But despite each precedent, the same initial resistance arises against women’s equality in sport (and other domains like science and business for that matter). Along with the resistance, comes the typical argument, which is “There aren’t enough women to support these changes.” In fact, Ultimate Canada believed this to be the case during our initial conversations prior to submitting the proposal for the new women’s master’s division. So, to appease them, we went around and talked to women all across Canada to prove otherwise.

The belief that there aren’t enough women to fill the gender gap is most often just plain wrong. It’s hard to stand in line for something that doesn’t exist. But provide something to stand in line for and people inevitably and reliably line up. Such is the case with women’s ultimate. For example, women’s master’s Team Canada had more applicants for its WUGC team than did Capitals for Women’s Team Canada. And with a prospect of a new women’s master’s division, we secured interest in 8 teams, more teams than there are spots!

But it is true that there are cases when there really aren’t enough women to fill the gap. This was the argument put forth by the many angered people in Toronto Ultimate Club last winter when the mixed ratio in the elite competitive indoor league was changed to a mandatory 3:3, abolishing the previous standard of 4:2 (men:women). One might wonder what the value is of creating an equal opportunity when there aren’t women to even fill those roles. Perhaps the phrase “build it and they will come” is suitable here.

Build what, you ask? Role models, of course! Role models are HUGE for development. But this is quite difficult for many males to really understand because they simply have been well endowed with their gendered role models.

Growing up as an female athlete, I remember no such role models. I played ringette because “girls didn’t play hockey”, at least not in Winnipeg. I remember 2 girls who did and they were made fun of. But then, seemingly miraculously, in 1992 (my grade-12 year) the first girls’ league started in Winnipeg following the announcement that women’s hockey would have its inaugural year in the ‘98 Winter Olympics. I remember that first gold-medal game when Canada lost to US in Japan. I stayed up all night with my women’s hockey team watching the game. The only all-nighter I pulled in my entire university career!

The result of this change some 10 years later? Nothing less than a huge and significant growth in the sport! In 2002, I was playing varsity hockey at Dalhousie University with 18 year-olds who had been playing hockey since they were 8 and who had grown up watching role models like Hayley Wickenheiser, Cassie Campbell, Manon RheaumeSami-Jo Small and Jennifer Botterill.

Also in 2002, the Dalhousie Women’s Hockey Team became an official varsity sport and in fewer than 5 years we went from having a few scattered parents sitting in the stands to an arena full of young girls asking for autographs. The media even began showing up to our games.

If you don’t believe me about the value of role models, perhaps we can ask the millions of girls who watched the two female Saudi Arabian athletes, Shahrkhani and Attar, enter the opening ceremonies of the summer last year and then compete in their sports of Judo and Track, respectively. This marked the 2012 Olympics the first year that every country sent both men and women to the Olympics. These women broke a huge barrier for females with any inkling of an athletic drive inside of them by serving as very real role models. Perhaps it’s hard for us in Canada to imagine this, but consider what happened following our women’s soccer team with the bronze medal that same Olympics. Many young girls were so inspired that they were tweeting that they wanted to be Christine Sinclair!

Having role models is an important aspect of social learning. Modeling allows people to transfer technical skills, strategy, attitude, work ethic, social dynamics, and even how to dress and talk. An athletic role model provides an aspiring wannabe the opportunity to envision oneself in that role. And sometimes as girls and women, it’s simply harder to envision one’s female self in a role that is occupied by a male.

TUC’s choice to alter the gender ratio, Ultimate Canada’s acceptance of a Women’s Master’s Division into CUCs, and surely many other initiatives throughout Canada are all part of the work that will continue to grow women’s participation in ultimate. These efforts are even more important now as the sport of ultimate welcomes high-profile teams like Nexgen, the traveling open team filled with young college guys, and the professional Open teams (AUDL), which will undoubtedly also be filled with males. Sadly, until I explicitly said that last line, you probably didn’t even think for a second that anyone but a male would be on the team. Lest we forget what “open” actually refers to as ultimate grows and grows.

My ultimate hope in all of this is that the young girls keen to play ultimate will be able to do so with as much opportunity, and with as many role models as their male peers and with role models who continue to play long after their 20’s, much like Open Master’s.

Creating equal opportunities changes the game. The 3:3 ratio did more than just change the number of women on the field, it changed the game drastically. Women ended up with equal opportunity to catch, throw, layout, bid, sky, hammer, zone, initiate, strike, handle… and equal opportunity to dominate. Women watching saw the game differently as a result. They saw a potential role for themselves. This will happen with the new women’s master’s division too, surely. In fact, I personally am still playing because of role models in my vicinity who proved to me it was possible to keep playing after 35th birthday. I am extremely grateful to the longevity of women like Alyson Walker, Anja Haman, and my old Salty teammates, Liane Johnson and Kandace Terris. Together, we co-create equal and visible opportunities for women in sport!

50 thoughts on “Valuing Women Role Models in Sport”

  1. AWESOME article. Just think how inspiring and motivating it is for organizers in young ultimate countries.
    Keep sharing your experience with us and we´ll catch up faster!
    Cheers from Argentina!

  2. I believe that last season the AUDL was all-male, not Open. They’ve since updated their website, and they may have changed that this year, since I can’t find anything discussing it now. However, it lists the Toronto and Minnesota combine being “open to all male players….”

  3. Very much liked your article. These progressions and developments in the sport are what makes it truly valuable. Spirit IS Ultimate. This sport is – when it boils down to it – a Game. And there is not any judgment that can actually be made nor any distinction between people, that somebody has more of a right to play a game than another person, or enjoys it more, or can participate in it more. To every single person, the game being played, the drill being executed, the practice in session, is their 100%, their reality, their expression of enjoyment. The significance and impact of the sport to the participating individuals cannot be measured and weighed.  And therefore  we need to learn that all is equal, there are no boundaries but the ones we declare in our mind and there is no measure for enjoyment. We should simply just play.
    Greetz from Germany,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *