Uncharted Territory

Uncharted Territory: Women in Male-Dominated Sports Positions

A woman announcing a National Football League (NFL) game? This is undoubtedly what most people thought around the country during a Monday night football game this season. Hearing the voice of a female announcer was and is still very new in the sports world, especially in male dominated sports. It is not just announcing, but refereeing as well.

Any position in the male-dominated sports arena is tough for a woman to overcome, both from professional critics and the fan base that the sport entails. Society assumes that male sports will be left to males and female sports will be left to females. Once this boundary is crossed, criticism is often followed. This article will explore why crossing this boundary is “taboo” and the problems females face when they chose to explore this uncharted territory.

The dangers of crossing this norm can be explained by looking at the early life of men and women. It goes back hundreds of years when we first began to form gender norms. Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett explained how these norms formed in their book Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs (2005).

Barnett and Rivers stated, “Males are the aggressive sex and females the docile sex… Man the hunter has become firmly lodged in our imagination.”

Ever since this belief was formed it has followed society through the present day. It is no surprise that a female announcer would be seen as weak, or as Rivers and Rosalind said, “docile.” The anti-feminine norm rejects anything perceived as feminine. Likewise, masculinity norms is intellectual success, toughness, and aggression. What better ways are these norms perceived then in male dominated sports.

To give context, Beth Mowins became the first woman to call a Monday Night Football game this year. During and after the game, male fans explained that her voice was overbearing, annoying, and nagging. Perhaps this could be because she broke masculinity norms that football viewers have become accustomed too. The belief that football is supposed to be tough/aggressive does not just hold true for the athletes playing, but for the people who work over the athletes, announcers, and referees.

Once the masculinity norm is crossed, the anti-feminine norm takes hold. That is where Mowins criticism came from because she dared to break society’s norms. Barnett and Rivers in Same Difference would agree that the long held belief of men as aggressors and women as docile is the reason that most women stay away from male dominated sports, in fear that breaking these norms will result in misogynist disapproval.

It is not just female announcers that are at risk to scrutiny for venturing into male territories, but referees as well. Picture this: a professional male athlete taking a penalty from a female referee. Will the athletes handle this scenario different than if it was a male referee barking orders?

The privilege to speak is another norm that has remained in society for generations. It is believed that men talk more, especially in public context. Men interrupt women much more as a way to deny equal status. A female referee interrupting a male athlete to install a penalty is denying the man a right to speak. This puts the female referee in a more problematic position than a male referee.

For example, National Basketball Association (NBA) referee Lauren Holtkamp has faced backlash from NBA athletes and fans. During a game, Holtkamp made a call that superstar Chris Paul wholeheartedly disagreed with. After the game, Paul explained that maybe Holtkamp was not ready for primetime and that she needed more time in the NBA Development League; Holtkamp was in the Development League for six years before her promotion.

Was this a form of denying Holtkamp equal status to those of her male referee counterparts? Paul denied that his accusation was because she was a woman, but this does provide an interesting account for males denying equal access for women to talk or form an opinion. To dive into this topic further, Dunja Antunovic wrote an interesting journal article titled A female in a man’s world: New-media discourse around the first female NFL referee (2014).

She stated, “Football is a site where masculine dominance is enacted… consequently, reproduces a gender characterized by male superiority and marginalization of women.”

A woman referee is breaking the male superiority boundary and denies the male athlete his right to explain.

She continued, “This system relegates women to the sidelines as cheerleaders, wives, girlfriends, or, broadly, sexual objects of male desire.”

Male athletes and viewers see women in male dominated sports as sexual objects at the discretion of male dominance; however, once a female decides to break from these norms and voice her opinion as a game changer type figure, mansplaining seems to become null. The only way to gain superior access over a female referee is to explain their viewed shortcomings through gender-based criticism.

Monmouth University has given female and male athletic positions equal footing. Ever since April of 1994, the Vice President and Director of Athletics Marilyn Mcneil, Ph.D., has been charge on many levels in Monmouth athletics.

She has had many achievements in her long tenure, leading Monmouth to two National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) division 1 recertification processes. Under her guidance and leadership she has given the Hawk teams 33 the Northeast Conference (NEC) regular season championships and 61 NEC tournament championships. A woman leading the charge for Monmouth athletics breaks the typical athletic norms.

Professional male-dominated sports commissioners are all men; Monmouth University has chosen to break away from this unspoken rule and for 19 years has the led the way to give a female a chance to run the athletic department.

Whether or not the NFL, NBA, and other professional male-dominated sports will follow Monmouth is one thing, but they have given women a chance to fill commanding roles. Although scrutiny for these decisions follow, the women who are bravely following their goals continue on.

Gender norms make it hard for women to announce and referee male athletics, but society is changing to be more inclusive and ignore old norms that have formed, as evident by Monmouth Athletics and the daring women who have chosen to take on male-dominated roles in male athletics. 

PHOTO COURTESY of Monmouth University