During my time on girls varsity crew I‘ve grown tremendously as a person, but the sport also taught me a tough reality: even when women are at the top of their game, they will never be as recognized and appreciated as men are in sports. As an athlete, I experience the consequences of sexism in sports, and I observe my role models being scrutinized, not for their ability, but for their gender.
As a young teen, I remember crying with joy when the US women’s soccer team won the world cup in 2014. But, I also remember being heartbroken as I learned that their salaries are only a fraction of the US men’s team. Their underpayment demonstrates that they aren’t recognized and treated like the professionals and athletes that they are.
In my own sport, crew, our victories are weighed down by gender biases. Crew is measured on a comparative value of speed, time and finesse that highlights the idea that what you put in is what you get out. I constantly push my body to limits I didn’t know about the day before, and that’s what keeps me coming back. The part that I love most is the camaraderie and unrelenting support I get from my teammates. However, the confidence that I gain from this sport is depleted when my abilities are constantly compared to that of the guys’ teams.
Hearing comments like “That girl is pulling faster splits than you,” or “You were just passed by a girl” takes away the power and success that I had for myself and inserts a toxic comparative that diminishes my confidence. I don’t believe these comments are meant to be malicious at all, but they unconsciously add up like little pebbles that weigh me down, holding me back and creating self-doubt. This can add an entirely new element to the sport that can push women down and hinder their performance.
It’s no coincidence that when I see the girls varsity basketball home games, there are only two bleachers open, even though these are talented players. On senior night, when the girls basketball team looked to the bleachers, they saw only the friends and family who were morally obligated to be there. On the boys basketball team’s senior night, all four bleachers were full of superfans, school faculty and friends.
There are many instances where women athletes are thriving. They are blowing their competition out of the water — but society is more interested in questioning their abilities and inappropriately judging them. Their accomplishments are systematically delegitimatized; a woman is labeled as a faux-athlete and judged before she steps onto the field, touches the ball or climbs into the boat.
My teammate, Sarah Winickoff, a sophomore said, “As soon as I am told what I can’t do, another weight is added. I can’t be too good. I can’t be better. I can’t be fast. I can be good for a girl. I can be better than men that don’t count as men, and I can be fast for a woman, but it’s the kind of fast that no one turns a head at. If I break a record, there will be two people in the stands of the little kids’ gym there to watch me.”
This is something we should never want to perpetuate for young athletes. Sports should be a tool that can give women confidence in their strength. They are just as worthy as any man to be on the field. We need to understand that we are beasts no matter what anyone says. We need to encourage young athletes to question what it means to say “you’re good for a girl,” because from what I’ve seen, being a woman athlete is pretty damn amazing.