Sexist Science in Soccer Harms Women in an Epic Own Goal

Sexist Science in Soccer Harms Women in an Epic Own Goal

As soccer fans all over the world celebrate the “beautiful sport” at this year’s men’s World Cup in Qatar this year, one major part of the sport is being overlooked: the female players.

It is no secret that women’s football has not received the same attention and funding as the men’s. Female professional soccer players are paid far less that male ones. This discrepancy was addressed by the U.S. women’s team when it reached an equal pay settlement earlier this year. Women’s soccer is still underfunded and poorly researched in many areas, including equipment and health.

In a new study published this week in Sports Engineering, a team of researchers in England has identified 10 areas where a lack of research could be holding female players back. These include the fact that soccer boots were designed for men and strict uniform standards that limit women’s comfort and performance.

“Men are the norm. They have been the norm in sport. They’ve been the norm for medical research,” Katrine OkholmKryger, a senior lecturer at St. Mary’s University in England, and the lead author of the study, says.

The male bias in research has expanded to a vast array of other fields: the design of space suits or the fitting of personal protective equipment like respirators and face masks, Okholm Kryger, and her colleagues, note in their study.

They identify soccer uniforms among the key areas for improvement. The uniforms worn by professional women’s soccer teams must be the same as the men’s. Female soccer players have often raised concerns about light-colored shorts or menstrual leakage, to the point that they feel it hinders their ability focus on the game. Okholm Kryger said that this is a sign of how designs don’t consider female players’ needs. She says, “It’s such a simple fix.” It doesn’t require any engineering, it’s just a color change .”

Female soccer players, including Leah Williamson , the captain of England’s national women’s soccer team and a coauthor of the new study, have also expressed concern about the length of their shorts, which some consider sexualizing. Okholm Kryger believes that this may be intentional due to the requirement for women to wear bikini shorts in beach volleyball.

Male soccer players are often required to wear a sponsored sports bra, rather than the bra that suits them best. Being able to wear a bra that is comfortable and supportive is important: some 44 percent of elite female athletes report breast pain during training or competition. Elite soccer players can be fined if they don’t wear a sponsor’s bra. They are forced to choose between two bras. This is not an issue for male players. Okholm Kryger says, “Who would ever think of having men wear a certain kind of underwear ?”

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Clats are another area that women’s equipment is lacking. Many cleats manufactured by large manufacturers are made for men, so women players will need to choose smaller sizes. But studies show that women’s feet have a different shape and volume than men’s, and the new study notes that an improperly fitted boot could increase the risk of injury. Cleats are designed for optimal traction on different surfaces. If the traction is too low, players can get stuck. But if it’s too high, players can slip. A design that is ideal for a man’s feet may not be the best for a woman’s. Although manufacturers are beginning to recognize this problem, there has been limited research on female players.

Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injuries can cause players to be out of the game for several months. And female players take longer to recover from such an injury than male players–about 10 months versus seven months, respectively, according to Craig Rosenbloom, a doctor and consultant at the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and co-author of the new paper. Although it is not clear why there is an increase in ACL injuries, some research suggests that the foot could get stuck on the ground as the body rotates. This can happen if the cleats of a player have too much traction.

The playing surface is also important. Professional women’s teams don’t have their own stadium so they must play at mens’ stadiums. This is often the day after a mens game, Okholm Kryger’s colleagues noted in the study. This could increase the chance of injury.

Then there’s that ball. Women use the same size ball that men do. Yet research suggests that female players have a greater risk of concussion and brain injury from heading the ball. Tottenham Hotspur started to introduce neck-strengthening exercises in an effort to reduce the chance of such injuries.

There has been some research on whether soccer ball size affects the women’s game. Scientists discovered that smaller and lighter balls allowed players to kick faster, exert themselves less, and had no effect on their heart rate or overall performance. Okholm Kryger and colleagues point out that these studies are quite old.

It’s difficult to separate the effects of gender socialization and biological sex from the differences in injury rates and physiology between male and female soccer players. Is it possible that women’s hips are wider than men, increasing their chances of injury, or is it that male soccer players have more practice falling safely. Okholm Kryger wonders, “Is it sex? Or gender?” Most likely, “it’s a combination of the two.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

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    Tanya Lewis is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers health and medicine. Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter Credit: Nick Higgins

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