I want to talk about my experience of being a woman who studies masculinity and ice hockey. While I’m out in the field, I don’t think much about my gender identity, but it has become increasingly relevant to what I do. Before delving into my experiences studying Major Junior (ages 16-20) and Major Midget AAA (ages 15-18) ice hockey players in Canada, I’ll assemble mainstream and academic discussions of women who work in male-dominated sports and follow up by highlighting some of my own experiences.
Women Working In and Around Male-Dominated Sports
I recently discovered Puckology blogger Clare Austin’s piece on women sports writers, in which she says that women must persevere despite the problem she refers to as “#DudesHiringDudes” amongst sport writers and editors. Another piece of writing that has garnered a lot of media attention is former attorney and current media personality Julie DiCaro’s SI.com article on sexism she faces as a woman in a sporting context. DiCaro comments on her experiences of being harassed via social media and writes, “Those of us who dare invade this mostly male space are generally accepted, but there remains a vocal minority committed to forcing women out and rolling things back to the good ol’ days, when women talked about recipes and PTA meetings and shoes. (Is that what they talked about? I’m guessing here.)” She also mentions other women who have faced similar harassment, such as ESPN’s Jen Lada and Jamele Hill.
From an academic perspective, Canadian Sociology professor Kristi Allain is among many who have made it quite clear that there are implications associated with being a woman working in and around men’s sports. In her scholarly journal article in Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health (2014) on her experience interviewing young male hockey players, she writes that she was sometimes perceived by friends, colleagues, and research participants as having a sexual or romantic interest in the players. She also felt that she was subjected to a particular code of silence and was denied access to both participants and information on the basis of her being a woman and an outsider.
Be it through luck or ignorance, I have never had these experiences. I have never been harassed on social media by men (or women) regarding my views and although it can be tough to access populations of male teenagers to talk about masculinity and sex, I have been able to do so with the help of my networks and my rapport in the communities in which I work. In some cases, I have been welcomed into dressing rooms, included in extra-curricular activities, and made to feel like I belong. I have met some wonderful coaches, players, and administrative staff. In a way, I really have no complaints. With that said, however, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t had my own interesting experiences as a woman working in a male-dominated sport.
My Own Experiences of Being a Woman Working with Male Ice Hockey
In 2011 when I was gearing up to go out into the field to study masculinity in Major Junior ice hockey for my Master’s thesis, I was forced for the first time to confront the fact that my identity as a woman was tied up with my identity as a researcher. Although I had several reasons for choosing to study men’s ice hockey that had to do with gender, the fact that I identified as another gender was never really central to my decisions. My first confrontation came when one of my supervisor’s colleagues asked him if I was attractive and suggested that perhaps a man should do my interviews in the event that my possible attractiveness would affect the players’ responses. I’m not sure that the professor used the correct words, nor that my perceived attractiveness would be the issue (I’m being coy; I was flabbergasted at the question), but it did incite a productive discussion about how I might present myself in the field.
Fastforward to the end of my Master’s research (I did indeed conduct it myself) and after a few interviews, a head coach told me I could no longer do my interviews at the team’s practice facility. I obliged without ever really getting an answer as to why and found out much later from team administrative staff that the coach felt that I had distracted his players as they kept talking about me sexually or romantically when they should have been focusing on hockey. In retrospect, I had dressed quite femininely on the first day I met the team, but had worn sweats or track pants and hoodies the remainder of the time. I made a point to not be too giggly and certainly not flirty, I was able to keep up with their language and was able to communicate my own knowledge of the game and playing experiences, and I never got the sense from any of the players or coaches that I had been any kind of distraction at all. In fact, I was surprised because deep down, I had assumed I was both too old and not pretty enough to peak their interest (says a lot about my self-perception). Nonetheless, I felt that my research was insightful and compelling and really wasn’t concerned about the incident because, in my opinion, it never affected the research objectives I had set out for myself.
As it turns out, that experience was tame. Working with male Midget AAA players proved to be a different experience entirely. I went in to the experience wearing athletic clothing and a bit of makeup and tried to act unaffected by being in their presence (i.e. not flirty and as if I owned the place and was quite familiar with their environment). All was going as well as my Master’s research until I got my surveys back and discovered in the comments sections that some respondents had written in phone numbers, “I love you,” and other messages to the extent of “you’re cute” and “you’re pretty.” Don’t get me wrong—others had written “thank you” and “great survey” and lots of other encouraging and polite comments (none of them were hurtful or negative), but I was surprised at their boldness because, again, I thought I would be too old or too short or not thin enough etc. to actually warrant their attention, whether sincere or not (I think these feelings I’m experiencing speak to the way I’ve constructed heterosexual male ice hockey players in my head because of the way they’re perceived in the media and in scholarly literature, but that’s a whole other blog post).
I later heard from two key informants that the players are obsessed with girls/women and sexuality and that they had highly sexualized me amongst one another, but were not willing to tell me what exactly was said. One of them indicated that my choice to wear Lululemon yoga pants was considered attractive to the players and he also said that the players thought I was almost ten years younger than I am, which would have made me a more realistic conquest for them. My other key informant, however, said it really didn’t matter how I looked or acted—that they were going to frame me and any other woman in my position sexually because that’s just what they do. He actually was so forthcoming as to tell me that he himself had participated in conversations about me and felt he should be truthful about that before proceeding with being my informant. He wouldn’t tell me what he said and I’m still not sure if the moment should be interpreted as thoughtful honesty, some sort of sexual advance, or something else. He wouldn’t tell me what he said about me. From an academic perspective, I have found work by sociologist Michael Kimmel in his book Misframing Men (2010) stating that when boys become teenagers, they become more bold, but I’m still working through this as the older teenagers I studied did not interact with me this way.
With all of this said, I still do not feel that me identifying as a woman skewed my data in any concerning ways. In fact, I’m not sure if I presented myself as nurturing or what happened exactly, but many of the Midget AAA players were quite open with me about their inner most thoughts and feelings from ex-girlfriends, to family members with cancer, to homosexuality. They were more insightful and open than those in Major Junior, which indicates to me that a certain masculine conditioning that takes place through hockey inaugurates this code of silence somewhere in or between Midget AAA and Major Junior. My point is that I feel that I successfully accomplished what I set out to do in my research and that being a woman never held me back or made me feel undervalued; it made my experiences more interesting and forced me to reflect on the complexities of interactions and gender identity, which I love to do anyway.
At the same time, however, my work also suggests that the objectification of women and misogyny are well established by the time these hockey players are sixteen or seventeen, if not earlier, and that’s not okay. While I don’t care what gets said about me behind closed doors and I don’t feel that I have necessarily been mistreated in the field, it has been made clear to me by my key informants that most girls and women would not be okay with how male hockey players talk about them. My recent content analysis of male hockey players’ publicly available social media profiles demonstrates the same. Several women have had very different experiences from mine, namely those I’ve listed above, and they are reason enough to continue educating young athletes and raising awareness on sexism.
My sense is that women working in and around male-dominated sports are treated a bit better than they once were and that with time this process will continue to improve. Frankly, we’ve made it clear that we don’t plan to stop keeping up with men. Many of us are just as intelligent and/or talented as they are when it comes to sports and I don’t see that reversing itself any time soon. I’m looking at you, Old Boys Club. ;)