In the “ManZone”: Why spectator sexism in sport isn’t ok

2015 was, amongst other things, the year we began to have serious conversations around the impact of sexism in the 21st Century. This was particularly true in STEM fields, where a number of high-impact incidents forced a conversation which has often been held behind closed doors in education establishments into the open. It is a necessary conversation to have, an issue which cannot be solved overnight but which requires systematic change over a period of time, and will become an ongoing conversation.

But sexism is not some problem unique to the STEM Ivory Tower, all but eliminated in modern society by providing women the right to vote, and the contraceptive pill like ideological smallpox. It is a problem which affects everyone in some capacity.

Sexism in sport and sports journalism is overlooked and under-reported. An experience of my own this past week means I would be writing this regardless of other events, but it goes without saying that the unpleasant remarks made by Chris Gayle to sports reporter Mel McLaughlin have dragged sport’s dirty little secret into the public consciousness much in the way high profile incidents involving Tim Hunt and Geoff Marcy did for STEM.

I have read a lot of opinion articles on the incident between Gayle and McLaughlin. I have read a lot of comments on Facebook about the opinion articles and I have bravely ventured into the comments sections of said articles (an activity I do not recommend if you have issues with high blood pressure). There is not much more I can really say on the subject.

I’m sure the incident resonated with many women around the world, especially those who find their interests or work leads them into what are thought of as traditionally “male” spaces. I have myself found myself on at least the periphery of these spaces most of my life: I was raised without traditional gender roles, by parents who, throughout my childhood, allowed my hobbies to be lead by my own interests without judgement as to whether they were suitable for a female child or not. Now, as an astronomy PhD student, I find myself working in what has been a traditionally male field. Although, for the first time, there are equal numbers of male and female PhD students at my institution.

My first brush with what I think of as the “ManZone” was in my first year at school. Asked by the teacher what my parents did for work, I informed her they were both dental surgeons. Her reply?

“Oh, you mean your mother is a dental nurse?”

Um, no. My mother is a dental surgeon. She went to the same university as my father and has an identical degree. Needless to say, I never got along with that teacher. 5 year old me didn’t really understand why she had asked the question, and made the assumption she did.

As I grew older, I began to realize that at least some portion of my interests were rather perturbing to the community I grew up in. In the old coal mining towns of Northumberland, traditions still hold strong, as do traditional gender roles. A girl with an interest in sciences, and very traditionally male sports like rugby and cricket (which have a much longer history of excluding female participants than, for example, soccer) was considered somewhat unusual.

I have played and watched cricket since I was a child. Even today, there’s a strange battle against the “ManZone” as I put on my cricket whites (boys’ pants, because so far I can’t find anywhere which stocks womens’ cricket pants or adult sizes which fit my short legs) and my pads (also boys’, because they were the only reasonably priced option that actually fit me). Things are getting better, with more womens’ cricket leagues and teams, and recently professional female cricket has gathered a lot of well-deserved attention, culminating in the televising of the Womens’ Big Bash League in Australia.

My passion for cricket in particular has lead me, throughout my life, to many encounters with the worst of the “ManZone”. Sexist behavior which has been excused and let slide as I am a woman in a traditionally male space. Up until relatively recently, I have mostly put up with it and shut up for an easy life. However, following my experience at a cricket game this past Tuesday, there are some things I’d like to address.

Female cricket fans are numerous. We are everywhere. Gone are the days women were not allowed to attend cricket games or were segregated away from men at matches. We are not dragged along as dutiful girlfriends and wives (although I have had long-suffering boyfriends who I have dragged to games with me). We aren’t there to ogle the pleasing aesthetic aspect of the players. Believe it or not, there are lots of female cricket fans. Maybe it’s the psychological aspect of the game. I don’t know. But there are a lot of us.

There is no shortage of women who are just as passionate about sport — both as players and spectators — as men.

A lot of women, inhabiting what is still considered to be a traditional “ManZone” - sports fandom. And as a consequence, female cricket fans are constantly on the receiving end of the unfortunate aspects of being in the “ManZone”: sexism and harassment.

My reasons for attending the New Zealand v Sri Lanka ODI at Bay Oval in Mt Maunganui are not of particular importance. All I really wanted was to sit on the grass and watch some top quality cricket. Unfortunately, the group of drunk men beside me had chosen that the venue would be the place they would discuss - in graphic detail - their sexual conquests, and attempt to find new women with which to do things which really don’t bear mentioning.

I have always found cricket at Bay Oval to be fantastic - the ground has a real family-friendly feeling. Kids chase their favorite players around the boundary with assorted cricket paraphernalia for autographs, and the players happily oblige. I really enjoy watching games there.

What I don’t enjoy is being subjected to several hours of loud discussion as to where the gentleman beside me had chosen to stick various appendages. Repeatedly. I don’t appreciate the loud discussion they then had over my various attributes and my motivation for being at the game. I don’t appreciate the obscene gestures and comments which were aimed at myself and other women around about.

Bizarrely, these men also criticized the behavior of Chris Gayle, in the same conversation. The cognitive dissonance is astounding.

I found the behavior to be inappropriate. Wildly inappropriate. But at the same time, I felt incredibly guilty for feeling uncomfortable to be seated beside the men (before anyone says “well why didn’t you move?”: the ground was full and there was nowhere else to go). After all, I was in their space, the “ManZone”. Surely this was their safe space to discuss their own interests and activities?

But just because something has traditionally been dominated by men does not mean it continues to be the case, nor that women should feel guilty for the feelings of discomfort when individuals behavior is so wildly inappropriate. There are a vast number of female cricket fans, and many more who have been put off attending games because of behavior like this. In fact, many of the female cricket fans I’ve spoken to have experienced similar behavior from male spectators - this is not an isolated incident. And it’s not OK. Ever.

Being in the “ManZone” is not an excuse for women to be subjected to sexism, sexist language and harassment

Being in the “ManZone” is not an excuse for women to be subjected to sexism, sexist language and harassment, or to be made to feel uncomfortable by men who feel it is their right to pursue women, even after being rejected, because we are in a traditionally “male” space.

There are plenty of people who bemoan the lack of involvement of women in the sports fandom. However, in my experience there is no shortage of women who are just as passionate about sport - both as players and spectators - as men. However, we are rarely seen and rarely heard. Primarily because of the behavior of some men. So for all the criticisms I have seen of Chris Gayle’s behavior, I would also like to level with some male fans: how do you behave at cricket games (and other sports matches) you attend, and how do you behave toward female fans? Do you make sport a safe place for all?

Times have changed. It’s far past the time we lay to rest the concept of sport as a male-exclusive space where women are at best unwelcome and at worst harassed. Sport is for everyone.

Notes:

  • In the defense of Mt Maunganui and Bay Oval, I attended the T20 game between the BlackCaps and Sri Lanka two days later and had a wonderful (albeit smokey due to the nearby BBQ) time in a more family-friendly area next to the media enclosure.
  • I have not addressed several other issues which I have come across at cricket games as a spectator, namely the homophobia and transphobia that is occasionally perpetuated by some fans and affect many people as much as sexism and harassment toward women.
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