Women in Open
From high school to the AUDL, it exists, and it has problems
by Tanya Bearson and Logan Gade
Note: This article was originally researched and written in Spring 2018.
What is an open division and who belongs in it? According to USA Ultimate the Open division — or Men’s division — consists of teams with majority male-identifying players, although individuals of any gender are eligible to play. While the majority of players in open are men, there are many women who play as well. As women who have played in open for many years, and both benefited and felt frustrated by it, we felt it would be productive to share common experiences women often face in open in order to increase awareness and problem solve.
Featured in our article are Chuc Luu, Cara Burks, Lauren Carothers-Liske, and Jackelyne “Kobe” Nguyen. We have compiled their thoughts about their experiences as young female Ultimate players playing in the open division in the Bay Area. Here are the issues we’ve identified as areas of concern in open ultimate for female players after talking to our panel of women, as well as solutions and advice for making open teams more inclusive environments.
“You’re good, for a girl”
Chuc Luu was playing at a middle school tournament with her open team a few years ago. After repeatedly scoring and contributing positively to the team, the opposing team exclaimed to one of her teammates, “Wow. Your girl is actually good.” This was neither the first nor the last time she would hear a comment like this. Female-identifying athletes playing in the open division constantly deal with demeaning comments made on the basis of their gender.
Cara Burks, another young female athlete who captains Gunn High School’s varsity open team describes the hurtful comments she often hears. Comments made such as “he got skyed by a girl,” which are often meant as a joke, she conveys are “not funny to even joke about”. She reveals that the burden of fixing the culture that enables those comments is placed on the female players. For Burks, being one of two girls on her high school team and the sole female captain, she is stuck with the responsibility of calling out sexist behavior.
No Other Options
Due to the slow growth of competitive girls’ youth ultimate, young female-identifying players are often left with only two options: play at a non-competitive girls level or play at a highly competitive level with boys. More often than not, playing with boys is the path taken.
The San Francisco Bay Area has historically been a ultimate powerhouse in the adult divisions, but until recently, young women were left with little to no options for competitive, completely female, ultimate. The passion a young girl may have for challenging ultimate, combined with her will to improve her game, often leads her to a male-dominated playing field. Bay Area youth player, and open division athlete of 4 years, Lauren Carothers-Liske noted that she started playing open ultimate “not because [she] had a particular affinity for it, but because there was no other competitive option.”
Playing with a Physical Disadvantage
Almost every female player in the open division is at a physical disadvantage compared to their male opponents. Women are smaller than their male counterparts and do not possess the same muscle mass. Women playing in open create methods to combat this. Chuc Luu, Cara Burks, and Lauren Carothers-Liske all expressed that they counter physical disadvantages in the open division by outsmarting players and making intelligent decisions. Additionally, they express how playing with a “disadvantage” can be both beneficial and harmful for female players.
Carothers-Liske, who was recently selected to play on the USA’s U20 Women’s team, articulates how playing in open has made her a more competitive and aggressive athlete. She explains, “In open, no one is going to make space for me on the field so I have had to push hard to assert myself and have an impact on the game.” The gains of playing ultimate are not only in her physical playing style, but in her leadership abilities. Carothers-Liske has “gained confidence and competence” that she “would not give up … for the world.”
Burks, on the other hand, has felt frustration around speed and height differences, which are most visible in huck drills, where her skill is not enough to allow her to compete for lofty discs against towering young men. “[Open] can be harmful because all too often it teaches girls that their only role on the team is to stay out of the way,” which she explains is “just ingrained in the system.” Luu echoed this concern about the potential impact of playing in open on female players. Luu sees two options, either a female player in open is “integrated as any other player and rises to become a star player” or she is “pushed to the side and does not improve with the team.”
In open, it is not uncommon for female and male players to be viewed and treated differently. One of the many ways this plays out is that women feel the pressure of representing their entire gender when on the field. Any mistake they make is often seen as a reflection on the ability of all women in Ultimate rather than a personal error. Luu points out a key distinction in the way gender affects how people (typically men) react to mistakes. She reveals how in her own experience, mistakes she has made on the field, such as dropping the disc, often indicate to male counterparts that women are worse at Ultimate than men. However if a male teammate drops the disc, they are merely viewed as a bad player.
Additionally, when playing against men, women are often assumed to be inferior players off the bat. “I have lost track of the times that an opposing team has decided to switch up a play and isolate the person I am marking up against just because they think it is a mismatch,” says Carothers-Liske, who is well known in the Bay Area for her elite ability. And she is not alone in this experience. The concept of calling just “mismatch” can be frustrating for any player, including those who identify as men. However for many women it is called before they have done anything to indicate whether or not their mark is at an advantage. In that scenario, open teams are treating women as inferior to men on the basis of gender.
Furthermore, this feeling of superiority does not only apply to male players on opposing teams, but also fellow teammates. Carothers-Liske says, “At times, I feel as if I am ignored and disregarded on the field, both by opponents and teammates, and I can’t lie, this is very frustrating.” Many female players agree that when playing with men they are cut off more than usual and not thrown to as much. Consequently, women often feel disrespected by their teammates and even like an insignificant member of the team.
What Can Teams Do To Help?
In the long run, women will most likely stop playing in open divisions. But for now, coaches and captains of open teams are responsible for making their team culture a more inclusive and welcoming environment for women. Although there are multiple ways to go about this, we listened to women who played or play open, and learned what they wanted from their captains and teammates.
- Start a conversation. It can be awkward and uncomfortable for female-identifying players to bring up issues of gender equity and sexism, especially when they are an obvious minority. “If instead my coaches or teammates initiated the conversation that’d show that they want to listen to what I have to say and would make me more comfortable opening up,” Burks mentions. Rather than putting all the weight of demanding equity upon the women of your team, coaches and captains, look out for your women and ask them questions about their experience.
- Treat your women like athletes. Just because the women on a team don’t look like everyone else, this is not an excuse to treat them differently. “I don’t think women need special treatment,” says Jackelyne “Kobe” Nguyen. “Treat us all as athletes.”
- Reach out to your women, build community. For Carothers-Liske, her experiences in open have often made her feel excluded. “There needs to be a greater effort to reach out and make women part of the team,” she emphasizes, as community can truly make or break a team’s success, and furthermore make women feel included.
The ultimate community is continuously growing, and as more young girls join in areas with strong open programs, teams need to be ready to accommodate them in an inclusive fashion. In the end, we believe that we all share the same goal — fostering a love for Ultimate in the youth — and this is only possible if all genders are included. Female-identifying players, despite having different physical characteristics from their male counterparts, deserve the same amount of respect, on and off the field. Women, time and time again, have been able to prove their dominance despite disadvantages. Now imagine what they could do if they were treated as equals.
Chuc Luu is 16 years old and has been a leader in the Turlock Ultimate scene since she was in elementary school. Cara Burks has been playing Ultimate for 3 years, she is 17 years old and plays for Gunn High School in Palo Alto, CA. She is one of the few female members of Gunn, and the only female-identifying captain. Lauren Carothers-Liske is 18 years old and has been part of Berkeley High School’s open “A” team since she was a freshman in high school, and is now on the Team USA’s U20 Women’s team. Jackelyne “Kobe” Nguyen, was the 2018 Female Callahan Award winner, and currently plays with the AUDL San Francisco Flamethrowers.