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When it’s not OK to call sportswomen girls

Calling our sportswomen 'girls' or concealing them behind the male figures in their lives, is not OK, LockerRoom columnist Taylah Hodson-Tomokino explains.

I can think of many ways to describe Lydia Ko’s revitalised performance in her latest LPGA Tour title win – but calling her “a little girl” doesn’t even come close.

I opened up my laptop the day after her Mediheal Championship win in San Francisco, and read an opinion piece titled “Lydia Ko turns 21 and wins like a little girl again.” The comparison was deemed justified, because it was used to describe her return to the form the golfer had as a teenager. But why couldn’t Ko’s display of joie de vivre be attributed to her new coach?

Research conducted by the New Zealand Olympic Committee shows that in the media, female athletes are 39 percent more likely to be referred to as girls, rather than women, especially by male journalists.

But it’s easy to see why people make this mistake. In interviews, coaches and female athletes refer to their team-mates as girls. “The girls have prepared well” and “I was really proud of how the girls went” are just two examples from the weekend’s ANZ Premiership netball action.

In the same vein, many coaches and male athletes refer to their team-mates as ‘the boys’.

The strongest outrage seems to come, more often than not, when men use the term ‘girls’. I, for one, have found myself subconsciously referring to elite female athletes as girls without receiving condemnation for my choice of words. As female adults, we call each other girls. Watching movies, devouring sweet treats and yarning with a bunch of women is a ‘girls’ night.’

It’s the informal way we refer to our friends, and this is where many commenters of female sport get it wrong. When we refer to our top athletes, we should be calling them women. It’s simply more respectful.

The outrage cued when men use the term girls is because women have been subordinates to male athletes and the reporting of sport in general for so long that it’s reactionary. It’s seen as pushing for the inferiority of sportswomen despite the author’s best intentions.

Former Black Stick Honor Carter posted a tweet about refusing “to be a shadow in my husband’s life”. Unsurprisingly, the article that followed was headlined: 'Dan Carter's wife posts cryptic message on Twitter'.

The media have themselves to blame for the sensitivity linked to reporting on female athletes. There have been some howlers for headlines this year, such as: “Aidan Ross’ partner in tears at Commonwealth Games over injury.” I couldn’t help but wonder why Michaela Blyde, the current World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, was not worthy of mention in the headline?

Sports Minister Grant Robertson announced earlier this year that New Zealand will host the International Working Group for Women and Sport (IWG) world conference in 2022. With reference to his grand-daughter, he said, “I think the legacy that we want to leave her and all the young girls in New Zealand is that we want them to be their own sporting heroes.”

I wholeheartedly agree with women being their own sporting heroes and there shouldn’t be the need to link them to any male, regardless of being the sister, partner, daughter or wife of. New Zealand has long washed its hands of the doctrine of coverture, but when accomplished female athletes are not worthy of being mentioned without referring to a male figure in their lives, it would make you question if that was the case.

Former Black Stick Honor Carter posted a tweet about refusing “to be a shadow in my husband’s life”. Unsurprisingly, the article that followed was headlined: Dan Carter's wife posts cryptic message on Twitter. A condescending slap in the face.

The photo used in the article was of Dan and Honor watching tennis. The NZOC research shows that female athletes are nine times more likely to be pictured with a male spouse or partner, as opposed to standing tall on their own.

Another article was titled Meet the girl behind Guildford’s smile, but it failed to mention Huia Harding - a contracted Black Ferns Sevens squad member and captain of the Waikato women’s sevens - by name. Not only did the story give her the wrong surname, it also failed to mention anything about her professional rugby career, only describing her as ex-All Black Zac Guildford’s “cheerleader”.

Black Ferns Sevens star Niall Williams has also fallen victim to sexist headlines. Her brother is none other than Sonny Bill Williams – but then, you should know that by now. You will struggle to find anything about her sporting career that does not mention him.

Poised to make her New Zealand Sevens debut, her achievement of being named in her first World Rugby Sevens tournament was condensed to the headline: “Sonny Bill’s sister named in sevens squad.”

I take nothing away from Sonny or Niall, as their supportive sibling relationship is fantastic. The pair proudly cheer each other on and give one another a lot of credit. But there are times when Niall shouldn’t have to be linked to her brother. At the Commonwealth Games, a story on her spectacular try - where she flew between the legs of a Kenyan defender to ground a ball that looked for all money like it was going past the dead-ball line - was titled Sonny Bill’s sister makes inspirational 40m chase to score try.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation released a report showing only four percent of global sports media content is dedicated to women’s sport. I proudly admit that New Zealand punches above its weight in giving females fair representation in the media - but only just. The NZOC claims that 10 percent of the sports news in New Zealand is given to female athletes.

Whether you like it or not, sport is at the heart of our identity. As Robertson said: “If something is at the heart of our identity, and we allow blatant sexism and underrepresentation of women to continue, then that will be at the heart of our identity as a country. And none of us want that." 

Public outrage over calling women ‘girls’ and expressing strong dissent to articles which link accomplished female athletes to prominent men in their lives - without the men having any connection to their individual achievements - is vital in changing the attitudes of New Zealanders.

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