Has sport had its #MeToo moment? Women’s experiences of sexism and sexual harassment in the sport industry

By: Lauren Hindman lhindman@umass.edu | @laurenhindman

Lauren is a doctoral candidate at the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at UMass Amherst, where she studies gender and other diversity-related topics in sport organizations. Prior to pursuing her Ph.D., she spent nine seasons working in professional sports.

Following both the January 2021 firing of New York Mets general manager Jared Porter over sexually explicit text messages he sent to a woman reporter and the July 2020 reporting of the sexism and sexual harassment experienced by women working with the Washington Football Team, women working in sport organizations took to social media to share their own stories. Moments such as this highlight how common sexism and harassment are for women in the industry, yet their stories quickly fade to the background until the next big scoop arrives, exposing a singular sport organization and attributing the problem to internal issues of organizational culture and leadership (see also: The Dallas Mavericks circa 2018). 

The issue of sexism in and around the sport industry is widespread—“commonly overt yet simultaneously unnoticed,” as Dr. Janet Fink said in her acceptance address for Earle F. Zeigler Lecture Award at the 2015 NASSM conference (Fink, 2016, p. 2). Recent research in sport management reveals how women managers, athletes, coaches, journalists, and educators experience sexism and harassment. Some highlights from these studies include: 

Administration: Women sport managers working for men’s professional sport organizations face both intellectual diminishment and physical objectification, causing emotional and professional consequences. Women adopt several strategies, such a minimization and reframing of their experiences, in order to continue working in the industry (Hindman & Walker, 2020).

Athletes: An analysis of media coverage and academic literature demonstrated how these sources subject women athletes in the United States to gendered microaggressions, a subtle form of bias, through assuming that they are inferior to men, objectifying their bodies, and restricting them to certain roles based on their gender (Kaskan & Ho, 2016). Another study deemed media coverage of women’s sports “gender-bland” sexism, avoiding overt sexism while still presenting women’s sports as “lackluster” compared to men’s (Musto et al., 2017).

Coaches: A recent study found that women swimming coaches in the NCAA face sexism that limits their career mobility, creates job dissatisfaction, and contributes to women’s underrepresentation by pushing them to leave the field (Siegele et al., 2020). In addition, research reveals how women of color coaches must navigate multiple barriers created by the intersectional issues of racism and sexism (Carter-Francique & Olushola, 2016).

Journalists:  Research has shown that sexist views lead people to judge women sport journalists as less credible (Mudrick et al., 2017). Meanwhile, women journalists are pressured by their employers to wear revealing clothing to appeal to male audiences, but then face “slut-shaming” for dressing too provocatively (Harrison, 2019).

Academics: Women faculty members in sport management programs too report sexism and sexual harassment from both men and women colleagues, ranging from subtle discrimination to hostile harassment (Taylor et al., 2018). Women faculty members also experience “contrapower” harassment (harassment from individuals in positions of less power), facing comments about their appearance and assumptions that they don’t know anything about sports (Taylor et al., 2017).

Studies such as these and others demonstrate the wide-reaching effects of sexism and sexual harassment across sport. Industry leaders should be proactive in addressing this issue, as our recent Journal of Sport Management study revealed that women often do not report sexism to supervisors or human resources personnel (Hindman & Walker, 2020). Instead, leaders should be cognizant of watching for such issues and focus on promoting inclusive organizational cultures, rather that simply striving to increase gender diversity and waiting to respond when crises emerge. While women in our study reframed their experiences with sexism as a demonstration of their personal strength, they also reported leaving jobs—and considering leaving the industry—due to sexism. In order for the sport industry to achieve sustained gender diversity, then, leaders must confront the need to eliminate sexism and sexual harassment from their organizations.

References/Further Reading:

Carter-Francique, A. R., & Olushola, J. (2016). Women coaches of color: Examining the effects of intersectionality. In Women in sports coaching (pp. 81-94). Routledge.

Fink, J. S. (2016). Hiding in plain sight: The embedded nature of sexism in sport. Journal of Sport Management30(1), 1-7.

Harrison, G. (2019). “We want to see you sex it up and be slutty:” post-feminism and sports media’s appearance double standard. Critical Studies in Media Communication36(2), 140-155.

Hindman, L. C., & Walker, N. A. (2020). Sexism in professional sports: How women managers experience and survive sport organizational culture. Journal of Sport Management34(1), 64-76.

Kaskan, E. R., & Ho, I. K. (2016). Microaggressions and female athletes. Sex Roles74(7-8), 275-287.

Mudrick, M., Burton, L., & Lin, C. A. (2017). Pervasively offside: An examination of sexism, stereotypes, and sportscaster credibility. Communication & Sport5(6), 669-688.

Musto, M., Cooky, C., & Messner, M. A. (2017). “From Fizzle to Sizzle!” Televised sports news and the production of gender-bland sexism. Gender & Society31(5), 573-596.

Siegele, J. L., Hardin, R., Taylor, E. A., & Smith, A. B. (2020). ” She is the Best Female Coach”: NCAA Division I Swimming Coaches’ Experiences of Sexism. Journal of Intercollegiate Sport13(1).

Taylor, E. A., Smith, A. B., Rode, C. R., & Hardin, R. (2017). Women don’t know anything about sports: Contrapower harassment in the sport management classroom. Sport management education journal11(2), 61-71.

Taylor, E. A., Smith, A. B., Welch, N. M., & Hardin, R. (2018). “You should be flattered!”: Female sport management faculty experiences of sexual harassment and sexism. Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal26(1), 43-53.