Dr. Katie Lebel is an assistant professor at Ryerson University. Dr. Lebel’s research focuses on gender equity in sport, specifically branding and consumer behaviour. This work has resulted in several publications as well as consulting opportunities with both athletes and sport organizations. Dr. Lebel is a member of the E-Alliance scientific committee. In 2020, she was awarded E-Alliance funding to support her work exploring gender bias in sport and how it impacts everything from media coverage to funding and how young girls and women engage or disengage in sport.
When we think of athletic excellence, attributes like power, strength, and determination spring to mind; but are these characteristics inherently male? Most of us would say no. However, Dr. Lebel wants to explore gender bias and how it may influence the way that we think about athleticism, support athletes, and consume sport.
Her team wants to take the exploration of gender equity in sport deeper and to go beyond doing it simply because it’s “the right thing to do” and investigate how our society has aligned masculinity with athletic prowess and worthiness to help tell the stories behind the stats.
A simple Google search epitomizes these paradigms they are examining. When the Olympic trials were underway @shotclock_media – Twitter accounted dedicated to women’s sport – shared their experience of typing “Gymnastics Olympic Trials,” into Google. What they got was a list of sites dedicated to male athletes and events. This imbalance is only more shocking given the historic excellence of Simone Biles’ performances – if Biles can’t break the bias, what can?
Lebel says it’s imperative that we investigate how young girls see themselves and other girls and women in the world of sport; we need to examine how we as a broad society interpret athleticism and ask how gender bias impacts the power and potential we see in new, emerging, and professional female athletes. “We want to use data to try to bust engrained and damaging myths about women’s sport,” Lebel explains. “Our hope is that in challenging the storyline, we can empower girls and women in sports, while simultaneously providing decision makers with the data they need to make more gender equitable decisions and move the needle forward towards change.”
A key part of making these inroads is celebrating the athletic accomplishments of women the way that we celebrate the accomplishments of their male counterparts, to start to normalize young girls’ sense of belonging in sport and hopefully encourage them to enjoy the benefits of sport more fully across their lifespans.
It’s also essential to make coverage of women’s sport more accessible and widespread. As Lebel told The Globe and Mail in a recent article on this topic, “You have to be a pretty committed fan of women’s sports to find out when they’re going to be on [television].”
This is partly because women are so underrepresented in sport journalism. “Just 10 percent of sports editors and 11.5 percent of sports reporters in the US and Canada are women. Only four percent of media coverage is dedicated to women’s sports,” Lebel points out. When young girls see themselves represented in mainstream coverage, they discover more role models to look up to and aspire to follow.
Lebel is inspired by today’s athletes whose work exemplifies the power, confidence, and skill of women in sport to the next generation. “Serena and Venus Williams are trailblazers in this space. I think we’re seeing an increasing number of athletes that are owning their sport prowess. In Canada you’ve got athletes like Christine Sinclair, Brooke Henderson and Bianca Andreescu. Naomi Osaka, Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird are all becoming major cultural influencers – the list is growing all the time,” Lebel explains. “These women are champions in their respective sports and not afraid to focus their brands on their athletic prowess. I love the messages they’re signalling and the work they’re doing to inspire the next generation of girls in sport.”