Why Proudman is both right and wrong on sexism in sport

In September this year feminist barrister Charlotte Proudman made the news when she stood up to sexism. She sent a professional LinkedIn request to fellow lawyer Alexander Carter-Silk who responded by accepting her request. However Carter-Silk also praised her “stunning picture” on LinkedIn. That was blatantly sexist – he would not have said that to a man – and also sinister as Carter-Silk is 30 years older than Proudman. Proudman quite rightly called him out for his sexism and in return copped a load of sexist abuse which sadly is not a surprise in the UK. The Daily Mail called her a “feminazi*” and she revived death threats by e mail. All for exposing a guy for his sexist and perverted remarks. Pathetic.

Now a less brave person would lie low for a while. But not Proudman. Instead she has gone where very few women dare to tread by challenging gender segregation in sport. After Michelle Payne became the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup horse race in Australia Proudman wrote an article on the Daily Telegraph’s website entitled “Michelle Payne’s stunning victory proves why sexual apartheid in sport must end”. She was advocating mixed sport – where the sexes play with and against each other. Now Proudman is not the first person to advocate mixed sport – before she became leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett wrote an article in the Guardian’s “Comment is free” section titled “Give Waynetta Rooney** a chance” making the same points as Proudman is now. But are they right? Well yes and no.

First of all where they are right. No woman should be banned from competing with men solely because of their gender***. The FIFA/English FA rule banning mixed competitive football has to go. The UK government must repeal the exemption clause for sport that was put into both the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and its successor law the 2010 Equality Act. I know why it was brought in – in 1975 the UK government had a majority of only 3 seats and applying sex discrimination law in sport in 1975 would have been controversial probably not made it through Parliament and might have caused the Sex Discrimination Bill to be defeated. In effect sportswomen were sacrificed to protect the rights of other women. But this is 2015 not 1975. In an age where consenting adults are free to do more or less what they want together the ban on mixed sport is a ridiculous anomoly.

That said Proudman and Bennett are wrong if they want all sport to be mixed gender. Coercive integration is as bad as coercive segregation. Plus it could have unintended consequences for women as two sports that are in theory mixed but in practice are highly gendered show.

The first example is the sport that led to Proudman’s article horse racing. As Proudman herself wrote Payne was only the fourth female jockey to ride in the Melbourne Cup an event that is 155 years old. This as Proudman says is due to institutional sexism. Payne herself said that “it is such a chauvinistic sport, a lot of the owners wanted to kick me off”.

Another example is Formula One motor racing. In theory this sport is mixed. In practice the sport’s only female driver Susie Wolff retired yesterday. Not that she drove in a race – she was only the Williams test driver. Even so sexists said that she only got the test driver’s job because her husband Toto Wolff is a shareholder in Williams. There has not been a woman driver in Formula One since Lella Lombardi of Italy in the 1970s. Lombardi is the only female driver to score a World Championship point – actually half a point as the Spanish Grand Prix of ironically 1975 was cut short by a crash that killed five spectators. If a woman could drive in a Grand Prix in the 1970s why can’t one do it now? The answer of course is that there is no reason and the only reason there is not a woman driver in Formula One is institutional sexism.

My point is that if only mixed sport existed women would be kept out because of sexist prejudice. If that happens in horse racing and Formula One where women have shown they can compete what chance would they have in a sexist sport like football?

Luckily there is a simple solution. Separate events for women only should remain. But what is now the men’s events should be open to all competitors. This would leave the talented female with a choice. She can choose to compete in the women only events or choose to compete in the open events against men.**** In the case of say football if a male football club ever wanted to sign a woman – as a Mexican club wanted to do with Maribel Dominguez in 2004 – they would be fully entitled to. If she turned out not to be good enough well as Liverpool fans know with Mario Balotelli that can apply to male players too!

Some people say that is unfair to men. But in sport this has always applied in the case of age. Sport has under 16, under 18 and under 21 teams from which older players are excluded. However young players can play in older age group teams and even adult competitions. The classic example being Wayne Rooney who made his Premier League debut n 2002 aged 16. The idea of Rooney being banned from the Premier League because of his age would be absurd. Why shouldn’t it apply to gender?

To my mind this is the best way to approach gender equality in the playing side of sport. Coercive segregation is blatantly discriminatory and should have no place in a civilised country. But coercive integration – as horse racing and Formula One have shown – leads to mixed sport only in theory as sexist prejudice and the absence of women’s events means there are fewer women in these sports than gender segregated sports. Giving women the opportunity to compete with men – while keeping the protection of female only events as an insurance policy against sexism – is the best way for sport to go.

*”Feminazi” is a combination of feminist and Nazi. The very fact that people who want human beings to be treated equally are being compared to people who sent millions to the gas chambers shows how pathetic and ridiculous that phrase is.

**”Waynetta Rooney” was the name of a fictional sister of England football star Wayne Rooney that Natalie Bennett used to illustrate the difference in wages and opportunities between male and female footballers.

***The one exception I would make (as I wrote in previous post “Why Rousey v Mayweather must never happen”) is fight sports like boxing and wrestling for reasons I explained in that post.

****This is not my idea. UK sports lawyer David Pannick (in his 1983 booklet “Sex Discrimination in Sport”) advocated this policy.

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