On February 18, 2015, the Vancouver Women’s Field Hockey League will hold a vote to determine whether players will continue to be required to play in skirts. Help us make it a choice. Please share.
If you’d have told me when I was twelve, and writing my first speeches about equality for my local Rotary Club, that my first real experience of discrimination would be at the hands of a field hockey league, I’d have thought you were joking. Then again, if you’d have told me when I was twelve that at 28 I would be forced to play a sport I love wearing a spandex miniskirt I would not wear to the bar, I probably would have had a similar reaction.
As some of you will already know, I have taken on the mandatory skirt for women field hockey players as somewhat of a pet project. For those of you who don’t already know, here it is in a nutshell.
I’ve played field hockey since I was 13. It’s a great sport. But there is one problem. Field hockey is the last remaining sport (I know of) that requires its female athletes to play in a skirt. Why is this a problem? Because, as the United Nations and Australian Sports Commission recognize, feminine uniforms sexualize female athletes. This trivializes women’s sports, lowers self-esteem, perpetuates stereotypes, discourages participation and even promotes the sexual harassment of women athletes. I could go on, and in fact I have, here.
In Vancouver, women field hockey players have asked the Vancouver Women’s Field Hockey League to be permitted to play in shorts no fewer than three times in the past few years. Each time their request has been denied.
The last request was made by my team on November 20, 2014.
On that day, I, along with several of my teammates, attended a meeting of the Vancouver Women’s Field Hockey League for one purpose: to change the League constitution to give players the choice to wear shorts as part of their uniform.
We did not have in mind anything radical. We knew that many players like the skirt and so we had no intention of taking that away from them. We merely wanted to give individual players who, like me, might not feel comfortable playing in a skirt, a choice. And so we asked that “or shorts” be added to the definition of uniform in the League constitution.
“Each team shall have its playing uniform, consisting of shirt, skirt or shorts, and socks ready for use by the first league game.”
When it came time for me to introduce the motion, this is what I said:
“My name is Kaity. I am a member of Jokers IV. I’m here today to ask you to support my team’s efforts to make field hockey more inclusive by allowing players to choose between shorts and a skirt as part of their uniform.
This may seem like a trivial issue, but the truth is the mandatory skirt alienates women and girls who, for a number of reasons, do not feel comfortable in the skirt.
I’ve talked to a lot of people about this issue and some of those people have been mothers and fathers of girls. And I can tell you that I have been told many times that some of these girls would choose not to play field hockey for no other reason that their discomfort with the skirt.
The reasons vary. They include self-consciousness about body image, cultural beliefs about modesty and plain discomfort with skirts.
I don’t know about you, but that makes me really sad.
I know if you are here today it is because you love field hockey. And I know you are keenly aware of its wonderful benefits including social connections, community engagement, improved health and stress relief.
I can’t believe anyone would want to purposefully exclude women and girls from these benefits.
Especially when the accommodation is so simple, and would in no way detract from the enjoyment of players who like the skirt and would choose to continue wearing it.
And so I ask you, please, support us in making this wonderful sport more welcoming to all women and girls.”
More than anything, I hoped that this invitation to usher field hockey into a new era of acceptance and inclusivity would be accepted. I hoped to conclude this campaign of mine knowing that, at least in Vancouver, no woman or girl would be forced to quit field hockey because of how the uniform made her feel.
But the field hockey community disappointed me once again. The hour debate that ensued was not about inclusion. It was about semantics and appearances.
Some members claimed to be confused by the wording of the motion. Did the amendment mean that whole teams had to wear shorts? How could the choice be the individual’s when the word “individual” did not appear in the amendment?
Other members thought the amendment must involve replacing the word “uniform” with “designated clothing” because uniform connotes one outfit and not a choice between two. (Just like you can’t call private school uniforms “uniforms” because girls have a choice between skirts and pants, oh wait…)
But by far, the prevailing topic of discussion was how the motion would impact the appearance of the players.
One member expressed the view that as Canada’s largest field hockey league, it was important that our players looked good. Many agreed that an important part of looking good was looking all the same. Another member said her club took a particular interest in the appearance of their players. If one of their players wanted to play in a ball gown, they would say no.
Another was not convinced that any players were discouraged to join field hockey because of the uniform requirement. Her players had always considered the skirt a badge of honour. She disagreed that the skirt sexualizes athletes and noted that shorts can be sexual too if they are short enough.
One member expressed concern that referees would not be able to distinguish between the different teams if the players’ bottoms were not exactly the same. (Oh course the different jerseys and socks would be no help in that regard.)
One club acknowledged that at least one of its teams would choose to wear shorts but expressed concern that this would impact a sponsorship deal it had with a particular uniform supplier.
Sadly, in that full hour discussion, I can recall only one statement in support of the principle of inclusivity. One. But even that statement was quickly followed with a “but” and ultimately did not support the motion.
This stands in sharp contrast to the reactions I’ve witnessed from the general public. Which generally have been reactions of shock and outrage that in 2014 this is still an issue.
Ultimately, someone suggested that the motion be tabled for another day. That motion passed by a vote of 55 to 26.
Defeated, my team made one last request: that until this motion is decided, the penalty for wearing shorts be reduced to a game card notion rather than being kicked out of the game. After all, that had been the penalty for the last three years and continues to be the penalty for other uniform infractions. No one was able to provide a satisfactory explanation why wearing shorts is penalized more severely than any other infraction. Nonetheless, our request was denied by a vote of 41 to 35. And so it stands, no woman wearing shorts will be permitted to play field hockey in Vancouver.
I am generally an optimistic person. I would love to believe that the members present on November 20, 2014 really do care about inclusion and really did just need some more time to discuss the issue with their teams. Two years ago I would have. But I’ve been here before. After witnessing three failed attempts to introduce the option of shorts to field hockey, I am starting to believe that there is real resistance to equality and inclusion in this community. I hope to be proven wrong in February, when this motion is raised for a fourth time. Oh, how I hope. But I am not naive. And I am not holding my breath.
I recently attended a talk by the Right Honourable Kim Campbell, Canada’s first and only woman Prime Minister. The talk was called, “Women’s Voices: What difference do they make?” It was about women’s unique life experiences and the consequences of ignoring women’s perspectives in politics, business and media.
I had never heard Campbell speak before, so I was eager to attend. I was disappointed to see that few Vancouverites felt the same way. Despite Vancouver’s population of over 600,000 people, the auditorium at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre was only half full. To be fair, the event was not effectively promoted. Nonetheless, I was dismayed to see poor attendance for a talk about the importance of women’s voices.
But I digress.
Campbell is a Conservative and so it won’t surprise you that I didn’t agree with everything said at the talk. It did, however, give me a lot to think about.
Let’s start with where Campbell and I agree. The thesis of the talk was that women’s perspectives are vital. Vital to the creation of good public policy. Vital to public discourse. And vital to the success of modern businesses and organizations.
To illustrate the point, the organizer of the talk, Informed Opinions, discussed a little experiment. Informed Opinions trains women experts to share their ideas through media commentary. Curious to know what differences women’s voices make in terms of focus and content, they created a word cloud from the first 100 published opinion pieces written by their workshop participants. They then compared this word cloud to the most prominent words generated by a similar sampling of op-eds written by male experts.
The clouds contained many similar words, including Canadian, government, health, political, public and work. However, a number of other phrases appeared prominently only in women-penned pieces. Tellingly, these included abuse, assault, benefit, care, children, equality, families, girls, help, justice, services, sexual, support, treatment, violence and women.
In many ways, Campbell’s experience as a woman member of parliament mirrored that experiment. In her talk, Campbell told anecdotes of times she educated an awkwardly silent room of male colleagues about issues such as contraception and sexual assault. Issues that are very prominent in women’s lives, but admittedly were not well understood or considered particularly important by some of her male colleagues.
Given the complex social, economic and environmental challenges we face, it simply does not make sense to make public policy based on the experiences of only half the population. On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with Campbell.
But public policy is not where women’s contribution ends. Research shows that women also play a large role in driving economic growth. In her talk, Campbell referred to various studies that prove women’s positive influence on business.
Let’s look at some facts.
Research suggests that to succeed, businesses should start by promoting women.
As investors, women come out better on almost every count. They are less likely to hold a losing investment for too long. They are less likely to wait for too long to sell a winner. And they are less likely to put too much money into a single investment or to buy a reputedly hot stock without doing sufficient research.
Women also excel as leaders. New studies have found that female managers outshine their male counterparts in almost every measure. Forty-eight per cent of all US firms are owned or controlled by women. Compared to all firms, women-owned firms have triple the growth rate, twice the rate of job creation and are more likely to stay in business. McKinsey & Company found that international companies with more women on their corporate boards far outperformed the average company in return on equity and other measures. Operating profit was also 56 per cent higher.
How can these results be explained? A recent article from Scientific American provides some insight.
In that article, entitled, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Katherine Phillips discusses decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers that demonstrates that being around people who are different makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.
Phillips notes that people who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand. Diversity promotes hard work and creativity by encouraging the consideration of alternatives. Her conclusion? We need diversity- in teams, organizations and society as a whole- if we are to change, grow and innovate.
So far, Campbell and I are on the same page.
My disagreement comes with what to do about the inadequate representation of women’s voices.
Despite the fact that women constitute roughly half the population and workforce, and more than 60 per cent of university grads, women’s voices continue to be inadequately represented in media, politics and business.
In Canada’s most influential print, broadcast and online new media, male voices outnumber female voices by a factor of four to one.
In Federal politics, only 17% of Conservative Members of Parliament are women. The percentages for the NDP and Liberals are 38% and 25% respectively. BC has the highest rate of women MLAs in Canada at 36%. The other provinces and territories range from 10% (Northwest Territories) to 35% (Ontario).
Status of Women Canada reports that in 2012, women held only ten per cent of seats on Canadian boards. They held only 16 per cent of board seats on FP500 companies. And, on 40 per cent of FP500 boards, women held zero seats.
So what do we do about this serious underrepresentation?
Campbell suggests that women are often shy of power, that we see it as a bad thing and not as a potential to do great good. She suggests that women need to step up and grab power.
This to me, sounds a lot like “lean in,” the message to women from Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook. In her book, appropriately titled “Lean In,” Sandberg suggests that women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers rather than pursuing their career goals with gusto.
Step up, lean in, whatever you want to call it, is a philosophy that puts the onus on women for their inadequate representation in positions of power rather than the institutions and corporate structures that were made by men and continue to be run by them. It is a philosophy that calls out women for “opting out” of their careers rather than their employers for refusing to foster flexible, supportive environments that are more likely to keep women employees.
But more importantly, in my view, it is a philosophy that distracts us from the real question we should all be asking. It’s not a question of how we force businesses to accept women or their unique tendency to bear children. Nor is it a question of how to force women to work harder or longer. The question is, given what we know about women’s profound impact on the success of various entities, how can organizations justify their exclusion?
At a time when innovation is recognized as a key competitive advantage, the increase in a group’s intelligence attributed to the inclusion of women should be sufficient incentive for organizations in all sectors to work harder at soliciting female participation.
In my view, given what we know about women’s contribution to public policy, science and business, it is simply negligent for public and private institutions to refuse to reform the structures that push women out. Organizations should be asking themselves what they can do to make themselves more attractive to women, so they can reap the benefits of keeping us.
The refusal to change may well be the death knell for the stubborn “old boys’ clubs” of the world that will fail to take advantage of the exceptional investment, communication and leadership skills of women and thus fail to remain competitive.
In the meantime, our leaders should stop asking women to take personal responsibility for systemic failings. Our ambition (or lack thereof) is not the problem.