Most female rugby players in the UK and Canada say people automatically assume they are lesbians for playing the sport.

The stigma and discrimination that girls and women experience when they play sports such as rugby, cricket, or ice hockey has been extensively documented in hundreds of studies by researchers over the last half-century (see timeline). Recent research suggest little has changed.

Researchers from Australia’s Monash University conducted surveys and interviews with female athletes from a variety of sports in Australia and rugby union players in the UK and Canada. Nearly all (91%) of the rugby players said most people assume they are lesbians for playing the sport. The British research was conducted in partnership with the Harlequins rugby club in response to players continuing to report stigma and discrimination.

A recent BBC documentary highlights how this stigma is particularly challenging for women and girls from non-Anglo backgrounds in developing countries. However, researchers have also found this to be the case in western countries for girls with cultural backgrounds that have outdated norms related to gender.

Challenging Stigma

Recent research on the approach that sports in Australia have taken to address stigma highlighted the work of Cricket Australia as a useful case study for other sport governing bodies. This included commissioning researchers to conduct a detailed mixed method investigation. Though the comments from one female cricket player to the researchers highlights the complexity of addressing these issues:

I’d suggest if Cricket Victoria are keen to increase participation in LGBT community into cricket, I think is has to be seen as a fundamental culture shift in how you deal with the way community cricket clubs are run, the way in which you treat juniors, the way in which Milo Cricket separates women and puts them in pink clothes at the age of six. Good work if you actually have a proper gender identity at six, that’s pretty impressive, let alone having Cricket Victoria tell you which colour clothes to wear. I don’t think it’s something you could do as a tokenistic approach (Female, Player).