Schumacher Dimech Annemarie1, Seiler Roland2
1 Women’s Brain Project
2 Institute of Sport Science, University of Bern
Gendered norms, stereotypes and biases implicitly influence our thoughts, attitudes and behaviours. These often lead to gender inequity, a phenomenon inherent in society and reflected in its various contexts. The increasing awareness of this inequity is leading to reflection and changes in society as a whole and its communities, organisations and institutions. In scientific disciplines, gender inequity has been, and still is, a point of discussion and consideration. In many cases, these discussions have led to positive and sustainable changes at both a structural as well as a policy level. This opinion piece discusses gender inequity in the context of sport science and, in particular, sport medicine in Switzerland. Specifically, academic position (professorships), first authorship of peer-reviewed publications in the SEMS-Journal as well as conference participation and scientific awards in two Swiss sport science organisations: Sportwissenschaftliche Gesellschaft der Schweiz (SGS) and Sport & Exercise Medicine Switzerland (SEMS) in terms of frequency are presented and discussed. An under-representation of women is observed in most categories. Finally, recommendations for promoting and supporting equity while maintaining an objective consideration of quality criteria and individual ability are put forward using examples of good practice.
Geschlechtsspezifische Normen, Stereotypen und Vorurteile beeinflussen implizit unsere Gedanken, Einstellungen und Verhaltensweisen. Diese führen oft zu Geschlechterungleichheit, einem Phänomen, das der Gesellschaft inhärent ist und sich in ihren verschiedenen Kontexten widerspiegelt. Das zunehmende Bewusstsein für diese Ungleichheit führt zu Überlegungen und Veränderungen in der Gesellschaft als Ganzes und in ihren Gemeinschaften, Organisationen und Institutionen. In wissenschaftlichen Disziplinen war und ist die Ungleichheit der Geschlechter ein Punkt, der diskutiert und bedacht wird. In vielen Fällen haben diese Diskussionen zu positiven und nachhaltigen Veränderungen sowohl auf struktureller als auch auf politischer Ebene geführt. In diesem Opinion Paper wird die Ungleichheit der Geschlechter im Kontext der Sportwissenschaft und insbesondere der Sportmedizin in der Schweiz diskutiert. Konkret geht es um die akademische Position (Professuren), die Erstautorenschaft von «peer-reviewed» Publikationen in der Zeitschrift SEMS sowie um Konferenzteilnahmen und wissenschaftliche Auszeichnungen in zwei Schweizer Sportwissenschaftlichen Organisationen: Sportwissenschaftliche Gesellschaft der Schweiz (SGS) und Sport & Exercise Medicine Switzerland (SEMS) werden in Bezug auf die Geschlechtsverteilung vorgestellt und diskutiert. In den meisten Kategorien ist eine Unterrepräsentation von Frauen zu beobachten. Abschliessend werden Empfehlungen zur Förderung und Unterstützung der Chancengleichheit unter Beibehaltung einer
objektiven Berücksichtigung von Qualitätskriterien und individuellen Fähigkeiten anhand von Good-Practice-Beispielen gegeben.
Schlüsselwörter: Ungleichheit, Vertretung von Frauen, Vorurteil
Sport science is a relatively young discipline compared to the traditional disciplines. Nevertheless, the gendered norms, stereotypes and biases inherent in society at large are also reflected in the microcosm of this scientific discipline. When considering the historical development of science in general, men have had a “historical precedence” due to the customs and traditions of the times . This phenomenon is present in most, if not all, scientific disciplines, where gender bias is observed in their hierarchies and structures.
In this opinion piece, we look into possible gender inequity and bias in sport science in general and, more specifically, in the Swiss context. We briefly present recommendations from other countries and sport scientific organisations towards addressing this imbalance.
Observations of gender bias in sport science
In their editorial, Bekker et al.  reported gender bias in Sport and Exercise Medicine (SEM) conference committees, keynote speaker lists, panels and other events. They described how the term “manels” was coined, a term referring to all male panels and often observed in scientific contexts. The identification and definition of this phenomenon has increased awareness of gender bias in scientific committees, conference participation and other scientific activities. This lack of gender diversity has also been referred to as “gender blindness” when observing scientific award schemes and committee representation . Furthermore, it was noted by Bekker et al  that research funding tends to be skewed towards men, where women remain underrepresented in SEM research.
On the occasion of the European Federation of Sport Psychology’s (FEPSAC) 50th anniversary last year, Stamboulova, Elbe and Ryba reviewed women’s contributions in European Sport Psychology . They observed a female minority both at policy level (FEPSAC managing council; MC) as well as in congress participation and publications. In the latter case, a gender bias was noted in the editorship of FEPSAC’s journal “Psychology of Sport and Exercise (PSE)” with only one female editor in chief in its 20 years of existence.
A personal note by Stamboulova is both interesting and poignant: “During the 1995-1999 term, I was the only female in the MC, moreover I was the only Eastern European, and both these parts of my identity influenced immensely how my Western male colleagues perceived me, especially at the beginning of the term. I couldn’t influence decision making and mainly listened to and learned from them. In the middle of the term, I felt a bit more comfortable and accepted.”
(3 p. 23)
So is gender bias inherent in sport science in Switzerland?
To gauge the representation of male and female sport scientists in Switzerland, we looked at academic position (professorships), first authorship of peer-reviewed publications in the SEMS-Journal as well as conference participation and scientific awards in two national sport science organisations: Sportwissenschaftliche Gesellschaft der Schweiz (SGS) and Sport & Exercise Medicine Switzerland (SEMS). This “data informed” approach was recommended by Thorborg et al.  in their September 2020 editorial for the British Journal of Sports Medicine where they discussed the issue of gender bias in sport science.
Most of the sport science academic positions in Switzerland have been established in the last 10 to 15 years. With regard to gender, the distribution is incredibly skewed: amongst the 25 individuals with a full or associate professorship in 2020, only three are women.
In both the SEMS and SGS annual congresses, the keynote speakers were predominantly male. Particularly, the SGS’s annual congress has had no female keynote speakers in the past three years (Table 1).
When looking at the editorials and first authorship in the SEMS-Journal, a distinct pattern can be ascertained with a clear majority of male first authors/editors in all years since 2015 (Figure 1).
Specifically, the SEMS-Journal editorials show a skewness where only 2 out of a total of 24 editors and co-editors since 2005 were female, with no female editors or co-editors in the past three years (Table 2).
In consideration of the future of this discipline, we also looked at prizewinners (SEMS) and finalists (SGS) in these past 5 years (Table 3). When perusing the SEMS’s scientific prize (Wissenschaftlicher Preis), no female scientists have received this award since 2014. Nevertheless, more balance in the female-male ratio is observed in the SGS junior researcher’s prizewinners and finalists (Nachwuchspreis). It appears that awareness of gender equity as well as structures and supporting mechanisms set in place are enabling both male and female researchers to follow their career goals and participate actively in scientific events.
Recommendations for gender equity in sport science
Equity is about ensuring all have a fair chance regardless of gender or other individual characteristics and should not be equated with a distributive equity . The objective consideration of quality criteria and individual ability should be upheld while a conscious effort is made to establish procedural equity, meaning that the procedure towards attaining a goal is a fair one and equally accessible for everyone. In this way, all have a fair chance to pursue their goal (e.g. speaking at a conference, publishing a paper, etc.) in the same way. Moreover, any disadvantages or hindrances in the system are addressed.
Equity issues, both related to gender as well as other individual characteristics, are often addressed following a crisis in the system . Such crises destabilize the organisation and are of no benefit. Ideally, gender equity should addressed proactively through changes in formal structures, such as, mentoring schemes, committee restructuring, review of procedures and other measures. The case for social diversity in an organisation or institution is compelling: socially diverse teams and organisations are stronger, more creative and resilient . Thorborg et al.  emphasize that sport medicine organisations should base their decisions and initiatives towards gender balance on their own data.
Stamboulova et al.  mention the establishment of both informal as well as formal female professional networks for mutual support within FEPSAC. This includes mentoring programmes as well as informal groups organizing networking meetings. Indeed, changes are happening within FEPSAC where women are being included both at a political as well as scientific level. As an example, for the first time between 2015 and 2019, the managing FEPSAC committee included a female majority, and the number of female associate editors in Psychology of Sport and Exercise increased to 33%. Thorborg et al.  illustrate in their 2020 editorial how the Danish Society of Sports Physical Therapy (DSSF) actively reviewed gender diversity among conference speakers at the Scandinavian Sports Medicine Congress and an improvement was ascertained as a result of this process. They also propose implementing quotas for congress speakers in the same way that a quota approach is used to ensure multidisciplinary diversity in sport scientific meetings.
It is therefore hoped that in the future the under-representation of women within the disciplines of sport science and sport medicine including professorships can be overcome through increased awareness coupled with a data-informed approach and implementation of sustainable measures for both senior and junior scientists.
Annemarie Schumacher Dimech
Tel: 044 720 03 75
- Brackenridge C, Mutrie N, Choi PY. Is sport and exercise science a man’s game? In: McNamee M, editor. Philosophy and the sciences of exercise, health and sport: Critical perspectives on research methods. London, Routledge; 2005. P. 169-86.
- Bekker S, Ahmed OH, Bakare U, Blake TA, Brooks AM, Davenport TE, et al. We need to talk about manels: the problem of implicit gender bias in sport and exercise medicine. Br J Sports Med. 2018 Oct;52(20):1287-9.
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