All Things Equal

The Missing Algorithm of Women’s Sport

The missing algorithm of women’s sport

Lisa Ingarfield explains why the invisible system that technology presents ‘trains’ us to believe women’s sport is inferior to men

Lisa IngafieldI had an a-ha moment tonight. You know, one of those moments where something clicks in your mind and you make a connection. The light bulb shining brightly above your head enabling you to see something in a new light. I wasn’t doing anything of importance, in fact, I was driving back from the grocery store. However, it is in these mundane moments that the biggest lightning bolts often strike. Franklin Foer, the author of the new book World Without Mind: How Tech Companies Pose an Existential Threat was on the radio, answering questions about how tech companies are shaping our reality. Foer argues that tech company platforms, such as search engines, deceptively pose as neutral purveyors of information from the internet super highway. In reality though, they are far from neutral. In fact, they actively “impose” the interests and perspectives of the companies they represent on to us, the consumer. Foer states:

All these algorithms are constructed by human beings to serve human purposes. They’re systems, and these systems are devised in order to create certain outcomes. And so the fact that they’re so invisible, I think, actually enhances their power because most people have the dimmest awareness, if any awareness at all, that Facebook is being patterned to try to give them some information above others.

The sports industry is a system. It is a system built on the assumption that men play sport and women don’t.

Zap. This is where the lightning bolt struck me and some Tetris blocks in my head fell into place. This is exactly what happens with the exclusion of women’s sport in our cultural and economic lives. Sports advertising, funding, resources, marketing, you name it; they are all developed and implemented by humans who have bias. The bias is that men’s sports are more interesting, more exciting, and more able to make money. But this bias, or maybe orientation is a better word, is often invisible to those who perpetuate it, and also to us, the consumer. With the invisibility comes the illusion of normalcy, making the narrative (men’s sports are more exciting and lucrative than women’s sports) really hard to challenge without being accused of over-reacting or reading too much into nothing.

The sports industry is a system. It is a system built on the assumption that men play sport and women don’t. As a system it pedals the narrative that men are better at sports than women, and men’s sports therefore should have more exposure. The system generates a narrative at all levels that privileges men’s sport over women’s. Much like the tech companies manipulate what we see in search results, or on our social media platforms, sports organizations and media outlets manipulate what sports we have access to. Since women’s sports are less visible, the consumer can be partially forgiven for thinking they just don’t exist or are not worthy of watching. However, the absence of something or someone should always be a red flag. Absence can sometimes tell us more than presence.

The narrative of men’s sports as better than women’s sports is self-perpetuating in its invisibility. Women’s sport gets less coverage and funding because companies assume it is less popular and exciting. This limited exposure leads to lower numbers of consumers watching or requesting access to women’s sports. The perceived low consumer interest provides justification that women’s sports are less popular and exciting than men’s. Low visibility leads to less awareness which leads to less financial investment which leads to low visibility. And so the cycle repeats. When women’s sports receive little attention and acclaim in their own right, young girls don’t enter sports at the same rate as boys because they don’t see sport as being for them.

The greater value placed on men’s sports is consumed and absorbed into our psyche because this is the primary narrative presented to us.

If we were to look at the gender breakdown of the leaders of all major sports organizations, companies, and media outlets, what would we find? Men, and lots of them at all levels. If it is largely men setting the agenda and making choices about what and who to feature and support, is it any wonder than men’s sports is most of what we see? These leaders are essentially writing the sports version of the search engine algorithm for us. We see what they want us to see. This metaphorical algorithm is almost exclusively written to serve up men’s sports over and over again. There is no women’s sports algorithm designed to present consumers with a litany of women’s sports day in, day out.

Foer argues: “[tech] companies…act as filters for the way in which we interact and process the world.” Similarly, sports companies and sports (and general) media outlets shape our understanding of sport as a primarily male endeavor. Their values become our values, often without us realizing it. In particular, we learn what sports are popular, exciting, and worth our time and money. The greater value placed on men’s sports is consumed and absorbed into our psyche because this is the primary narrative presented to us. This narrative is not accidental; it is well crafted and purposeful, and since it is packaged as normal, it becomes invisible. Men’s sport is central and natural. Women’s sport is different and outlying. Unless this narrative changes, and women’s sports are central alongside men’s, the general public will continue to believe women’s sports are not worth their time, and most importantly, their financial investment.

For a recap of the interview I listened to, click here

READ more of Lisa’s articles here

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