Out of Bounds: Femininity in sports isn’t a bad thing

Two years ago, during one of my USC club lacrosse games, a timeout was called. At the end of the two-minute break, we did one of the several USC cheers we had in our rotation. I don’t remember which cheer it was, but I remember that, right after, a bunch of us went “Wooo!” as girls frequently do. 

One of my teammates then said something to the effect of “Oh please don’t do the ‘woo.’ Would the guys ever do that?” A few other girls agreed, and we stopped “doing the woo” in huddles. 

They weren’t wrong. Guys would probably not yell “Wooo!” before leaving a huddle. They’d probably grunt or yell in a deep voice instead. 

This was two years ago, so I’m definitely paraphrasing, but my teammate was making the point that a men’s team would never throw in the “Wooo!” before taking the field. And, to be taken seriously and be truly athletic, our women’s team needed to embody a men’s team. 

Something similar happened on the first day of my internship at a bank the following summer. Standing in a group of new acquaintances, another intern began to talk about the clothes she had bought for the summer — mostly blue and black pantsuits. 

“I’ve heard from so many people that since it’s a man’s world, you have to dress like as much of a man as possible in order to be taken seriously,” she said, referring to the finance world. 

Both of these seemingly insignificant comments have stayed in the back of my mind these past couple of years. I always knew they bothered me, but I never knew how to articulate what it was that I thought was wrong — until I recently read about a certain study. 

There’s a common misconception that women in the workplace are less confident in their abilities than men. The solution to this misconception is typically for women to release their femininity and take on more traditionally “masculine” traits. 

But this study showed that the so-called “confidence gap” between men and women doesn’t actually exist. Women self-report to be just as confident as men do. The difference is that men’s more traditionally “masculine” characteristics display this confidence more explicitly. 

“The problem isn’t with women not feeling strong in their abilities, it’s that it doesn’t always translate in the ways that men understand,” a post by the Instagram account @girlboss said regarding the study. “Just because speaking up during a meeting or asserting your expertise without being asked are standard signifiers of ‘being confident’ doesn’t mean that you lack confidence if you don’t do these things.” 

The takeaway, which is something I’ve always believed and this study confirms, is that you do not have to be or act masculine to be confident, powerful or capable — be it at the workplace or on a sports field. 

Powerful women can be warm, cheerful people. These traditionally “feminine” qualities should not be suppressed. Femininity does not equal a lack of confidence or preparedness. Great athletes can be women who wear a bow in their ponytail and let out a “Wooo!” before taking the field. 

This message applies to men, too. Men should not have to forgo their femininity or exaggerate their masculinity to be viewed as confident.

Conversely, if women want to act more “masculine” than “feminine,” that is completely fine. Both genders should be able to act however they choose. If a woman wants to take the field stoically, she should. If a woman wants to wear pantsuits to work, she should. 

But she should do these things only if she wants to and feels best that way, not because she hopes that forgoing her femininity will make others take her more seriously. We should stop perpetuating the idea that masculinity is superior to femininity and that acting masculine is the only way to be tough and powerful. 

I certainly do not blame my teammate for suggesting that we should slightly suppress our femininity. That’s what millions of young girls and women are taught to do all over the country and in plenty of places around the world. It has been ingrained in our society that to be feminine is to be weaker, less intimidating, less confident and less capable than men. Her suggestion was merely a product of living in that environment. 

But once women collectively embrace femininity and believe that it does equate to strength, energy and competence, the rest of the world will take note and start to believe it too. Wear a pink dress to work, have fun and yell “Wooo!” before leaving the huddle. Let the work you do on the field or in the office speak for itself. We shouldn’t have to be like the boys — we should just be us. 

Jill Burke is a senior writing about sports in relation to current issues. Her column, “Out of Bounds,” runs every other Friday.