A Gentleman’s game? We spoke to some of the most influential women in Cambridge sport

On Varsity inequality, periods and proving men wrong

I’m willing to bet that the phrase “you throw like a girl” is on a list of top five (scrap that, top one) most hated phrases by women involved in sport, with the sentiment behind it being that women are simply not as good at sports: because how could a woman possibly be good at sport? and, how could you possibly critique someone’s sporting ability or technique without bringing down an entire gender in the process? 

Years after the launch of #thisgirlcan, I spoke to Claudia Tam, President of Cambridge University Amateur Boxing Club (CUABC) and Nia Hall and Ailie Rennie, President and Blue’s Captain of Cambridge University Association Football Club (CUAFC) respectively, to learn more about the state of play in sport and gender (in)equality today. 

Get yourself a cup of tea, because we have a lot of assumptions to unpack:

“I joined to get the clout which comes along with it”

The most apparent thing to arise from my conversations was how much of a key part sport plays in the lives of the women I spoke to. I’ve been playing football all my life,” Nia says, explaining that she got into the sport because of her Dad’s love of football: “Growing up when you have something you like doing with your dad, you just do it”. Ailie’s path into football was similar, starting to play with her brother when she was little, before becoming captain of both the girls’ and boys’ team in primary school. Although she does admit that: “The boys’ team was the actual team, whereas the girls’ team was made up of the girls I forced to play.”

However, fewer opportunities available to young girls in these sports means that many don’t pick up new sports until university. This has been Claudia’s experience with boxing, which she started after seeing the club’s stall at the freshers’ fair. She tells me that “boxing is a sport which is considered quite bad-ass and that was definitely part of the reason I joined, to get the clout which comes along with it”. Yet, clout reasons aside, she says “I completely fell in love with it: the club, the sport, the camaraderie”.

“There’s always that guy who says ‘oh you can’t play, you’re a girl’”

Both sports have traditionally been quite male-dominated, Claudia tells me that “because boxing is quite an aggressive sport there’s this stereotypical idea that it’s for men and that men should be doing combat sports whilst women should do dancing or something.” Nia and Ailie both point to childhood instances where they were excluded from playing football because of their gender. Nia says “every now and again there’s always that guy who says ‘oh you can’t play, you’re a girl’”. 

This is something that both teams agree is changing in recent years. Nia and Ailie talk about having to turn away really talented players from football trials this year because it was oversubscribed. Claudia also reports similar occurrences, telling me that in the last five years, women’s boxing on a professional level has massively increased, and this has trickled down into amateur level, which they’ve seen in Cambridge through higher levels of take-up amongst women. 

“Quitting wasn’t an option” (Photo credit: CUAFC)

 “There’s still this assumption that you’re kind of rubbish”

Yet, despite this increased take-up there seems to be a continuation of stereotypes towards women involved in these sports. Nia says that amongst people who don’t play the sport “There’s still this assumption that you’re kind of rubbish, and you’re only on the team because you’re a girl.” This belief is particularly unfounded considering both teams train pretty much the same amount. Last year the women’s team had training three times a week as well as a weekly match, which is no mean feat alongside a Cambridge degree. 

Claudia has faced similar criticisms, saying “I often have conversations with people where they say things like ‘oh you don’t properly box, or, you don’t really box’ and asking if I’ve ever had a proper knock-out” (for reference, the answer is yes. She has had a Technical Knock-out, which is the closest thing women are able to get to a knock-out, not that it’s any of your business!) She says that she’d tell anyone who says boxing isn’t for women to “come to a session and you’ll see all our women box and by the end of it you’ll see women definitely do box.”

Ailie agrees, shaking her head as she tells me that “boys who play for a rubbish college team, or aren’t even on the team at all still think they can beat you.” These low expectations do occasionally have their bonuses though, with Ailie laughing about how when she plays with her dad and his friends at home “it’s always incredibly satisfying when they expect you to be no good and you do a cheeky nutmeg”. 

“Women definitely do box” (Photo credit: Bea Goddard)

“There’s this assumption that they must be butch lesbians”

A big thing that came up in discussions with all teams was assumptions about sexuality based on the sport these women play. Ailie says “the largest stereotype in women’s football is to do with sexuality and being gay, and I’ve felt that a lot, but why is it a stereotype?” She goes on to say “there’s this assumption that women’s footballers are either gay, butch and shave their heads, or they’re just not good at football”. 

This is something which Claudia has also experienced within boxing, telling us “historically there’s not been many female boxers and if there are there’s this assumption that they must be butch lesbians, which definitely isn’t true.”

 “Coaches often call us girls even though we’re all adults”

Yet, frustratingly this stereotyping of women in sports can often extend to their coaches behaviour. Claudia talks about the ways in which coaches can further these stereotypes, telling me  “I love our coaches but there’s definitely generational differences.” She points to a number of small ways in which the women’s side are treated differently: “They won’t give women as much sparring attention as they don’t find it as interesting as the men’s. They often pick a woman to do the cool-down or stretch part of the session, and coaches often call us girls even though we’re all adults.”

“Coaches often call us girls even though we’re all adults” (Photo credit: Bea Goddard)

Similarly, Nia and Ailie bring up a need for coaches to understand the unique difficulties many women face within sports, naming periods as an example. Ailie points out that “period cramps affect the way you play” and that “if you’re having period pains trying to do a two-hour training session probably isn’t that fun.” Yet, Nia says “so many male coaches don’t know about anything like that” despite it being “really critical to talk to coaches about hormones and menstrual cycles”, since it impacts the training you are best able to do. 

“We haven’t had a Varsity in the last three years”

For boxing, one of the biggest inequalities with the sport is related to the Varsity competition: in CUABC’s history the men’s team has had 115 Varsities, whilst the women’s team have only had three. Claudia tells me, “Varsity is a massive thing and it’s horrific there’s only been three. There’s no excuse for it.”

There hasn’t been a linear path to progress either: Claudia tells me the women’s team haven’t competed in a Varsity match since 2018: “The Men’s side has had such a long history and their Varsity happens every year without a shadow of a doubt, whereas the women’s team doesn’t have that reputation”. 

Part of the reason behind this is because, rather than using set weights to decide matches, the women’s side gets matched by their respective coaches. Claudia tells me is problematic since “Varsity is so competitive and the coaches don’t trust each other, so we haven’t had a Varsity in the last three years”. 

“We haven’t had a varsity in the last three years” (Photo credit: Bea Goddard)

“The women want to play Varsity so much that they’ll do anything to get it”

When there are competitions, they are often decided last-minute which can have dangerous effects on the health of athletes, since the matching system often requires competitors to lose weight. Claudia tells me that “the last time we had [a Varsity], it was decided two weeks before the show so the women had to crash-diet in preparation”, recalling in her first year one woman on the team “had to drop from 56 to 51kg in not much time at all”. She tells me that, although this can be unsafe and dangerous if not done properly, “the women want to play Varsity so much that they’ll do anything to get it, including dangerously dieting. It’s just not sustainable”.  

These differences also make it harder for the women’s side to get recognition for their boxing: the lack of Varsity means the women don’t technically qualify for a Blue. “We have to do the paperwork to be an extraordinary blue, whereas the men get it guaranteed.”  

In comparison, for CUAFC there seems to be more equality at Varsity level. Nia tells me “our Varsity happens alongside the men’s, it takes place on the same day, on the same grounds and they swap the order every year.” However, she admits that “they had to work really hard to get to that point” and that “the women’s football committee has always pushed hard to get equality”.

“The women’s football committee has always pushed hard to get equality” (Photo credit: CUAFC)

“I don’t want someone to tell me I look good, I want them to tell me I play good”

Kit is also a point of frustration for women at the forefront of the sport. Ailie tells me that “women’s kit is made to look better but isn’t fully functional as it’s made for appearance, not functionality”. This kit can sometimes be uncomfortable or restrictive to play in and seems to reflect a continued focus on the appearance of women within sports.  She says “I don’t want someone to tell me I look good, I want them to tell me I play good”.

“Look good, feel good, play good” (Photo credits: Tim Nunan)

Similarly, Nia recalled discussions with the men’s side about their kit for Varsity last year, telling me “the men’s teams have white shorts and were trying to convince us to have them too, because they’d match the socks better.” She points out that this can be problematic and uncomfortable for members of the team who are menstruating, telling me “it’s those types of considerations people don’t make”. Ailie agrees, emphasising that issues of kit are so important because it links to the idea of “look good, feel good, play good.”

“Having a female president definitely sets the tone and ideals for our club”

There does seem to be a consensus that Cambridge is a more accepting place for women within male-dominated sports than elsewhere. Nia tells me that within her college she trains with the men’s team: “People don’t really say stuff to me, they just play with me as normal like a teammate”. However, she notes that “when you say you play football, people think you mean college football.”

Within their respective sports clubs, these women all attest to being made to feel included. Claudia says there’s a really friendly atmosphere within the Boxing club: “We train together and we get as much training as the men. The guys are the sweetest, nicest, and most helpful people and definitely don’t treat you like you’re any less.” 

She says that “having a female president definitely sets the tone and ideals for our club”, although admits “I’m a bit gutted I’m not the first”, as the club has had another female president a few years prior. She adds that “it sends a very good signal to anyone wanting to join, showing it’s a place where women are welcome and you can tell that women will get looked after and not pushed to the side.” 

“Having a female president definitely sets the tone and ideals for our club” (Photo credit: Elodie Giuge)

“I was shocked to see how many women do get involved”

When asked for what advice they’d give to women considering getting involved in sports that are traditionally considered male-dominated, there was an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm. “Definitely join” Claudia advises, “I think I had all these preconceptions before I joined but I was shocked to see how many women do get involved”. 

Nia agrees:  “Definitely do it!” She explains that “especially at a College level, there’s a wide range of different experiences and lots of beginners, and often university-level players will get involved and help coach.” Ailie agrees, telling me she definitely recommends joining a team “even just for the social side, regardless of the sport” because “it’s a great way to meet lots of like-minded people”.  

“It’s a great way to meet lots of like-minded people”  (Photo credit: Tim Nunan)

Ailie tells me that CUAFC is hoping to create some training videos for college teams in the future, “to use their experiences to help others” and Nia says that in the future she’d love to see the creation of a woman’s development squad, as currently “there’s not much of a middle-ground” between college level and university level football for women, due to the fewer number of teams. 

“There’s this feeling that we need to ask for equality slowly rather than taking it for ourselves”

Whilst both teams discuss the progress made in recent years regarding women’s involvement within the sport, and their equal treatment when they do place,  these inequalities within sport do remain. This is something that has been furthered by the pandemic. Nia tells me that “the ruling that elite sports can continue has highlighted gender divides.” The new lockdown measures have meant that the Women’s FA cup has been suspended, despite the men’s competition continuing because they are classified as an “elite sport”.  These attitudes seem to filter down to the level of University sports, with women’s teams being presumed to be of lower quality and a lesser version of the sport. 

On overcoming some of these barriers and inequalities within sports, Ailie tells me that “women in football are always scared to ask for more equalities, because we just got one thing, it scares us from demanding what we deserve. There’s this feeling that we need to ask for equality slowly rather than taking it for ourselves”.

Feature image credit: CUAFC and Elodie Giuge