Gender Bias in Soccer Science Undermines Women's Progress

As the global soccer community unites in celebration of the “beautiful game” during this year’s men’s World Cup in Qatar, one crucial aspect of the sport remains notably neglected: the female players.

It’s an open secret that women’s soccer has not received anywhere near the same level of attention or financial support as men’s soccer. Female professional players continue to grapple with significantly lower pay compared to their male counterparts, a disparity that the U.S. women’s team aimed to address with its recent equal pay settlement with the U.S. Soccer Federation. However, in many facets related to equipment and health within the sport, women’s soccer continues to face insufficient funding and research.

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A recent study published in Sports Engineering by a team of researchers in England has pinpointed ten areas where a lack of research is holding back female players. These areas range from the design of soccer boots, which are primarily tailored for men, to rigid uniform standards that compromise women’s comfort and performance.

Katrine Okholm Kryger, a senior lecturer at St. Mary’s University in England and the lead author of the study, highlights the prevalence of male bias in research across various domains, including sports and medical research. This bias extends to fields like the design of space suits and the fit of personal protective equipment, such as face masks and respirators.

One crucial area for improvement is soccer uniforms. Female professional teams are often required to wear uniforms of the same color as their male counterparts, even though female players have consistently voiced concerns about light-colored shorts and menstrual leakage, which can affect their concentration during games. Okholm Kryger emphasizes that this issue could be easily resolved by changing the uniform color.

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Female players have also expressed discomfort with the length of the shorts they are required to wear, which some view as overly sexualized. This, Okholm Kryger notes, may be intentional, reminiscent of the bikini-style “shorts” typically mandated in women’s beach volleyball.

Moreover, female soccer players are frequently obligated to wear a sports bra provided by a sponsor, rather than a bra that suits them best individually. Wearing a comfortable and supportive bra is critical, as approximately 44 percent of elite female athletes report experiencing breast pain during training or competition. Yet, elite soccer players can face fines for not wearing the sponsor’s bra, leaving them with the choice of wearing a suboptimal option or two bras. This is a challenge male players do not encounter.

Soccer boots, or cleats, represent another area where women’s equipment falls short. Most cleats produced by major manufacturers are designed for male feet, compelling female players to wear smaller sizes. However, studies have shown that women’s feet have different shapes and volumes than men’s. An improperly fitted boot could increase the risk of injury. Cleats need to provide optimal traction on various playing surfaces, and a design ideal for a man’s foot may not be suitable for a woman’s. Manufacturers are gradually recognizing this issue, but insufficient research on female players has impeded progress.

Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries are a significant concern, as they can sideline players for months. Female players require longer recovery periods than their male counterparts, approximately 10 months versus seven months. One potential factor contributing to the higher rate of ACL injuries is excessive traction from cleats that causes the foot to get stuck on the ground during body rotation.

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The playing surface is another critical consideration. Most professional women’s teams lack their own stadiums and must use men’s stadiums, often on the day following a men’s game. This can result in torn-up and uneven turf, increasing the risk of injury.

The soccer ball itself is also under scrutiny. Women play with the same-sized ball as men, but research suggests that female players face a higher risk of concussion and brain injury when heading the ball. Some clubs, like Tottenham Hotspur, have begun incorporating neck-strengthening exercises to reduce this risk.

There have been some studies on whether soccer ball size impacts the women’s game, revealing that a smaller, lighter ball allows for faster kicks and reduced exertion. However, these studies are dated, and further research is warranted.

When examining the differences in physiology and injury rates between male and female soccer players, it’s challenging to disentangle the effects of biological sex and gender socialization. Questions arise, such as whether wider hips in women influence injury risk or if male players have more experience in falling safely. It’s likely a combination of both biological sex and gender factors, as Okholm Kryger suggests.


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