Gender discrimination in sports

autor: Andrea Knežević, Anđela Jovanović, Jens Clement, Aäron Tourné, Imar Vandenabeele 0

There are still many prejudices when it comes to gender in sports. Girls who box, boys who do ballet, and even female referees. Many think it's weird, but the opposite is true. What’s the difference in perception between Belgium and Serbia?

We don't see many female referees yet on football pitches. ©KVBV

The perception of females in the “male” sports world in Belgium

There are many examples of gender discrimination in sport, in both Serbia and Belgium. We interviewed a few victims and experts on this sensitive subject. Heidi Houtthave has been a referee in Belgium for many years. She started her career as a football player and later started refereeing. According to Heidi, it is not as easy for a woman to be a referee in football. Nevertheless, she hopes that more girls will start a career as a referee. “I do both men's and women's games. The male football games were very difficult in the beginning. Everywhere I went they looked at me in a weird way, “is that our referee”, they said. I got a lot thrown at my head, and they still do. As a woman, you have to be a bit stronger mentally than a man.”

“The longer I do it, the more often I meet the same teams. The players respect me after a match or two. They see that I do my job as a referee just as well or, according to some, better than a man. When a player comes to give compliments after a match, it's very rewarding. The supporters are the worst. Again, and again, you hear them making sexist remarks from the sidelines, such as “shouldn't you be in the kitchen”, but I ignore it all and concentrate on the match."

"In Belgium, we have a lot more ladies next to the line as officials than on the field. I think that's because most women are afraid to stand on the field and be in charge of the game. They sometimes feel intimidated by the men on the pitch. We are missing a female hero in Belgium, no Belgian woman has ever presided over a football match at the highest level. Male referees have Frank De Bleeckere as a great example, but we don't have that for women. Then you must look abroad, for example, to Germany where they had Bibiana Steinhaus.”

Bibiana Steinhaus was the first female referee in the German Bundesliga. ©Telegraph

Gwenda Stevens is an ex-professional rower and a part of the Belgian Olympic committee. She is specialized in (women) officials. She explained why the attention of women refereeing is still small and how we could improve it.

“I think sometimes there isn’t enough media attention, at least in the right channels. Media plays a big role, and I think that they have made big steps forward in that respect. For example, if you look at football, the French referee, Stephanie Frappart – has been in the news a few times in the last couple of months. That’s important because a lot of people think: “Oh wow there are also women referees in football.” But at the same time, it is still hard, in some sports, it's still taboo to have a female referee because in football matches between males it’s sometimes hard for a female referee because man will sometimes react differently. But if you ask me why are there still a few female referees? We need to make it more mainstream. We, as females, must come out with our stories. We need more role models who can give the stories a push.”

As you said, attention to the topic is important. But is there enough (media) attention to the topic in Belgium?

“You always have to be careful with that. I had a talk with the VRT, maybe a year and a half ago, and we talked about the women’s task force, and their reaction was: “But we already do a lot in that regard.” It’s true but you can always do better. On the other hand, we are also not taken seriously enough. For example, earlier this year a politician brought this problem (not enough women officials in sports) up in the Flemish parliament as a reaction to an article me and a colleague wrote. They talked about it and the first reaction was:  “A whole special project is not really possible.” And that’s a real shame.”

Some sports are seen as “male” sports. Do female referees not get the respect, and authority that they deserve in these sports?

“I don’t think that is the main issue because you have to be honest, it is hard for everyone. Even as a guy you need to be able to stand your ground. But I do think that women don’t get taken seriously a lot of the time. I had to make a presentation about women as officials and when I googled female referees, you don’t even want to know what I found. The sexiest pictures and I was like, come on, that’s not how it should be. You have to choose a woman because she has the skills and not because she is pretty and wears a skirt.”

Bieke Purnelle, the expert in gender discrimination in sports, tells about the underlying roots of the problem.

Some sports, like football, have an overwhelming majority of male participants/players. Is that a problem?

“Well, it should never be our aim to equalize the numbers because right now you start with the thought that children are totally free in choosing a sport. But that’s not right. That’s just not the reality. For example, with young children, it is the parents who choose the sport. But it also depends on the choices of sport in the neighborhood. But the most important are still expectations and standards. In society, there are still very strict thoughts about which sports are for boys and which sports are for girls, and that has a big impact on how children look at themselves. So you should let your children pick a sport based on what they like and what they are good at. You can’t know that if you don’t give them all the options.”

When a girl does choose football as a sport, do we in Belgium have a problem that it doesn’t get accepted by society. Because football is for boys?

“Well, in Belgium, that problem isn’t that big. There are definitely prejudices, but all in all, it's not that big of a problem. We have a football club in our city and there are a lot of girls, and the numbers are still rising. We need to give it some time for the prejudices to fade away.”

There is still a big gap between male sports and female sports, in wages and attention, could that be a problem as well?

“Female sports or, for example, female football, is still a new sport. And definitely in Belgium, there are a lot of changes happening. Like a minimum wage and matches getting broadcasted. So we are going the right way and I think that this evolution will keep going. Because the argument you always hear is: “But a lot fewer people watch women sports so it's normal that they earn less.” But even that is changing rapidly.”

The perception of females in the “male” sports world in Serbia

As said, gender differences have unjustifiably existed since the early times in all spheres of life, including sports. Women in sports, female coaches, referees, even female sports journalists don’t get enough attention for their work and achievements, and even when they do it’s not for the right reason which is their knowledge and passion, but more attention is being focused towards what they are wearing and how they look like. It’s sad, but it’s true – stereotypes are, unfortunately, all around us.

Alexandra Jovanovic, a female referee herself, tells us about her experiences on the pitch.

Alexandra Jovanovic with her female colleagues after a game in Serbia. ©Alexandra Jovanovic

"I have the feeling that I get as much respect on the field like men. I personally experience very little sexism during matches. Sometimes I have the feeling that they are friendlier to me because I am a woman. Players do get angry when you decide something else than they want. But that's also the case with men. My male colleagues are very nice, they try to help me, I feel like one of them. We are all paid the same as referees, no distinction is made between a male referee and a female referee.”

"In my town, we have a school to become a football referee. We started with a reasonable number of girls but after a while, they were fewer and fewer. We are now left with 2 girls in the class".

Nowadays, many countries offer different programs that are aimed at fixing the problem of gender roles and gender inequality in sports and Serbia is one of them. Women across the country came united and created what’s now known as The Center for the Affirmation of Women in Sport, and Marija Srdić is one of its members. The former gymnast participated in many different types of research that have to do with the position and role of women in sports institutions and clubs and has dedicated her career to fixing this problem. She says that, based on her research, women show less interest in sports and physical activities, and they are generally less active than men. They are more likely to stop playing sports at an early age, usually in their teenage years or after high school. Research also shows that health and socializing are what usually motivates women and young girls to participate in these activities, and when it comes to men, it’s competition and fitness.

How are women being treated in the world of sports which are labeled as male, and why is that the case? Does discrimination exist and if so, in what way?

“Women are less represented in sports on all levels, from local to national, in many different functions, for example as referees or coaches, and they are especially absent in management activities. The ruling social stereotypes make it hard for girls to play sports and this is especially noticeable towards those who show an affinity for the so-called “non-female” sports, such as football or martial arts, sports that aren’t highly aestheticized and do not emphasize beauty and grace in the way that for example gymnastics or figure skating do.”

How does the media treat women in sport, what is the real reason behind the fact that they don’t get as much attention as male athletes for their accomplishments?

“When it comes to media promotion of women in sports, the situation is not very good. Women are not visible enough and the achievements in women's sports are less valued and are considered less important. When it comes to representing women in sports, they are often represented through stereotypes and not in the spirit of sports. Also, gender discrimination in sports is reflected through smaller finances and support for women’s clubs. Smaller investments in sports equipment, space, and conditions in which women train, preparations, going to competitions, and so on. Thus, their path to success is much longer than the path taken by male athletes.”

“When it comes to the participation of male and female athletes at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, our national team was made up of 80 male and 36 female athletes, and they ended up winning an equal amount of medals. Four years later, at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Serbia was represented by 56 male and 46 female athletes and again, there was an equal amount of medals between the two genders. Next year, in Tokyo, for the first time since Serbia is competing under its own name at the Olympics, the female team will be bigger – our national team will be made up of 31 male and 34 female athletes. While we achieve equal results in international competition, the segment of what women get from sports and how they’re being treated is still quite different.”

Serbia women’s national volleyball team got a ticket to Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. ©thesrpskatimes

“Good examples of equal participation in sports also exist – there is almost an equal number of registered athletes in sports such as athletics or volleyball, for example, 1870 female and 1897 registered male athletes in athletics.”

“From the beginning of the Olympic Committee to the present day, it has had 20 presidents and all 20 were male. No woman has ever been in charge of it, despite all the facts related to their successes and many medals, where men and women are almost equal and at the same level, but when it comes to privileges, management functions, salaries in the world of sports, men are still in great advantage.”


Unfortunately, there is still plenty of prejudice against women in the sports world. But Serbia and Belgium are working hard to remove these prejudices. There are a lot of organizations working behind the scenes to bring the problem into the mainstream media. Women's sports and the attention for it are growing at a rapid speed. With the right role models and help from the government, it's only a matter of time before women's sports and women's officials are nothing less than normal.


Online Project Journalism is a collaboration between Howest University, Belgium, and the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. In non-corona times the students of Howest work together with the students in Novi Sad during an annual study trip. This year it was an online project, making sure the intercultural added value of working together to create a journalistic product is not lost. 

Students of Novi Sad created journalism products together with students of Howest. This project connects Serbia and Belgium every year. The products are proof of cooperation between students.

The starting point for the journalistic product was the uprise and growing visibility and influence of the Black lives matter movement. BLM is exemplary of a growing awareness of identity and thus becomes more of an issue on the political agenda, in the cultural sector, and in people's personal lives. In this way, it was possible to work on various themes, such as the human race, sexual identity, living with a disability, political preference, etc. 

This is the fifth product that is published from the workshop.

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