It was the tape heard around the world: then-US presidential candidate Donald Trump, allegedly believing he was off the record, graphically describing sexually assaulting women without their consent – all the while using language that can only be described as horrifying. His defence: it was “locker room talk,” the kind of stuff guys say to each other “all the time” when women aren’t around. Unbelievable though it may sound, it worked, and we all know how the story ended – he was elected president.
Breakers player Alex Pledger says that, unfortunately, there may be some truth to Trump’s words based on his experiences in male locker rooms and similarly majority-male spaces over the years. “I won’t repeat exactly what I’ve heard, but it’s stuff they wouldn’t say in front of their mothers,” he says. “Things like ‘I’d give her an eight out of ten, or a seven-and-a-half out of ten.’”
And that’s not the worst of it.
“One guy literally said the words ‘I just don’t like taking orders from females.’ It was very Trump-ish.”
Pledger, who has been a professional basketball player for eight years, says such misogynistic talk has sometimes led to men openly disrespecting women. For instance, he says, some players on a team he was on would not listen to a female member of the coaching team because she was a woman. “We had a few guys who wouldn’t listen to a word she said.”
Pledger says all the teams he has been on have had male head coaches. But if the coach were a woman? “There are absolutely guys that would have a problem with that.”
Then there’s the homophobia he says he has witnessed along with the misogyny.
“You could be eating a banana, and guys will say ‘no homo,’” he says. “After games, the next day we often get worked on by massage therapists. Some guys absolutely refuse to be worked on by a male massage therapist, because they think it’s gay somehow.”
Sports broadcaster Jim Kayes says that it’s hard to know what really goes on inside men’s locker rooms, because it’s rare to have access to such spaces unless you’re on the team. But, he says, the behaviour of male athletes in locker rooms is similar to any male-dominated space. “It’s no different than if you got 15 male lawyers together, or 15 male police officers.”
Kayes adds that, while he’s not excusing the behaviour of athletes – such as the alleged abuse of a female dancer last year by members of the Chiefs – their words and actions are scrutinised more than other people because they’re in the public eye. He says that in other majority-male spaces – like a mechanic’s shop or panel beating business – it’s not uncommon to find calendars featuring images of naked women in sexually suggestive poses. He again adds that doesn’t necessarily make it OK.
However, Melodie Robinson, a Sky broadcaster and former Black Fern, says that as a woman she has not encountered a great deal of open hostility on the basis of her gender when entering the male-dominated spaces that she does as part of her job. “I played rugby and have been working at Sky for 14 years, so New Zealand rugby players, coaches and managers are nothing but respectful to me,” she says. “It helps that I’m a bit older and used to play. However, at times I’ve had overseas rugby players just assume I know nothing about rugby because I’m a woman. They don’t know my background, so they definitely judge me on my sex. I also know that players get annoyed with the same old questions, but they are asked by both men and women.”
But, she says, sexism is still a problem. “I believe that athletes view a young female journalist differently than young male journalists, but that’s the case in any industry where it’s a case of unconscious or conscious sexism,” she says. “And what I mean by that is if she’s young and attractive, the comments will often be about her looks.”
Robinson adds that more diversity in terms of who works in sports media is helping to reduce open misogyny. “As a person in the media and in sports, in the past, there have been more males,” she explains. “So that means that the conversation is blokey. It’s statistics-laden when you talk about sports. You have to know your stuff to get respect. However, at Sky Sport where I work the office is 37 per cent women, and the conversation is generally respectful, varied, and not particularly blokey at all. If something out of line is said, usually there will be a woman who will pipe up and shut down the conversation. It’s great.”
Pledger agrees that more women in traditionally male spaces is leading to an increase in respect overall. More women in positions of authority over groups of males – like sports teams – could also help reduce misogyny, he adds. “Pretty much every ‘authority figure’ is male. Perhaps if there were a female staff member, coaches would be more inclined to shut down that conversation.”
If that’s not a compelling case for the reasons why we need more women in all facets of society, then it’s hard to know what is.