Gender Issues in Handball – Part 2: Input from invited commentators

[i]'Part 1'with background information about gender issues and some provocative examples from the world of handball can be found here[/i]:

First of all I want to thank both the contributors who kindly accepted my invitation (their names will be show up throughout the text below and also down at the bottom) and those of our readers who took the trouble to send me their ideas.

In the feedback, there was a clear demarcation between the issues related to the ‘active participants’, i.e., players, coaches and referees, and the problems involving gender issues in the management of our sport. I will first pull together the comments regarding the differences in the men’s and the women’s game.

It was stressed by several, for instance Ekke Hoffmann, that we have to accept the realities related to basic physical differences between men and women. The men can play a stronger and faster game, and there is no point in having the women compete along those dimensions. Some noted that for a large proportion of both men and women watching sports, speed and raw strength is a fascination (compare the interest in Formula 1 racing, boxing and wrestling), so this will create an edge when it comes to TV coverage, sponsors and spectator numbers.

However, as many pointed out, including Frantisek Taborsky on the basis of scientific studies, and on the basis of years of observations, there are aspects of the game where the women can gain an edge. There is no reason why they should not excel on the basis of technical skills and interesting tactics. They also have some typical advantages in terms of psychological aspects. All in all, women’s players and women’s teams can indeed offer spectacular handball, as long as they are not focusing on competing with the men in ways where they have a natural disadvantage.

It was also pointed out, for instance by Jesper Harborg from Denmark, that often what matters the most is not the nature of the game but simply the success team are having. When the Danish national team had a long period when they were dominating globally, they automatically created a strong interest, and there was no lack of spectator or media support.

Some were commenting that women players tend to have a general disadvantage from a young age, being discriminated in terms of training time, resources and attention. As Ekke was noting, a major longer-term improvement would depend on targeted efforts with higher-quality coaching for female players in the younger age groups.

It was noted that media treatment of women’s handball may continue to be discriminatory in many places, not the least because, while changes may be coming, the majority of the handball journalists are still men. The watch and compare handball from a man’s perspective, sometimes failing to recognize the special qualities of women’s handball. Or, as Jesper pointed out, also in countries with strong support for the women’s game, there may exist tendencies to sexism in the reporting, i.e., comments on the way the players look (or even lead their lives) instead of on their qualities as players.

The fact that an overwhelming proportion of the coaches at the elite level are men, also for the women’s teams, was not seen as surprising. A lot simply depends on traditions in most cultures, where it is perfectly normal for men to be the ‘bosses’ of women but not the other way around. There is no reason why this should not gradually be changing, as women who have been leaders on their teams as players and have an instinct for teaching would be excellent candidates for good coaching careers. Indeed, chances are that it would be a clear advantage for the development of women’s handball if female coaches were more to become much more common. But it is a trend that needs to be strongly and explicitly supported by federations, at both higher and lower levels, for instance through facilitated access to the necessary education.

The issues related to women referees are somewhat similar to those of women coaches. But it seems that decisions to go into refereeing often depend, for both men and women, on strong personal characteristics that make individuals ignore traditions and what is expected from them. In other words, being interested in a referee career requires a certain willingness to fight obstacles.

As Patricia Malik de Tchara noted, the women need to view their goals and interests more on an individual basis, not as members of the female gender, with an attitude that dedication and hard work will yield results for a determined individual. Tetiana Rakytina and Irina Tkachuk agreed, but noted that the drop-out rate for women starting refereeing careers may be higher due to pressures related to traditional family roles and other expectations.

But there was clear agreement that the acceptance for women referees at the elite level has been surprising good. Prejudices are noted in some parts of the world, but the teams tend to appreciate and focus on the actual performances. It has also helped that the IHF and continental federations have made a special effort to prioritize and integrate women at the top level; it has created a ‘demonstration effect’. But ‘artificial’ efforts are not a longer-term solution. A sufficient volume must be reached, from the bottom up, so that a natural progression to the higher levels can be had. Federations must simply sense their obligation to make serious efforts to increase the proportion of female referees, through recruitment, education, mentoring and strong opportunities for advancement.

[u]Leadership positions[/u]

When the discussion turned to the gender inequalities in positions of leadership in handball, especially at the IHF and continental/national levels, there was virtual unanimity and a much stronger tone. The current situation simply is not acceptable.

Carin Nilsson-Green talked about frequent embarrassment at IHF events in different parts of the world, where host countries showed a better gender balance than the very one-sided IHF picture. Desperate efforts to fit in some women delegates and referees at least at the women’s world championships have not helped much. And the nice PR photos of an IHF Council with one woman out of 17 are telling it the way it is. Dawn Allinger-Lewis commented that it is one of the saddest realities for her, after retirement as a player, to continue to see the massive male dominance in all areas of handball management internationally.

While the clear preference was for a focus on what needs and can be done, there were several comments about why the situation is the way it is. Ward Hrabi talked about reflections of societal norms and traditions as regards the filling of positions of leadership. As I myself noted in Part 1, one must keep in mind that in sports there is a gap of 1-2 generations between the active athletes and the managers. In other words, the pool of candidates for top positions reflects more what was available and typical among athletes quite some time ago. Not only was the gender balance not quite what is was today, but former star athletes were affected by traditions and confliction priorities in a way that one hopes will now gradually be in the past.

But there was a strong consensus that is just not good enough to wait for demographics and traditions to change, so that the balancing will begin to happen by itself. Strong and active measures are needed, not the least because the current, one-sided cadre of leaders is not likely to relinquish positions and power voluntarily at an accelerated pace just to make room for a better mix.

Despite the urgency, there was a clear trend among the comments received that change will not be achieved and embraced unless it supported by quality. Any measures that would lower standards for the sake of it are likely to backfire. This has a special relevance when it comes to the perceptions and effect of any kind of quota system.

Carin talked about the norms established by the IOC, and the fact that the IHF remains woefully short of that. But it seemed to be agreed that quotas should mainly be seen as an interim measure and only as a component of a broader package of measures. Short of an immediate switch to some kind of 50-50 requirement, which may not at all reflect the recruitment realities, there are clearly ways of insisting on a certain proportion that each board or committee or formal group must have. While this may be more difficult when individual positions are filled by individual constituencies, there are many positions that are filled on a group basis and leave room for considerable flexibility. Again, it is a ‘demonstration effect’ that is sought, and a first step towards a ‘critical mass’.

Beyond mandatory measures in terms of representation, there needs to be a strong emphasis on facilitation and encouragement, including a hand-picking of talents and then the education, nurturing and support needed to launch careers successfully. It needs to start at the ‘grassroots’ level, but accelerated progress for former elite athletes and other special candidates to move faster to the top must also be part of the package.

Just like in any work environment, it must be recognized that work processes, methods and schedules need to be adjusted and kept flexible so that the combination with other responsibilities (jobs, families) seems reasonable. This is not really just a gender issue, as it is needed for both genders to ensure a general rejuvenation. Work practices geared towards the ‘old boy network’ must be a thing of the past.

With that remark I draw the line for the moment on this important topic, and again thank the contributors to Part 2 who were:

Dawn ALLINGER-LEWIS, Ex-player on U.S. national team; Member of IHF Athlete’s committee; TV commentator
Jesper HARBORG, Editor, web site in Denmark
Ekke HOFFMANN, Coach of German women’s national team for many years; former Head of Sports at the IHF;
Ward HRABI, President, Canadian Team Handball Fed.; former IHF referee
Patricia MALIK de TCHARA, the first woman at the IHF elite referee level
Carin NILSSON GREEN, Former President of the IHF’s Commission for Promotion and Public relations, and the IHF Working Group for Women; veteran leader in Swedish Handball Federation
Tetiana RAKYTINI / Irina TKACHUK, IHF referees and former players, Ukraina
Frantisek TABORSKY, Member of EHF Exec Comm and Chair of Methods Commission; career as University Professor and Researcher in Sports; veteran coach