OTTAWA (CUP)—Hayley Wickenheiser, Waneek Horn-Miller and Venus Williams are star athletes with one important thing in common—they are challenging the traditional view of females being inferior to their male counterparts.

“Women excelling in sport challenges the most basic gender stereotype in our society […] The stereotype that they’re passive, weak, cooperative and not aggressive, that they’re not strong and they can’t take pain,” said Katherine Trevenen, professor of women’s studies at the University of Ottawa.

On Feb. 20-21, over 120 female high-school students attended the “Future on Women in Sports” symposium at the U of O.

“Through the two days, girls were given case studies for issues that women might face in sports,” said Loes Dewit, a fourth-year education student, who helped organize the symposium as part of her co-op placement.

An impressive roster of female coaches, professional athletes and sports officials attended the symposium to discuss such issues as the disproportionate amount of media coverage Anna Kournikova receives, Hayley Wickenheiser playing on a men’s hockey team, and how the Ladies Professional Golf Association hosted a workshop for female golfers, advising them on what clothes to wear and how much makeup to put on.

Another hot topic was eating disorders.

“Specifically, the other thing we have to think about is that girls and women have a higher percentage of eating disorders and problems with food, and one of the things that sport encourages is that being strong and healthy are good things,” said Trevenen.

The Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS), a not-for-profit organization funded by Sport Canada and Health Canada, holds women’s health central in its overall aim of achieving gender equity and encouraging more girls to participate in sport.

“On the sport side, we work with national sport organizations to set up gender equity policies,” said Karin Lofstrom, executive director of CAAWS. “On the health side, we support grassroots initiatives. We have a diabetes strategy called ‘On the Move’ to get non-active girls and women involved in physical activity.”

Many women must walk a fine line between promoting their sport through their merits as athletes and being marketed to the masses for their sex appeal. Photographers chase athletes such as Kournikova simply for being attractive. Horn-Miller, co-captain of the Canadian women’s water polo team, raised eyebrows when she posed nude on the cover of Time magazine before heading to the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

“I wanted to challenge the idea that if a woman is naked, it’s necessarily linked to sexuality […] Women are portrayed differently in the media. A picture or text will emphasize something feminine about them,” said Karin Henri, a U of O human kinetics student who studied the controversial photo as part of her master’s degree program in women’s studies.

According to Henri, Horn-Miller, a Mohawk native, posed nude not to stir controversy but to serve as a role model for her community, which is seriously under-represented in all competitive sports.

“My analysis of the picture was that there was nothing sexual,” said Henri. “It shows strength and determination and focus instead of a seductive kind of pose or a submissive one.”

The heated debate over women athletes posing nude shows society still has far to go in accepting and celebrating female athletes.

“First, those stereotypes are marketed to us in pop culture and advertising. Capitalist society is invested in that stereotype,” said Trevenen. “Second, there’s a power structure reflected in those stereotypes that reinforces and perpetuates them.”

By participating in traditionally testosterone-dominated sports like hockey, women are forcing society to redefine what it means to be a woman. Wickenheiser, the player who led Team Canada’s women’s hockey team to a gold medal victory at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, is one of those changing the rules.

“The women wear all this padding. They’re very tough. Focusing media attention on those women is a great thing,” said Trevenen. “It busts the idea that girls are too dainty to play hockey.”

Increasing participation of girls and women in sport, along with a growing number of positive role models, is slowly eroding gender stereotypes, to the benefit of both women and men.

“For every girl that wants to play hockey, there’s a boy that wants to do ballet,” said Trevenen.

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required