on recruiting women

By Zara Cadoux, March 28, 2016,  (originally posted for backhanded ultimate)

Let’s stop putting women down in order to recruit them.

Sitting in the Gender-Equity Open Forum at the US Open last July, I heard mixed and women’s players actively advocating for their division.  I appreciated the passion and commitment on display, and it was clear that players want more of a voice in policy.  However, the division-specific advocacy made me sad because it continues to hamper women from coming together across division for gender equity more broadly.  It was like watching a classic divide and conquer strategy -- keep us fighting amongst ourselves while the privilege of male athletes remains unchallenged and gender-equity remains a second-tier priority behind a monolithic notion of visibility.

I’m not sure what building broader gender-equity advocacy will look like, but I would like to find out and be part of that process.  What I do know is that a lot of the antagonism between divisions comes from recruiting.  It’s not a secret that fewer women play ultimate (there is a roughly 30:70 female to male split).  With club season around the corner, mixed and women’s teams will be competing over a scarce resource: female players.  

During my time playing club in the Baltimore/DC area, I’ve recruited and played for both mixed and women’s teams.  I’ve heard mixed players, both male and female, talk smack about the women’s game in order to recruit women onto their teams.  I’ve heard women’s players talk smack about the the mixed game to encourage participation.   Women are the losers in both scenarios.  

The focus on female players and the choices they make can be fierce.  I have heard female players actively decreeing that they are a ‘mixed player’ or a ‘women’s player.’  I’ve often heard women defending their division to each other.  On the flip side, it seems that generally we trust male players to make decisions about what is best for them, both competitively and socially.  In the broader world, female players constantly have to assert and reassert why they play sports, while male participation is a given-in.  This trend continues within our sport, where female players have to constantly defend their choices.

Here are some myths told about each division and the women who play in them.  In all scenarios women and their choices get put down based on the presence or absence of men.  New recruits are often impressionable and can unknowingly propagate this kind of hurtful misinformation. If you're team is perpetuation anything on the list below, it is time to create more positive messaging and recruiting culture. Challenge your team, whether you are part of the leadership or not, to sell the team experience without implicitly or explicitly putting women down.

Myth #1: That Other Division Isn’t As Competitive

During recruiting, both the women’s and the mixed divisions knock each other for being less competitive.  In reality, every division has more competitive teams and less competitive teams; it is misleading and wrong to say that an entire division is not competitive.  Whether a team will meet a player’s competitive goals depends on what role she wants to play on the team, what skills she is looking to develop, and how she buys in (or not) to the culture of the team.  All these factors are dependant on who is on the team already in terms of both personality and the roles they fill, what tournaments each team has access to, and how the culture does or does not support individual player growth.  

For some women, a team in the women’s division meets their competitive goals.  For others, a team in the mixed division meets their competitive goals.  Let’s all accept and celebrate that.

Myth #2: Mixed Teams Don’t Value Their Women

It’s a huge generalization to say an entire division doesn’t value female teammates or throw to them.  I’ve had many positive experiences playing mixed with men who value me as a player, and who recognize their female teammates as the assets they are.  We should trust that female players, through the tryout process, will be able to see the culture and gender-inclusivity of a team and judge accordingly.

Myth #3: Women’s Teams are Catty and Drama-filled

Really?  Ugh, I have so little to say about this except: why are we content to let this old, sexist stereotype about groups of women be propagated in our community?  Promoting mean girl stereotypes is an old school way to put women down.  Let’s stop actively perpetuating sexism, shall we?

Myth #4: Female Mixed Players Chose Boys Over Ultimate

The undertone coming from the women’s division is that women who play mixed don’t respect themselves/defer to men.  There are a lot of reasons to choose a division and a style of play ranging from what role you will play on the team to taking a relationship into account.  Women’s players don’t seem to hold this against lesbian couples who choose to play on the same team together.  Let’s be real: if you think you are truly an advocate for female players then tearing down other female athletes’ choices is not what you should be about.

Myth #5: False Fun Dichotomy

We often hear that women’s teams are serious and mixed teams are fun.  In my experience mixed teams use this to push women away from playing women’s.  The implication is that adding men makes things ‘fun,’ which connects to the catty/drama myth that there is no fun in the absence of men.  My experience on women’s teams says otherwise.  Women are perfectly capable of creating strong, healthy, competitive communities that are a ton of fun without involving men.

Next Steps

This list is by no means exhaustive.  I’d be curious to hear in the comments about other myths that are putting divisions and the women who play in them down in other parts of the country.

I encourage all programs, mixed and women’s, to sit down as a squad and discuss what message you want to send while recruiting.  I know that for my team, this has been crucial to the growth of our program.  We strive to keep our recruiting positive and we’ve gotten a great response in the last few years.  Getting the whole team on the same page with your message, and being ready to hold everyone accountable to that message, is an important component of a strong recruiting strategy.  

Many men have asked me how they can help the movement for gender-equity.  Putting down the women’s game during recruiting implies that the presence of men on the field makes the game more competitive, which devalues female athletes (probably not the message you want to send to female recruits about how you will value them as competitors).  Speaking up to interrupt these myths is a definite place that male voices make a difference.  If you are a man who plays mixed, we’re counting on you to halt the devaluing of women’s ultimate by speaking up when you hear others recruiting this way.

Female players, we need to stop drawing a line between those of us who choose to play women’s and those of us who choose to play mixed.  When we do we perpetuate in-fighting that makes coming together to fight for gender-equity more difficult.  We become so focused on discrediting each other’s choices and validating our own that we are unable to use a collective voice to organize for better experiences for all women.  If we are to be true advocates for female athletes, we have to support the individual choices players make.  Let’s respect each female player’s choice about where she fits best for the 2016 season and encourage all women to attend as many tryouts as they can to make informed decisions.

Zara Cadoux is a player adviser for the National Ultimate League and plays for Backhanded Ultimate. She co-heads our Department of Education with Chip Chang.