• Female athletes are gradually rejecting outdated uniform regulations, which have a history of prioritising feminine aesthetics over comfort.
  • The Norwegian women's handball team were fined for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms.
  • German gymnasts decided to take a stand against their sexualisation, donning full-body suits at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships.
  • Protests pave the way for female athletes to have more control over how their bodies are presented while competing.

Women’s dress codes in sport are determined by “traditions” that are both outdated and gendered. Their outfits have long tried to reconcile notions of “femininity” with those of “athleticism”, but this process has turned women into objects to be admired rather than being valued for their sporting skills.

However, there is recent rebellion in the ranks. Slowly, female athletes are pushing back on outdated uniform regulations and demanding that athleticism be prioritised over aesthetics.

A long history of discomfort

Where now the emphasis seems to be on revealing women’s bodies, the opposite was once the case. In the 19th century, when upper-middle-class women were eventually permitted to engage in games such as lawn tennis, their attire was suitably “feminine”, modest and designed to attract a potential husband rather than enhance their athleticism. Without doubt, their corsets and full-length dresses would have severely restricted their capacity to lunge and leap across the court in the way that today’s female tennis players do.

By the turn of the 20th century, physical education began to contribute to the reform of female clothing for physical activities. The gymslip and tunic released the body from restraining garments such as corsets and bodices.

While this might seem progressive, the barrel shape of the new uniform carefully concealed young women’s bodies. Any signs of developing sexuality were effectively camouflaged, preserving their modesty for future maternal roles in society.

Women still battling conventions

Sportswomen of today are still navigating dress code conventions, but they are beginning to openly oppose them. Just this month, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined for “improper clothing” during the European Championships in Bulgaria. This was because they were playing in shorts, as opposed to the required skimpy bikini bottoms, which should be “a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” and have a maximum side width of 10cm, according to the 2014 International Handball Federation regulations.

The men’s beach handball teams have always been permitted to wear shorts. After unsuccessfully petitioning to replace the bikini bottoms with shorts, the Norwegian women’s team took matters into their own hands when they reached the bronze medal game against Spain. Despite being threatened with a fine or disqualification by the European Handball Federation, they opted to make a statement and wear thigh-length elastic shorts.

This resulted in a team fine of 1,500 euros (A$2,393). The Norwegian federation has agreed to pay the fine on behalf of the players in a show of support.

There were similar dress code protests by female athletes at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Switzerland this year. German gymnasts decided to take a stand against their sexualisation, donning full-body suits. It all began with Sarah Voss’s performance, which was promptly followed by two of her teammates.

The decision to cover their entire body was a premeditated one. It received full support from the German federation (DTB), which advised that female athletes should always feel comfortable in their apparel.

The full-body suit, although rarely seen in women’s competitive gymnastics (unless there are religious reasons for wearing it), actually complies with the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) rules. Competitors are allowed to wear a “unitard (one-piece leotard with full-length legs – hip to ankle)”, as long as it is “of elegant design”.

Changing the focus to sporting prowess

Both the handball and gymnastics examples highlight how women, as insiders within the institution of sport, are beginning to challenge how their bodies are presented and policed by sport federations.

This paves the way for more sportswomen to oppose dress codes that are based on archaic ideas of what women should look like, often through the eyes of men.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Although women’s sporting performances have been historically hampered and sexualised, sportswomen are finally calling the shots in terms of how their bodies are regulated through what they wear.

Perhaps now we can focus on their athleticism and contribution to sport.