At this point in our preseason meeting, the team was on the topic of professionalism. We were discussing our responsibilities and what was expected of us as student-athletes. As the conversation was winding down, our coach mentioned a comment he received from a woman at an airport when the team was on travel a few years prior. Apparently she was disgruntled with the way the women on the team were sitting, and approached my coach to tell him that his team was being “unladylike.” Our coach then used that as a segue to remind us to be more aware of being “ladylike” during team events. There are a few things worth mentioning in this scenario. Obviously, the woman’s comment is one. The coach’s reminder is another. Both the comment and reminder are, unfortunately, informative about how gender works.

Gender is not biological. Gender is socially constructed. In “Night to his Day”: The Social Construction of Gender, Judith Lorber explains that, while sex just is, gender is taught. Female and male are physiological attributes, but people have to learn to be women and men [1]. What exactly does that mean?

Consider the airport scene mentioned earlier. The woman used “unladylike” to describe how my former teammates were sitting. A female obviously has no physiological tendency to sit a certain way, so how can being a “lady” have anything to do with being female? How can one know what is and isn’t considered “ladylike” until someone tells them? Gender is taught, and gender structures determine what to teach.

Gender structures identify what is supposedly characteristic of a certain sex. Consider the terms “girly girl” and “tomboy.” There is a specific gender description for a female,  so we add “girly” to identify someone who really fits that description. Likewise, a female who has qualities that fit the description of a male is not identified as a girl. Instead, the descriptor “tomboy” is needed to show that she doesn’t fit the gender norm. She needs to be put in a separate category, so as to not disrupt the rigid gender structures already in place.

The woman at the airport, having mastered this gender structure, was seemingly uncomfortable that the women on the team were not acting how their sex was “supposed to act.” It’s important to note that “ladylike” is almost exclusively used to describe actions (rather than people themselves), highlighting Betsy Lucal’s point that gender is something one “does” — it’s not who one is [2].

In his reminder to be “ladylike,” our coach seemed to have gotten the word confused with “professional.” Barbara Risman explained how gender is deeply embedded as a basis for stratification, as “men and women face different cultural expectations even when they fill identical structural positions” [3]. While both teams are expected to be professional, I doubt the men’s soccer team is expected to be “ladylike” as well.

[1] Lorber, Judith. “Night to his Day”: The Social Construction of Gender. Yale University Press, 1994.

[2] Lucal, Betsy. What It Means to Be Gendered Me: Life on the Boundaries of a Dichotomous Gender System. Sage Publications, 1999.

[3] Risman, Barbara. Gender as a Social Structure: Theory Wrestling with Activism. Sage Publications, 2004.