A recent article (well, 2008, but it only just now came across my radar) in the journal Sociology of Education examines team nicknames in college and university athletics and suggests that schools that use sexist nomenclature to distinguish their women’s teams are also likely to offer disproportionately fewer athletic opportunities to women.
Author Cynthia Fabrizio Pelak focused on colleges and universities in 9 southern states, and found that almost 70% of them employed what she coded as a sexist naming practice. Most of these consisted of the “Lady” prefix, which Pelak explains, is sexist because it connotes “propriety and correct behavior” and “‘imparts a tone of frivolity and lightness to the strivings and accomplishments of women.'” In sum, nearly 60% of the 249-school sample used “Lady” to identify it’s women’s teams (Pelak focused on basketball), while another ~10% used other naming practices Pelak also coded as sexist (e.g., using a male nickname as a false generic — as in “Bulls” and “Rams” — or using a feminine suffix — as in “Eaglette” or “Tigerette”). She then determined that schools with sexist naming practices were more likely to have offer disproportionately fewer athletic opportunities to female athletes. This finding demonstrates how “sexist language practices reflect and reconstruct unequal power relations between men and women.” While not being directly causative of discrimination against female athletes, sexist naming “contributes to an institutional gender-equity climate that constructs women students as second-class athletes and treats men students as the rightful recipients of greater opportunities and resources in athletics.”
Another component of Pelak’s study was to identify characteristics of a school that are most predictive of whether they would employ sexist naming practices. The most predictive characteristic she found was whether the school was a historically black college or university (HBCU). The odds that an HBCU used sexist naming practices were 16.5 times that of a non-HBCU using a sexist name. Pelak proposes that the prevalence of “Lady” teams among HBCUs can be explained as an effort to “promote an image of black women as respectable, virtuous and sexually honorable” in resistance to negative stereotypes about black femininity. It is possible then, she suggests, that “marking black women athletes as ladies may be understood not as sexist, but rather, as part of a racial uplift project for African American women.”
Citation: Cythia Fabrizio Pelak, The Relationship Between Sexist Naming Practices and Athletic Opportunities at Colleges and Universities in the Southern United States, 81 Sociology of Education 189 (2008).