Science, with a capital S and superiority, is the guiding mantra behind much of health and fitness. However, Science is completed by humans, and humans are inherently biased. So, the pressures and rules of society influence the Scientists who create the body of literature, coloring both the questions asked and the interpretation of the findings in a “familiar way”.
Women’s fitness is a topic close to my heart, and a topic that I believe is negatively impacted by these biases. These biases, which have further supported the dismissal of women’s health and fitness and which, ultimately, don’t serve women. Evaluating the social structure around research will also provide insight into the application of this evidence to patients, specifically for women.
Let’s use an example to examine this further. A lot of conclusions in women’s sport research sound to me like...
“Women are more 4x more likely to have an ACL injury than their male counterparts”
“Women’s menstrual cycles are inherently dangerous for their physiology”
“Women need to protect themselves in sport and be careful during certain phases of the month.”
I am often aggravated reading women’s ACL research (aka I often want to throw my computer against the wall). Our society seems to be terrified of “overloading” women, obsessed with “protecting the fragile frame” and, most of the time, doesn’t recognize the social biases behind the results.
Among high-school athletes, women are less likely to have a supplemental strength training regimen, despite the evidence that strength training reduces injuries and improves performance. Unfortunately, this is rarely brought up as a possible indicator for women’s risk (more often, risk is blamed on female anatomy and biology). If we know the positive effects of strength training for women, but they are still less likely to be encouraged to engage in physical/strength training, is it not possible that some of these social barriers we are speaking about are contributing more to their risk of injury rather than solely their physiological makeup?
I'll keep it real here though...I recognize that there are physiological differences between men and women, that these differences are important, and that they do convey differences in injury risk for athletes which remain into adulthood.
During puberty, there are significant physiological differences that start to appear, but there are also significant social pressures that further these differences. Overall, women are less likely to be involved in sport starting around puberty and they are encouraged to engage in less active activities during childhood. Girls match boys in most physical activities up until puberty, but then fall behind after that. In college, young men are encouraged to be active more than their female counterparts.
The interesting part is that we have research to support that women and men have the capability to gain strength similarly when actually given the opportunity to do so.
Some of this comes from the unspoken pressure that indicates to women that strength training is not ‘feminine’ or that women are to fit within a certain box that defines athlete or fitness. These themes are pervasive in health, fitness, sports and beyond into science and the workforce. These messages that women take in are from sports media (which tend to focus more on what women look like than on their ability) diet culture, fashion, etc. These “resources” not only change how women see themselves, but they also shape how women are viewed by scientists, coaches, and practitioners alike...in comes that term “implicit bias.”
The bottom line is that the science literature we read is not un-biased.
Science, especially sports science, underutilizes women in studies and, furthermore, has sexist undertones. The dominant theme in women’s training and sports is that they are in need of additional care when, really, they may actually be in need of extra strength.
Obviously, these researchers have no ill will, but some of the predominant themes in research is trying to explain:
Why are women not as capable as men?
Why are women different from men?
These are honest questions for science. There are significant differences and some of them can be explained physiologically. But, often the social constructs are evaluated separately from physiological constructs. In reality, athletes are impacted by both constraints simultaneously, and as a coach or a clinician, the way we portray that information to clients or patients impacts their perceptions about themselves.
Telling a woman she is more prone to injury because of a physiological difference may have some scientific credence, but also invokes a stereotype threat that further discourages her from sport and fails to include all the variables. No one wants to get hurt. Instead, is there a way to support this athlete and actually prepare them for their sport and their training? Why would you ever indicate to an athlete they are weak?
Let’s try indicating to women that they are strong, capable, and powerful. They can play sports just as well as men (women actually hold the world record for some events). It is perfectly possible to recognize the difference between men’s and women’s training or capabilities, but when we tell them they are at risk without giving them the same training background, physical preparation and opportunities as their male counterparts, we risk forcing them to have to fight the ongoing stereotype threat even further.
I hope this short piece has imparted on you the importance of how you frame information, treatments, and capabilities with your clients/patients. Presenting the research is fine, but it is pivotal to present the research in a way that actually empowers the client/patient to be more successful in their own journey. This doesn’t just apply to women, but to all people we are trying to help.
I recognize I am giving you my side of the story and MY interpretation of research. Research that I use every day to help athletes reach their potential. So, I will also leave with a tidbit of information that colors my own interpretation. I am a strength coach and competitive strength athlete myself. How do you think my own biases are impacting the writing here? Further, now that you know my biases, how does that again color your interpretation of this blog? How will all of this color the next research paper you read?
I ask you this but recognize that the biggest challenge is actually finding the different biases. Can you now re-evaluate the research you read through different lenses? Through the lens of sexism, racism, mental health disparities, etc? How do those systems affect the research?
Research is not done in a vacuum. As the puppeteers of the show, Scientists have their own biases embedded in the research, and this doesn’t make the science bad. Instead, it provides another layer of information and that you, as the consumer, must unpack and evaluate as you interpret the research for yourself. And in turn, you must evaluate your own biases as you pass this information along to the general public.
As the Level Up Initiative community does, let’s do better once we know better.
Thank you for Reading!
*The phrases in quotations in this piece are not direct quotes; they are paraphrased interpretations of some of the conclusions of the research papers that the author used to inform this blog.
*If you wish to look into these resources, please do not hesitate to reach out to Claire or Steph to learn more.