Current MAIS student and Laura Chen Memorial Fellow, Maguire Padley, thesis research on gender inequality in Chinese sports led her to start a women’s sports mentoring program at a local Nanjing elementary school. Read about her experience below.
When I first moved to China almost five years ago, I was looking for a way to get involved in sports and decided to take up soccer. To my surprise, it was impossible to find a women’s team to join. Consequently, I began to play for a men’s team. I was astonished to find that every time I stepped on the field, the men on the opposing team would be completely baffled, advising me that a woman should not be playing soccer.
While this experience was bewildering to me at first, it soon became a regular part of my life in China. For example, when lifting weights at the gym I would routinely be told that this kind of activity wasn’t for women. This was so contrary to my impression of women’s sports in China. For years, I had watched China’s brilliant female Olympians on television win medal after medal. I had witnessed, in person, the epic final game of the 1999 Women’s World Cup in Pasadena, California when China and the U.S. battled fiercely all the way to a penalty shootout.
I became so puzzled by this contradiction that I decided to research gender inequality in Chinese sports for my master’s thesis. I wanted to find out how Chinese women could have made such tremendous accomplishments at the elite level, whereas grassroots sports remain so underdeveloped for girls and women. Through my research, I have found that due to the highly competitive nature of the college entrance examination, parents and teachers often disapprove of students participating in sports. This is especially true for female students, who generally have higher expectations placed on them in regard to academic performance. Additionally, due to the pervasive influence of Confucian values, girls tend to be discouraged from doing activities that will build muscle or are seen as “too aggressive” for females.
With this in mind, I decided to start a program to reach out to young girls and their parents here in Nanjing. The program is composed of mentees—girls from a local elementary school— and mentors —international women from both the HNC and Nanjing community. Every week we meet with our group of mentees to introduce and play a new sport with them, while the parents are invited to observe or participate. The goal is to demonstrate the abundant benefits of sports to the mentees and parents by establishing an environment in which the girls not only can improve their fitness and health, but can increase confidence and develop skills in leadership, teamwork and communication. The program has also allowed me to conduct primary research for my thesis regarding what parents’ principal concerns are in allowing their daughters play sports, and how attitudes toward female participation in sports change with increased exposure to sports.
The program has not been without challenges. Recruiting parents who would allow their daughters to join the program was not easy. The bilingual environment of the program is what eventually persuaded most of them. Furthermore, we have met some difficulties in teaching the girls sports they are unfamiliar with. For example, explaining a game such as kickball to a group of girls who has never seen any sport even remotely like it is no simple task. Nonetheless, I think I speak for all of the mentors in saying that working with these girls has been an absolute delight. I feel that the most rewarding aspect is getting to witness how much enjoyment the girls experience through the activities we plan. One mother even sent me a message after our first week, informing me that her daughter had written a poem at school about how much she loved playing Frisbee with us.
Thus far, I believe the program has been a success. We are thrilled to be continuing next semester and in fact, are expecting our participation to double. We are optimistic that our efforts will have a long-term impact in shaping our participants’ and their parents’ attitudes towards female participation in sports.
Written by Maguire Padley, MAIS '17