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How sportswomen can boost performance by overcoming negative stereotypes


English footballers proved themselves to be one of the top international teams during the 2015 the Women’s World Cup in Canada. Their success is in stark contrast to the disastrous performance by the men’s team in Brazil the previous year.

Despite an enormous growth in women’s football in the last 10 years at both the amateur and professional level, it still has a long way to go before gaining the same acceptance and status as men’s football. Football is still ‘a man’s business’ according to Mario Basler, the former Germany winger turned manager, and there is still a lack of acceptance that women are playing ‘good’ football.

Women are underrepresented in senior positions in the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), with Karen Espelund as the sole woman on its Executive Board. Official referees and professional players also earn considerably less than their male counterparts.

Women in football, along with many other sports, face many negative stereotypes, including the belief by many that it is as a ‘man’s sport’ and that women are inferior players. Psychological research has shown that spreading and indulging these kinds of negative stereotypes about women’s abilities can not only influence women’s motivation to play football, but can also have actual consequences for their performance levels.

A recent study of 85 female footballers by Dr Ilka Gleibs, Assistant Professor in Social and Organisational Psychology at LSE, showed that if they focus on a positive aspect of their identity, other than being female, this can eliminate the negative effects of stereotyping, known by psychologists as “stereotype threat”.  

She explained: “Every person belongs to a variety of different groups and thus possesses multiple social identities, such as being a woman, a mother, a researcher, a psychologist, and a football player, which can result in high group-based self-esteem in some instances.”

In the study, participants were told that their main task would be to dribble through a course as quickly as possible as part of a process to select professional football players. They were also told that before and after the dribbling task they would be asked to fill out a questionnaire.

The first questionnaire contained the stereotype activation. All participants were asked to answer four items concerning their identification as women, such as 'I identify with women'; 'I like being a woman'; 'Being a woman is an important part of myself'; 'I feel addressed when statements about ‘women’ are made', on a seven-point scale ranging from 'I do not agree' (1) to 'I totally agree' (7) with the goal of making the negative identity (i.e. being a woman) salient.

Participants in the dual identity group were additionally asked to answer the same four items concerning their identity as a member of a football team. Thus, in addition to activating the negatively stereotyped identity as a woman, the positively stereotyped identity as a member of a football team was activated. To control for order effects, the presentation of the identification items in the dual identity condition was counterbalanced.

The study clearly demonstrated that the additional activation of a positive identity (being a football player) benefits performance compared to only activating a negatively stereotyped identity (being a women). Participants in the dual identity condition completed a task significantly faster than participants in the single identity condition.

Dr Gleibs commented: “These are important research findings from a practical perspective as activating multiple identities is easy to implement in real-life situations. Thus, in a female football match no matter which social identities have been activated before, the final sentence of the coach to motivate the team should be ‘You’re women and the best football players. Go and beat them!’”

Posted 25 June 2015