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Zhang: The boys’ club

The Daily’s Cybele Zhang reflects on gender disparity in sports journalism

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Sitting in the Rose Bowl’s press box during the Stanford-UCLA football game on Saturday, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat out of place. One of the first things I noticed as I took my seat pre-game was the fact that I was the only woman in the room. 

And a few hours later in the virtual press conference, I was again the only woman. It’s certainly not the first or only time I have found myself in this situation. 

I told my story postgame to a friend, also a female college sports reporter, and her response: “you’re a badass.”

I guess there’s a certain solidarity we women gain out of these experiences of isolation. After all, over 90% of professional sports journalists are male. She too knew the feeling of looking around only to find yourself alone. 

Even without my friend’s encouragement, I knew that I belonged in that box and was just as qualified as my male colleagues, but as a woman — especially as a multi-racial, Asian American — I can’t help but be exceedingly aware of my own difference. 

This year more than ever, women have challenged gender stereotypes on the football field. Vanderbilt’s Sarah Fuller, already a SEC Champion soccer goalie, made headlines this season as she became the first woman to play a snap in a Power Five game and later to score in a Power Five game. And in September, for the first time ever, two female referees were on the field simultaneously in the NFL. 

But there is still so much progress to be made. 

While football is an inherently gendered sport — labelled explicitly as “men’s” on GoStanford — the occupations of referee and sports journalist, in theory, are gender neutral. But I would bet that nine times out of 10, either profession brings to mind a male image.

I went to an all-girls school for seven years before arriving at Stanford — the school’s self proclaimed mission: “empowering the next generation of female leaders.” And for me, I found my voice most clearly in the newsroom covering sports. 

For those seven years, “girls” was the default. If someone mentioned soccer or basketball or any other sport, we assumed the girls game. It was empowering to cover sporting events where everyone on the field was female, the few press in attendance were female, most coaches were female, etc. And in the classroom my peers and I were told daily that our voices were important and valued — but most young girls don’t have the opportunity to be in such an environment. 

I didn’t realize The Daily’s own influence until I received an email earlier this year from a high schooler. One of her questions — Are there a lot of other female sports journalists? 

My short answer: not enough, YET.

I take pride in the fact that our sports section staff is one-third female, that we prioritize covering female sports and that we write about female-centered issues. Writing for The Daily has made me realize not only the challenges that routinely confront female journalists, but also my own ability and obligation to change things — even if it’s only on a small scale.

When I joined The Daily in 2018, only one of the leaders in the sports sections (desk or managing editor) was female. In retrospect, Mikaela was one of the reasons I stuck with it. I met her at a meet-and-greet at the start of the year at the fire pit near Lake Lag, a fairly mundane activity that Mikaela probably doesn’t remember, but she took the time to talk to me, despite not knowing each other prior. I saw someone that looked like me, however abstractly, in sports journalism — in turn showing me that I could write, too. 

I realize now that up until that moment, I was also asking, “are there a lot of other female sports journalists?” While Mikaela’s presence was far from “a lot,” at least there was one other. At least I wasn’t alone.

By the end of my freshman year, I had been promoted to co-sports editor and applied to continue in the position for my sophomore fall. When I got the email that a male writer was given the job over me, I again asked, “are there a lot of other female sports journalists?” 

The reasoning behind The Daily’s decision: “he has more experience.” We had joined at the same time.

Quite honestly, I felt ignored and undervalued — experiences all too common for women in collegiate sports journalism. The only people who seemed to understand my frustration were the few other female sports writers on the staff. Naturally, I couldn’t help but wonder if gender played a role, subconsciously or not. 

I say this not to criticize former Daily leadership but to call attention to the fact that sports journalism can far too often feel hostile as a woman. I doubt decisions like this one were intentionally malicious but instead are products of fallacies perpetuated in modern American society that women are unsuited for leadership, especially positions of power in the sports world. 

So on Saturday in Pasadena I again found myself asking, “are there a lot of other female sports journalists?” 

While changes toward increased equality on the football field are certainly slow and incremental, it’s even slower in the press box. But each sports reporter, each story, each question in a press conference proves how capable and integral female sports journalists are. Representation matters. 

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Cybele Zhang '22 is a Senior Staff Writer majoring in English Literature with a minor in German Studies. The Los Angeles-native previously served as Sports Editor (Vol. 255, 257 and 258). Her recent work focuses on women in sports and the intended cut of men's volleyball. Contact her at czhang 'at' stanforddaily.com.