Dr Chloe Maclean
- Written by Luke Jennings
Chloe has investigated how gender impacts the learning of Karate in men and women. There are implications not only for Karate, but also for sport as an entity as we ensure every person is treated equally and feels comfortable in their sport.
Sport has the ability to unite people from all over the world, no matter where they come from or what their ability is. As people, we are able to spectate, to compete, to train, to coach, to referee. Sport provides us with endless opportunities to work with others and forge lifelong friendships.
Dr Chloe Maclean knows just how powerful sport can be. Following a highly successful Karate career which included becoming a double Commonwealth Karate champion and 9-time British Karate champion, she has now become a lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of Scotland.
Her experiences in Karate have directly influenced her research interests, and there is something unusual about the sport that produces interesting questions for the broader world of sport and gender.
“Karate is a sport where you often train mixed sex, which is quite unusual. Most sports tend to separate men and women.
“And if it's a team sport, men and women are usually on separate teams, and so they train separate from one another. The same occurs in a lot of individual sports as well.
Chloe understands how gender constructions work, and how they have come to be what they are. These constructions can have real impact on those in sport and can even affect the way different genders interact.
“Through studying sociology I’ve learned about gender and different ideas about what it is to be a man what it is to be a woman.”
“Fighting and strength are things that are commonly associated with men and less so with women. For a woman to be seen as the best fighter in a club is really, really interesting.”
Diving even deeper, it became apparent to Chloe that despite males developing really close friendships with women in Karate, outside of the sport most of their close friendship were with other males. It was a similar story for women too. This posed interesting questions for how those from different genders interact in Karate, and also in broader society.
Exploring gender embodiments was key to Chloe’s research. In her experience, female embodiments are centred around looking visually appealing, being quite quiet and polite while prioritising others.
Typical masculine embodiments on the other hand are often about looking strong and tough, with reluctance to show emotions, “unless, of course, those emotions are anger”, Chloe says.
“The women would not want to do what's called a Kiai, which is a shout. That's the idea of all this aggression, going into this one technique. Men would become more comfortable with doing a Kiai much quicker than women”, Chloe continues.
“The same can be said about how men and women took up space within a Dojo (Karate hall). Often, we found that women that started Karate as adults were much more likely to try and hide and make room for other people who were moving around them.
“We didn't see this happen with men that started karate as adults, in fact they would sometimes do the opposite, they would actually take up too much space.” This could often get them into trouble with more senior Karateka.
It wasn’t quite as straightforward as this though. It appeared that the type of training environment someone participated in affected their behaviour too. This has broader implications for mixed-sex sport.
“Those women that started in the mixed-sex classes in were more likely to Kiai (short shout) loudly and were more likely to take up space [behaviours typically associated with males in karate].
“These women were more likely to be more confident in the Karate setting and be more confident training with men.”
It is difficult to say for certain that this theme would be carried through into other sports. It is possible to apply it to other sports though and assess if behaviours may change depending on the genders in a group.
The gender embodiments went beyond what happened in a Karate session; it directly impacted how Karate was advertised.
“The advertising for women only martial arts classes is really interesting, because it's all about weight loss...they are presented as a sort of a fitness class, rather than to learn the martial art.
Chloe wanted to look more at how mixed- and single-sex Karate classes affected the training environment in the sessions.
“Some of these ideas about masculinity, femininity, and the relationship that we should have between the two can be challenged a bit more.
“Looking at the women-only class, they saw themselves as not being as good at Karate as men.
“This was different to those in the mixed-sex class. They would see it as a black belt would be better than somebody that was a lower grade, viewing things more on a karate belt level as opposed to sex or gender.”
The grading system in martial arts is unique and there aren’t many other sports that grade one’s ability in this way. This in itself creates a hierarchy.
“It's not uncommon to have women at the top because they're the black belts. There's a strict hierarchy of ability which starts to undermine the hierarchy of gender.
“That said, there was some interesting gender patterns. I would often notice that women would put themselves at the lowest end of their belt colour.”
It appeared that despite knowing that they were of an equal and sometimes better ability, there was a tendency for women to feel as though they still weren’t as ‘good’ at Karate as their male counterparts.
Chloe’s research has already begun to inform practice in Scottish Karate. A booklet has been produced, using Chloe’s research to inform coaches of how best to coach women and girls in Karate.
With most coaches in Karate being men, there can be a gap in knowledge and experience in coaching females. It remains important for coaches across sport to be aware of the differences gender can create.
“There's some information around things such as weight cutting, for example which is terrible for both genders.
“Cutting weight has an impact on your hormonal cycle, which can then also impact your bone strength as well. So it's a very dangerous practice to do and women are much more likely to get osteoporosis (weakness of the bones) and fertility issues.”
Chloe highlights how eating disorders can be so prevalent in all sports where you have to ‘make weight’. This can have a profound, negative long-term impact on an individual, one which they may never fully recover from.
Karate also acts as a vehicle to challenge some typical assumptions about masculinity and femininity as well.
“The elegance that's required in Karate isn't something that you would conventionally associate with men, it does challenge some of the ways in which men are seen to use their body”, Chloe says.
“Karate values these aesthetic, elegant, soft uses of the body, also in karate, and there's a lot of stuff about, you know, simple literal movements that manipulate an opponent's momentum.
“There is a real prestige when being able to perform this elegance, and aesthetically beautiful practice, which again, I think is something quite interesting in terms of deconstructing certain ideas about masculinity as well.”
With a drive to ensure sport is inclusive and welcoming, research is now showing how we can support all genders appropriately. Now, we are seeing a normalisation of conversations around menstrual cycles, hormones and feminine gender embodiments as well as continuing to debunk some of the assumptions around what it is to be ‘masculine’. There is, however, still some way to go.
Sport can make so many of us happy. It can also give us confidence to thrive outside of sport too.
“Because Karate forces you to perform in front of the rest of the class, it forces you to stand out and be heard, all these little practices can build up comfort for us which could help in the outside world.
“It can also help in personal relationships. By building confidence through Karate, this helps build confidence to speak to their partner about things that individuals weren't happy with.”
Sport has the ability to unite us to achieve great things in broader society.
“There is more room in sport and in physical activity to be having mixed-sex engagements. This isn’t necessarily in a competitive sense, but I think types of mixed-sex training can be really beneficial,” Chloe says.
“This was a key finding; gender equality and getting rid of gender stereotypes that are harmful for women but are also harmful for men can only happen if women and men renegotiate the relationships between each other.
For that to happen, women and men have to be in the same places and sport has a really good opportunity to do that. In sport, we can develop the strongest friendships that you have. Sport can be a great place to deconstruct these perceived differences between women and men”.
Last updated December 2020.