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Seniors Create Club to Combat 'Underrepresentation' of Women in Harvard Athletics

Athletics Complex
Many of Harvard College's athletes practice in facilities across the Charles River.

Three senior varsity athletes founded the Women of Harvard Athletics club this fall, in response to what they said is an “underrepresentation” of women in athletics at Harvard. More than 100 women from 19 different varsity teams have joined the club, which aims to support athletes in part through workshops, panels, and wellness classes.

Madison Earle ’20, Olivia M. Ostrover ’20, and Mackenzie B. Barta ’20 — the group's co-founders — wrote in a statement to The Crimson that women’s athletics teams at Harvard do not receive the same media coverage, funding, or game attendance compared to their male counterparts.

“There continues to be a difference in energy in the way that people talk about and support men and women’s sports,” they wrote. “Even in cases where a woman’s program may be having more success than the men’s program, there tends to be more excitement and engagement with the men’s events.”

In addition to these structural challenges, they added that female athletes face a distinct cultural challenge based on their gender.

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“On the one hand, they want to be beautiful, elegant, and polite, but on the other, strong, physical, and competitive,” they wrote.

The club hopes to address the challenges of athletic commitment and academic rigor at Harvard, coupled with issues specific to women.

“We are balancing those two [athletic and academic] aspects,” they wrote. “On top of that, we also face challenges related to mental health, body image, nutrition, and sexual harassment that come with being a female athlete.”

“The most challenging aspects of being a female athlete at Harvard are the combination of all of the above, amounting to an immense weight to carry around everyday,” they added.

Kathy Delaney-Smith, head coach for Harvard’s women’s basketball team, said mental health is a challenge for female athletes in particular.

“I think mental health is a huge consideration,” she said. “I think the whole body image piece — from nutrition, which would involve things like eating disorders, and the whole sexual identity, sexual harassment — that’s all part of a parcel of things that have a huge impact on men and women, but in particular women.”

In 2017, The Crimson reported that coaches for the women’s track and cross country teams allegedly directed athletes to overtrain and miss meals in order to lose weight. In 2016, The Crimson reported that male varsity soccer players had secretly evaluated female freshmen recruits on their physical appearances — in sexually explicit terms — for years in a document circulated between the male players via email.

Athletics Director Robert L. Scalise wrote in a statement that fostering an inclusive environment for female athletes is among the department’s “highest priorities.”

The athletics department responded to some student-athlete concerns last year, creating the Crimson Mind and Body Program after results from end-of-year athlete surveys showed a need for additional mental health and overall wellness resources.

The Mind and Body Program — a collaborative project between Harvard University Health Services and the athletics department — entered its second full year this fall. The program received an anonymous donation over the summer to expand on the services provided in its inaugural year.

Before the start of WHA, the Harvard Radcliffe Foundation for Women’s Athletics — founded in 1981 — focused primarily on fundraising efforts for female varsity programs, according to chair Deborah Goldfine ’85.

“In the last 15 years, [HRFWA] really focused on the fundraising side, and helping these teams be financially solvent so that they can create the opportunities for our women athletes that they do,” she said.

Goldfine added that she hopes WHA, which is led by students, will help direct efforts towards more relevant issues for current team members.

“They are going to push for things that are important to the student athletes, not what we think is important,” she said.

The club seeks to serve “women of all fitness levels,” not just those on varsity sports teams, according to Earle, Ostrover, and Barta.

“Regardless of where women are in their fitness journey, we want to support them and provide the resources to enable them to have the best possible experience with athletics,” they wrote.

—Staff writer Devin B. Srivastava can be reached at devin.srivastava@thecrimson.com.

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