The Development of Women’s Boxing

The Development of Women’s Boxing

Submitted by Professor M.R. Graham MBChB; JCPTGP; PhD; FRSM; MPhysoc; BASEM; MICR; MCSFS; PCCMH; APIL Expert; FSB

Introduction and Literature Review

Monumental changes have occurred within women’s boxing in recent years which have had a significant impact on challenging society’s perception of women in combat sports. Most notably, the inclusion of women in the 2012 Olympic programme, 2014 Commonwealth Games, and the gold medal won by GB’s Nicola Adams in 2012 were such times when perceptions have been challenged (Mitchell, 2012; Woodward, 2014). However, no research publications have been produced on the effect of such events. This PhD will investigate these issues and the state of women’s boxing today in order to understand how the sport can develop in Scotland.

Adams’ win was a symbolic step forward for women in the boxing world and the message from many press outlets was a positive one, promoting women’s participation in the sport (Williams, 2012). Perhaps an effect of this can be seen by recent data which has shown that in the months after London 2012 female participation increased by 137% in Scotland compared to the 18% increase in the participation of males (Boxing Scotland, 2014). Glasgow 2014 also had a positive effect on participation for both men and women (Boxing Scotland, 2015). As is common after such events (Brown, Massey & Porter, 2004) the number of participants decreased and fell to levels just above how they were pre Glasgow 2014. However, the loss of members came from men and boys with a 12% decrease in membership, whilst women and girls increased in membership by 7% (Boxing Scotland 2014; Boxing Scotland 2015). The significance that women’s boxing participation is up in Scotland whilst men’s participation is down makes a case that conditions are improving for women in the boxing world. Despite these increases, the number of men still far outweighs the number of women involved in the sport with 94% of all registered boxers in Scotland being men and only 6% of members being women (Boxing Scotland, 2015). Though women in society do take part in sport less than men (SportScotland, 2016) the overwhelming male dominance in boxing highlights that there are gender related issues involved in the sport. 

Previous research (Halbert, 1997; Lafferty and Mckay, 2004; Paradis 2012) has shown that women in sport can face barriers to participation and often have negative experiences as a result of their gender including; verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment, lack of opportunity and lack of financial investment. Lafferty and McKay’s (2004) boxing research in Australia found that women were given less access to sparring opportunities and not taken seriously in the gym by coaches. Similar issues were also present in Paradis’ (2012) study in the USA and also showed significant levels of verbal abuse from male boxers. The negative psychological implications these issues can have on women (Hurst and Beesly, 2013) may also lead to a reduced retention rate of female boxers. However, no research has been conducted to investigate these issues in Scotland or in the UK, a gap this PhD research aims to fill.

In sports such as boxing, rugby and weightlifting, these issues arise because they do not fit in with the traditional cultural narrative of hegemonic femininity (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005). Under the concept of ‘hegemonic femininity’ women are expected to be passive, elegant, attractive, petite and show minimal aggression. There are often a restrictive set of values in conflict with the aforementioned sports which reward aggression and require a muscular stature. Hegemonic femininity is challenged when cultural ‘norms’ are seen to be ignored or opposed. Whilst Nicola Adams’ win at the 2012 Olympics had a positive effect on challenging hegemonic femininity she received a series of negative criticisms on her appearance and legitimacy as a boxer (Phillips, 2012). As Alfermann and Stambulova (2007) have stressed, the athletic career transition depends on a delicate balance of resources, overcoming barriers, and successfully utilising coping processes. The current ‘hostile environment’ of boxing (Fulton, 2011) could hinder progress for women in this field, and it is thus crucial that we look into subjective and collective experiences of women transitioning to elite level, and the sporting environment of boxing as a whole.  

Pilot Study and Preliminary Evidence

A successful pilot study was conducted by the researcher as part of an undergraduate dissertation which found barriers to participation and retention of female boxers in Scotland at a macro, meso and micro level. These barriers were underpinned by hegemonic femininity and reinforced by a lack of representation of women as boxers, coaches, referees and administrative staff. The pilot study also revealed that although Boxing Scotland have made progress towards improving women’s boxing in the way of coach education, the failure to select a female boxer for the 2014 Commonwealth Games far outweighed the positive steps made. 

Boxing Scotland has developed a strategic plan for 2015-2019 which sets out to improve participation for women. Part of the plan’s mission is to ‘make boxing accessible to all regardless of age, gender and ethnicity’. They have specifically addressed women’s participation as an issue which is a positive and have also identified women within 4 of their 6 primary goals set out in plan. One such goal regarding participation sets a target of increasing membership from 89 women boxers to 200 by the year 2019. Other goals such as achieving 10% of coaching staff to be women were included in the report. However, a failing of the strategic plan is that it does not address exactly how goals will be met, questioning the likelihood of success and the clear need for research in this area.

Aims and Objectives

The overarching aim of this research is to provide an up-to-date understanding on what influences and shapes the experiences of women in boxing, participation rates and retention rates. To achieve this aim, areas such as gym dynamics, sports policy, the media and societal views will be investigated. These findings will then be relayed to the National Governing Body (NGB), Boxing Scotland, to inform practice.


A qualitative research approach (Bryman, 2012) shaped by grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 2009) will be taken. This approach will allow women’s boxing in Scotland to be rigorously analysed, whilst permitting pre-existing and new themes to be explored as they emerge. The researcher will use an ethnographic process by becoming a participant-observer (Labaree, 2002) by training as a boxer and a boxing coach to gain the inside experiences required to fully understand the current situation in women’s boxing. The researcher is already a trained athletics coach with experience in this environment and thus moving into the field of boxing will be an appropriate transition. The ethnography will last approximately 18 months with the aim of analysing 3 separate boxing gyms, each for a 6-month period. Field notes will be used to document the researcher’s observations during and after training but also at coach education courses and workshops. Observations will be analysed by the use of coding and thematic analysis (Silverman, 2006). Interviews, focus groups and questionnaires will also be used to gather the thoughts and opinions of; female boxers, male boxers, coaches and the general public. These findings will support or contrast the researcher’s ethnographic observations and provide a range of perspectives, from which recommendations can be made for the development of the sport. This research method requires no additional financial support and the only materials required for the study are a Dictaphone and video camera which are available for hire from UWS.

Proposed Outcomes, Impacts and End Users

Understanding the factors that influence participation, retention and experiences of women in boxing allows strategies to be developed to improve these areas. Female boxers will be the immediate beneficiaries of this research should Boxing Scotland adopt the expected recommendations to improving experiences for women. The researcher already has connections to a number of female boxers in Scotland through the Pilot Study mentioned above and thus has a pre-existing relationship with Boxing Scotland and the sport development officers within this NGB, which is encouraging for the Impact potential for this research. 

Women in other combat sports such as MMA, which was the 2nd fastest growing sport in the USA in 2015, may also benefit from this research. By comparison to the development of boxing, MMA is in its infancy and therefore the knowledge gained and lessons learned from understanding the gender issues in boxing can ensure that women receive equality and have a positive experience in their sport. The findings of this research may also impact positively to reveal effective and non-effective strategies to overcome barriers in ‘power’ sports such as rugby and weightlifting which carry a negative stigma for female players. In particular, the social research aspects of this study—which will involve qualitative research with the public on their views of women in ‘power’ sports—will provide transferable data that can be used to inform the practice of NGBs in a wide range of women’s ‘power’ sports. 

Additionally, the findings of this research may help increase the momentum towards gender equality in society. This is because sport has the ability to change perceptions as demonstrated by Nicola Adams’ Olympic victory (Mitchell, 2012). Therefore, provided this research can help improve women’s boxing, increase participation rates and female boxing becomes normalised, women in all aspects of society can have the confidence to challenge gender related issues they face having seen one of the most male dominated environments dismantled.

Progress Monitoring and Target Outputs

There will be a number of publications produced as a result of this research, by the PhD candidate themselves and in collaboration with the supervisory team, as well as practical outputs for the sport, ensuring Impact. The researcher will aim to publish a peer-reviewed journal article within the first 12 months. This will consist of a systematic review of the evidence to date. The researcher will also aim to publish at least one other research article as data is collected.  Given the qualitative nature of data collection this thesis will progress more thematically than other science projects. There will be overlaps between ‘studies’ and ethnographic aspects of data collection that will last for an extended period (up to 18 months) and inform the study as a whole, as is the norm for a qualitative study (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009), rather than clear separate studies for each chapter. This means that chapter themes will emerge in response to the data that is collected, and ensures findings match the collected data and not the preconceptions and assumptions of the researcher (Glaser & Strauss, 2009).

April 2017 – Aim for a Systematic Review of evidence to date to be completed and submitted to suitable journal (Target – Journal of Sport and Social Issues). By this stage research materials will have been created for various interviews and focus groups and data collection will begin. Over the following 6 month period focus groups and interviews will take place with athletes, coaches, and members of the public unattached to boxing. Ethnographic aspects of the project will also be underway and will run until September 2018 over an 18 month period as outlined above.

April 2018 – Preliminary findings from the qualitative data collated and analysed with a view to publish as a journal article (Target – International Review for the Sociology of Sport). Aim for research paper presentation at the World Congress of Sociology of Sport, Summer 2018.

April 2019 – Findings relayed to Boxing Scotland and relevant stakeholders as recommendations. This will also take place throughout the study through interim reports in a hope to inform practice and the development of the sport as findings emerge. A workshop will be held and organised by the researcher and supervisory team with key women’s boxing stakeholders. Findings will be relayed through an oral presentation and Q&A, and as a Report of Recommendations to policy makers, strategists and practitioners in Boxing Scotland. This will make this project a key candidate for an Impact Case Study for the School of Science and Sport. Aim for publication of the practical findings and recommendations as a research article: (Target – International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing).

To conclude, the strengths of this proposal lie in a number of areas: 

  • The candidate, who has direct experience researching within this field and established contacts through the Pilot study, and is a First Class student known to the supervisor to be reliable, professional and a talented researcher.
  • The study area itself, which has Impact Case Study potential for the School of Science and Sport through the links and recommendations that will be made to Boxing Scotland, as well as links to the university’s Athena Swan goals through the gender equality topic area and supervisory team which involves two female early career academics.
  • External partnerships – with Abertay University and Boxing Scotland, and potential for impact on other power sports as outlined above.
  • The potential to build the University’s research profile and publishing record within the area of sports coaching, development and management through joint publications for staff members with the PhD candidate.


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