3 March 2005

The world of women's boxing is as tough as it is portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Million Dollar Baby, a University of Queensland sociologist has discovered.

Million Dollar Baby tells the story of how a trainer reluctantly helps a struggling young woman to reach her dream of a world title bout.

UQ sociology student Yvonne Lafferty has been studying gender in boxing for her honours and PhD degrees since 2000, when women's boxing was legalised in Queensland.

She says amateur women boxers in Brisbane struggle to find a gym to accept them, let alone to coach or train them properly.

Women were welcome in some gyms but not as serious sparring partners because it was considered that men were there to box and women only for fitness.

Ms Lafferty's honours thesis titled Suffragettes in satin shorts? Gender and competitive boxing has been published in the American journal Qualitative Sociology.

For research, Ms Lafferty visited gyms, watched fights, interviewed women boxers, trainers and coaches, studied the posters on the gym walls, saw how women boxers were trained and what space and gear they used.

She took her mother and husband to gyms and fights and had several sparring sessions herself.

Ms Lafferty wasn't even allowed in to the first boxing gym she visited.

The trainer told her "he didn't train girls" and even though his boxers would welcome women in the gym, it was not suitable because "young fellas were often walking out of showers".

Much of Ms Lafferty's research was based around one Brisbane gym and Susan, a champion boxer.

Ms Lafferty found women were not taken seriously in the ring and they had fewer resources and opportunities to become good boxers.

Susan didn't train with the men and only received regular training at night after the men, when she won a title.

Before her win, she received less training time than a 14-year-old boy would do.

Ms Lafferty said women were highly sexualised at fights and in gyms having been surveyed in a sexually suggestive manner herself.

The 25-year-old from Toowong, said she witnessed the inequality firsthand while shadowboxing.

Her trainer spent a few minutes with her, then devoted an hour to helping her husband, who had simply tagged along.

"The trainer stood me in front of a mirror, showed me how to throw a basic punch, patted me on the head, said: 'Now you're a boxer,' laughted and walked away, thus ending my training."

For her PhD thesis, Ms Lafferty is now focusing on the emotional lives of mothers, girlfriends and women around male boxers and how they cope seeing their men being punched.

Already, she has found that it seems to be more painful for women to watch their sons fight than their partner.

She said some women didn't watch and one mother she spoke to hid in the toilet every time her son fought.

She chose to research female boxers because she wanted a mix of gender and sport and women's boxing was the most extreme example she could think of.

Media: Miguel Holland at UQ Communications (phone: 07 3365 2619, email: m.holland@uq.edu.au)