Can Sports Jargon Exclude Women in the Workplace?  

by Feb 23, 2021

Does sports jargon exclude women and alienate international teams?

Using sports jargon or idioms in the workplace can exclude women and be cross-culturally alienating in international teams


There has already been some controversial debate about whether the typically male-led, sports banter culture in the office can lead to women feeling excluded in the workplace. As Chartered Management Institute head Ann Francke described, many women can ‘feel left out’ when male colleagues discuss the latest football, cricket or basketball games. It’s also a ‘gateway to’ or ‘signal of’ more laddish, sexist, or even violent culture. But further to this, our sports-heavy culture means that sports jargon and sports-based idioms have pervaded deep into our daily language. Particularly in the workplace. These days it is common for us to hear sporting analogies at work; we can be blindsided, getting down to the wire or with the ball in our court. Not only can these terms be confusing and exclusionary for women who don’t feel included in the traditionally male sporting culture, these terms can also be cross-culturally alienating in international teams.

They can also exclude or disadvantage anyone who is not interested in the world of sports.  


sports jargon exclude women

Can sports jargon exclude women?


What kind of language are we talking about? 

So to put this to the test and discover how deep sports jargon really goes, and does sports jargon exclude women. 3Plus’s Dorothy Dalton reached out to her LinkedIn network for a professional opinion. We dug into the types of idioms and phrases that people commonly hear and use in the workplace without thinking and got some thought-provoking responses and comments.  


Hit below the belt

The common phrase referring to something that is excessively hurtful, inappropriate or insulting, actually originates from boxing. This comes from a boxer unfairly striking their opponent below the waist in an illegal move that targets the legs or crotch. Career coach, Shelley Piedmont, highlighted it’s particularly negative imagery. We agree that the gendered and violent picture it paints could be left out of the office, thanks.  

✔️ Blindsided

Being blindsided refers to not seeing something coming or not anticipating an event. This derives from American Football and hitting a player on his ‘blind-side’ or the other side to which they are looking. It highlights the need for cultural sensitivity around an international team or non-American or sports-loving audience.

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✔️ Having skin in the game

An interesting phrase, volunteered by Business Analysis Leader Christina Lovelock, as one to be bypassed is ‘having skin in the game’. Often used in business to mean having a significant stake in business or project, it derives from the derby races, the owners of the horses literally having skin the game, and therefore the most to lose. Perhaps needlessly physical and aggressive tone for a business meeting?

✔️ On the back 9

Resume writer Virginia Franco, highlighted this golfing phrase as a typical way to express being almost finished with a task in the workplace. It refers to the second 9 holes of an 18-hole golf course. Virginia admitted using the phrase while not even playing golf herself. It goes to highlight how deep-rooted these phrases are while showing the confusion they may cause. 

✔️ Beat around the bush

Business Analyst Martin Simmons reminded us of this common phrase used by many, meaning to stall or waste time. The origin of this one may surprise you, coming from hunting in medieval times where hired men would beat the areas around bushes to flush out game hiding in there.

✔️ Left Field 

LinkedIn specialist Petra Fisher highlighted the phrase ‘left field’ as one that she may use without thinking. It expresses something that surprises you, the phrase comes from the US sport baseball when the ball is thrown to home base or first plate from the area covered by the left field. Petra went further to mention that not only sports phrases, but all culturally specific language, can cause misunderstandings and is therefore best to be avoided in the workplace. 

✔️ Down to the wire

Down to the wire refers to a tense situation where the outcome is not known until very close to the end. It comes from the wire marking the end of a race in horse racing but is dropped regularly into business-speak. Not something on everyone’s radar.

✔️ Calling an audible 

Capacity building and KM Specialist Joe O’Connor admitted being confused by American-Football-specific phrase ‘calling an audible’ in a new job. Referring to the Quarterback making a last minute change to the play based on how he sees the defence lining up, highlights how many people will struggle to understand idioms like this.


An all-star in sports refers to a player of the highest calibre and is often translated to the workplace. It has even made its way to LinkedIn where you can upgrade to an all-star profile, but is this language universal and inclusive? 

What about idioms from other cultures? 

Ok, so we can see issues that arise from very culture-specific sporting language can exclude or confuse. But does the same apply to idioms in general from different countries? Every country has its own specific ways of saying things that will likely only serve to confuse non-native speakers. So, in an ever more global and international workplace, should we avoid using idioms altogether? Florence Ranson, Founder of REDComms in Brussels, who works with the majority of non-native English speakers, says she makes a point of not cracking jokes or using puns and idioms that people may not understand. Unfortunately not the case in all companies. Let’s explore some examples of idioms from different countries. 


sports jargon exclude women

✔️ To add your mustard (Deinen Senf dazugeben)

In Germany adding your mustard is the equivalent to adding your opinion or ‘2 cents’ in English. This phrase was volunteered to 3Plus by International Talent Recruiter, Stella Leaburn, who on hearing it for the first time in a network meeting was worried she should have brought mustard to the meeting.

✔️ Have other cats to whip (J’ai d’autres chats à fouetter)

This interesting French idiom means you have something urgent to do, but has the literal meaning ‘I have other cats to whip’. Along with the English equivalent of having other fish to fry, how can we expect non-native speakers to know if they are in an office or a pet shop?

✔️ Hang noodles on someone’s ears (Вешать лапшу на уши /veshat’ lapshu na ushi)

This Russian idiom meaning to fool someone may seem more like a surreal scene in a restaurant than office-appropriate banter for non-native Russian speakers.  

So, should sports and local idioms stay separate to work? 

The topic does spark some controversy. While some people view sports idioms as confusing or exclusionary, others claim that sports are just a part of culture. It can also be problematic in itself to suggest that women don’t like, or can’t join in with, sports language. Some women suggest  their interest in sport played by men helps them fit into male coded environments.  Others argue that international people enjoy learning new idioms and this is just a challenge they face working in a second language like any other. However while this may be true, what is undeniable is that most mainstream sports discussed in the workplace, usually refer to teams with almost exclusively male players.

Sports idioms are also often specific to sports played in one or a select few countries, and can delve into technical details that are not inclusive to all types of people. The analogies and idioms often bring in competitive, gendered or violent imagery and propagate a male-heavy environment. Also, if being interested in sports has nothing to do with the work you do, why should you be expected, or penalised for not understanding or engaging with it in the workplace? It is an environment where in every other aspect we are expected to be formal, professional and neutral.

We say why not just leave sports outside the office altogether?


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Hanna Greeman Contributor
Hanna is a languages and logistics specialist. She is currently living in Barcelona working as a Creative Copywriter.
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