Examples of Gender Inequality in Sports
Did you know gender inequality exists in sports? Even though this could be shocking news to some people, it is evident that most sporting activities in the world depict well-rooted gender disparity. In essence, there are two genders, female and male. Naturally, men are muscular, strong, daring and aggressive as compared to women who are gentle, sensitive and sympathetic. These gender attributes, some of which are natural while others are sheer stereotyping, largely contribute to gender differences in the world of sports. Nonetheless, sports are largely seen as a pastime, created and meant for men in the world. In this essay, we shall discuss existing examples of gender inequality in sports.
Over the years, people hold the belief that succeeding in sports means being a successful man in life. On the other hand, women endure frustrations whenever their sport of choice does not match femininity. These differences cut across the board, with some sports being a preserve of men. In some cases, the inequalities arise from laws and restrictions imposed, barring women to participate or dictating their participation. A good example is tennis, which is acceptable for both men and women. Whilst this is the case, women are always restricted to playing three sets while men play up to five sets. However, this slowly changing as men sometimes play three sets during tournaments.
Following these gender differences, there have been arguments about the money paid Wimbledon owing to the fact that female players are poorly paid. Billie Jean King, a former tennis player holds a different opinion regarding the number of sets for each gender to play. According to Jean, the decision to have ladies play three sets only as compared to their male counterparts who play five stemmed from a case where a female tennis player. This isolated case informed the adoption of the law even though women are capable of playing same sets as men. The decision was also reached in haste because most of the boards that oversee sports are dominated by men as either officials and/or members.
Football, which is the word’s famous sport, has its equal measure of gender inequality. For example, in 1921, the Football Association banned football for women. This decree was to be in existence for about fifty years. This demonstrated inequity, as football officials viewed the game as men’s. Today, there are very few activities involving female football teams in the world. While every country in the world has a national football team, there are few countries, which have national women’s soccer teams. What about Soccer World Cup, which recently ended in Brazil that handed Germany the title after beating Argentina? Women’s soccer never receives such world attention, support and funding.
In 1986, when the world witnessed the first Olympics, there were no women participating in any of the events. However, they were allowed to play golf and tennis during the second tournament. It is important to note that even though women have been allowed to play over the years, they only compete against themselves. In schools and colleges, boys and girls are separated during sports, as the two genders are not allowed to mix. In athletics, this disparity equally exists. For instance, men and women are not allowed to start their marathon races at the same time.
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Editor’s Note: February 1, 2017 marks the 31stNational Girls & Women in Sports Day, an observance of the outstanding achievements of athletes, coaches, athletic directors, parents and lawmakers committed to women and girls’ sports.
Women’s sports, both professional and collegiate, have made enormous progress since Title IX (federal civil rights legislation designed to prohibit gender discrimination in educational institutions) was passed in 1972, but the gender gap underscoring large inequalities – and myths about women’s sports – still exist. The University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD)’s Tucker Center, is committed to conducting research and outreach initiatives to help bridge the gap between women and men’s sports.
The Coaching Gap
Title IX was a huge victory for women’s sports. In the decades since it passed, we’ve seen participation in women’s sports increase dramatically from the elementary to professional level. Unfortunately, it’s had the opposite effect in women’s coaching.
In the wake of Title IX, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of women in coaching and leadership positions in women’s athletics. For example, prior to 1972, 90% of all head coaches in women’s athletics at the college level were women; today, the number is about 43%.
Ironically, one of the most frequent criticisms of Title IX is that it has forced universities to eliminate non-revenue men’s athletic programs, yet it has also created huge boom in opportunities for male coaches in women’s athletics. This employment trend is the result of increased interest and funding in women’s sports because of Title IX. Prior to Title IX, most women’s sports were barely funded and run largely by volunteer coaches – usually a moonlighting female physical education teacher. As women’s collegiate athletics became professional (and lucrative), more male coaches entered the field.
Of course, this trend wouldn’t be as distressing if women’s coaches were afforded the same opportunities to coach men’s sports, but that’s not the case. Currently, only 2% of collegiate men’s head coaches are women, and they are generally not in high-profile team sports like football, hockey and basketball.
The Roots of Inequality in Coaching
My colleague at the Tucker Center, Dr. Nicole LaVoi, has worked with me to extensively research the coaching gap, and found that the root of the problem lies on an institutional level. Interviewing male and female athletic directors, we found a sharp contrast in their thinking about why the decline of women in coaching.
When asked about reasons for the decline in the number of female head coaches in women’s sports, female athletic directors tended to view the coaching gap as the result of structural and institutional factors. These included the “Old Boy’s Club” – men tending to hire from a pool of male coaching candidates they were familiar with – and a variety of conscious and unconscious gender biases.
Conversely, the male athletic directors said the primary reasons for the decline had to do with the so-called failures of individual women coaches, a lack of qualified female applicants and women’s greater time constraints than men due to family obligations. They held these perceptions despite having no empirical data to support them. However, given the fact that a vast majority of athletic directors in college sports are men, these perceptions are very influential when hiring and firing decisions are made.
Women’s Sports and the Media
This disparity between women and men in sports is even more stark in terms of media coverage. Many studies have been done comparing the coverage of women’s and men’s sports, identifying two trends that have remained consistent over the past 35 years.
- Underrepresentation of coverage. Even though 40% of all sports participants (and 43% of all scholarship athletes) are women, women’s sports still receive only 2% to 4% of all sports coverage. Sport media scholars like myself are not suggesting that coverage needs to be equal, but this glaring disparity reflects the fact that the media doesn’t just under-report women’s sports, it actively suppresses information about it.
- Feminization and sexualization. Within the small amount of coverage that women’s athletics do receive, we find that female athletes are more likely to be portrayed off the court, out of uniform and in highly sexualized poses where the emphasis is on their femininity and their physical attractiveness rather than their athletic competence.
For years, male sports writers and editors have told me that the reason they don’t cover women’s sports is because “nobody is interested.” I eventually came to realize it was they who weren’t interested, and that there is a large and untapped audience for women’s sports.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you are a person who is interested in women’s sports and read a newspaper or sports website, you never see any coverage of women’s sports. Eventually, you stop going to that site or reading the sports section. Then, when the paper or website does marketing analysis, they find out that there doesn’t appear to be great interest in reading about their coverage of women’s sports. But it’s not because “nobody is interested”; it’s because there is nothing there. This creates a vicious cycle. Thankfully, the advent of new media and social media have opened opportunities for independent bloggers and websites like espnW, which focus exclusively on women’s sports.
Working Towards Progress in Women’s Sports
People often ask me, “Are things getting better in women’s sports?” I believe the answer to that question depends on your baseline of comparison. If you compare women’s sports to men’s sports, you’ll find that severe inequalities still exist on every level. However, if we look at where women’s sports are now compared to where they were before Title IX, we see a dramatic improvement.
Despite the ongoing disparity in media coverage of women’s and men’s athletics, I do see some signs of encouragement. In a recent Guardian article, I was interviewed about the popularity – and major media coverage – of female mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, particularly Ronda Rousey. It’s remarkable to me that the sports in which women seem to be getting equivalent coverage and respect is one that is the antithesis of our traditional expectations about femininity, women’s physical capacity and behavior. More importantly, instead of the expected portrayal of women’s MMA as a “catfight,” fighters like Ronda Rousey have been taken very seriously as a professional athlete.
Locally, I’ve been impressed by the media’s coverage of the Minnesota Lynx and the team’s multiple championships and playoff runs in recent years. More importantly, they cover the Lynx in the same way they cover men’s sports, emphasizing the players’ on-court competence, strategy, team rivalries and the great coaching of Cheryl Reeve.
As for the significant challenges that still exist, the Tucker Center will continue its mission of researching women’s sports and creating opportunity for female athletes and coaches. On April 21, we’ll be hosting the 4th Annual Women Coaches Symposium, which provides programming for educational and professional development, and valuable community building and networking opportunities, for women in coaching. We’ll also be publishing our third 10-year update of the Developing Physically Active Girls research report, a multidisciplinary study of how sports and physical activity impacts adolescent females from a sports and social science perspective.
While I’m proud of the work we’ve done at the Tucker Center since its founding in 1993 and encouraged by the progress women’s sports have made, our mission is far from done. By providing leading research, best practices and professional outreach for women athletes and coaches, CEHD and the Tucker Center will continue to push for real change – and true equality – in women’s sports.