Gender in School Athletics Research Paper Starter

Gender in School Athletics

(Research Starters)

Gender concerns entered into athletics during the 1970s through a combination of influences. The women's movement brought new attention to gender stereotypes and inequalities; the health and fitness movement encouraged girls and women to develop their physical strengths and abilities; and the passage of the Title IX of the Educational Amendments mandated that public schools provide equal resources to male and female athletic programs. Today, more women and girls than ever participate in athletics. However, as budget cuts diminish schools' abilities to fund athletic programs, experts fear that private organizations, which are not subject to Title IX mandates, may fill the void, possibly leading to a resurgence of inequality. Female athletes, coaches, and athletic administrators are encouraged advocate for women's and girls' sports within the wider culture, which may still harbor biases against women.

Keywords Cultural Ideology; Feminine Ideal; Gender Equity; Gender Ideology; Gender Role Stereotyping; Homophobia; Ideological Beliefs; Masculinity; Social Structure; Sport Participation; Sport Socialization; Title IX of the Educational Amendments in 1972


Athletic programs are regarded as important components of the American educational system. These programs are valued for a variety of reasons, including their capacities for developing character, providing opportunities for physical activity, and generating revenue and school pride. But beyond all these benefits, gender-related issues pervade athletics at all levels of participation, from elementary school sports to professional sports.

Gender Ideology

Gender inequities in athletic participation opportunities are rooted in the ideological beliefs and social structures of the dominant American culture. Ideological beliefs describe the system of ideas that characterize an individual or group, whereas a group's social structure is related to the "organization of opportunities and access to resources to take advantage of those opportunities" (Coakley, 2002, p. 253). Beliefs about women's and girl's athletic involvement are greatly informed by the dominant culture's beliefs about femininity. Until the early 1970s, females were encouraged to participate in graceful, "feminine" sports as opposed to those that required "masculine" traits such as strength, speed, and power. However, since the 1970s, countless women have demonstrated their strength, power, and speed by participating in sports like field hockey, lacrosse, and rugby (Coakley, 2002). These women have proved that they are fully able to participate in more physically demanding sports, and, accordingly, ideological beliefs about females and their involvement in athletics have changed.

The term "gender binary" describes the practice of classifying people according to their biological sex, a practice which, critics say, causes gender stereotypes (Coakley, 2002). By constraining men and women to masculine and feminine gender roles, the binary system does not allow space for people who feel or act in ways contrary to their assigned gender roles. Accordingly, these people, like women and girls who participate in "masculine" sports, are marginalized. Ideological beliefs about gender are thus perpetuated as these marginalized athletes receive inequitable opportunities and resources. Sport sociologist Coakley (2002) has noted that "gender equity cannot be achieved unless people challenge the binary gender classification system and begin to view those in the middle or gray area" (p. 266). In other words, a major cultural shift in ideological beliefs about gender is necessary to move closer to gender equity in athletics. Without an ideological shift, equity and fairness in athletics is not attainable.

Sport Socialization

Socialization is a "complex learning process that involves social development, cognitive processes and cultural beliefs, values, and practices" (Greendorfer, Lewko, & Rosengren, 2002, p. 153). Research suggests that socialization begins at an early age, and can impact whether or not a child will become involved in athletics or physical activity.

The socialization process is influenced by cultural ideology and child rearing practices. Families directly influence their children in a variety of ways, including, for example, the types of toys they give them or the style of their bedroom decor. These influences can reproduce cultural messages about gender, such as what activities are gender appropriate, and ideas about masculinity and femininity, and superiority and inferiority (Greendorfer, Lewko, & Rosengren, 2002). This process is related to gender role stereotyping, which is defined as "a process in which a child's biological sex frequently determines which activities s/he will and will not be exposed to as well as the way (or manner) in which s/he will experience those activities" (Greendorfer, Lewko, & Rosengren, 2002, p. 154). Research examining parents' influence on their children's motor skills development and participation in athletics and physical activity indicates that gender-based differentiations in parents' treatment of their infants affects the development of infants' motor skills. Also, as a result of socialization and cultural ideologies, there are gender differences in the sports in which boys and girls choose to participate. Most boys tend to participate in male sex-specific sports, whereas 20 percent of girls participate in male sports (Greendorfer, Lewko, & Rosengren, 2002).


School athletics participation opportunities for girls in have been increasing since the early 1970s, before which these opportunities were virtually nonexistent. Athletic opportunities for girls and women came in the forms of new teams and activities for females; however these opportunities were not always accompanied by sufficient funding or funding that was equal to boys' and men's athletic programs. This inequality was rectified in 1972 with the passage of Title IX of the Educational Amendments, which also led to an increase in female sports participation (Coakley, 2002). This legislation declared that "no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Title IX, as it is commonly known, required federally funded educational programs to follow certain mandates in order to create equal athletic opportunities for girls and women. The enforcement of Title IX was delayed five years, as the existing sport establishment was resistant to sharing resources with programs for females (Coakley, 2002). As evidenced in the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) 2011–12 participation survey results, Title IX has been a successful contributor to the creation of new athletic participation opportunities for women and girls. However, inequities still exist in the United States and at the international level (Coakley, 2002).

The women's rights movement of the later twentieth century has also been a factor in...

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