The Race to Gender Equality in Sports

Although women are increasingly becoming involved in sports, there is still a discrepancy between the way society treats male and female athletes. There is a long history of privileging men in athletic competitions. For example, although the Olympic games have been around since 776 B.C., women were not permitted to compete until the 1900 games in Paris (Frantz, 2016). At that time, women made up only 2% of total athletes. This ratio has increased over time with women comprising of 44% of the total athletes competing at the 2012 London games. However, even this number can be improved. And that’s just the Olympics.

The gender divide in sports begins at an early age and widens over time. After the age of six, there is a lasting gender gap in athletics, with more males involved in sports than women (Tinsley, 2015). There are many factors that contribute to this divide. Boys are often more encouraged to play sports than girls. Boys begin to receive sports related toys at age two (Women’s Sports Foundation, 2011), and generally enter athletics two years earlier than girls. This causes many girls involved in organized sports to feel inferior to boys who have already developed the practice skills required to perform well in sports (Women’s Sports Foundation, 2011).

Although in recent years young girls have become increasingly involved in athletics, statistics show that “teenage girls drop out of sports at a rate that is six times higher than that of boys” (Hardin and Greer, 2009). During their teenage years, girls become more concerned with their body images. Since sports cause people to look sweaty and red-faced, many girls decide to stop engaging in athletics (Tinsley, 2015). As boys mature, they are respected and envied if they are particularly skilled at sports.

While girls are not necessarily discouraged from participating in sports, they do not receive the same incentives encouraging them to continue athletic involvement. While this pattern begins in childhood, it persists at all life stages for female athletes. Even at professional levels, female athletes competing on national sports teams in the United States receive less recognition compared to their male counterparts. The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) contains 12 teams compared to the 30 in the National Basketball Association (NBA). In 2015, the United States women’s soccer team won the World Cup, while the men’s team did not win. Yet, as of 2016, female soccer players still receive smaller salaries for winning all of their games ($99,000) than male soccer players who lose all of their games ($100,000) (Yourish, Ward and Almukhtar, 2016). Without the same resources and encouragement, girls are less likely to pursue athletic endeavors.

Discrepancies in pay between male and female professional soccer players
Discrepancies in pay between male and female professional soccer players.

Gender inequality extends to the broadcasting of sports. Women’s events receive less coverage than those of their male counterparts. Gymnastics and figure skating, which portray women as graceful, delicate, beautiful creatures (Harding and Greer, 2009) receive the most broadcasting.

Women who appear strong and powerful in athletics often receive less media coverage because society continues to place large importance on a woman’s appearance. Leading up to the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, the very muscular, track athlete Marion Jones confidently expressed her chances of winning multiple gold medals. Yet, Jones received little media coverage compared to her teammate, Amy Acuff, a part-time model whose chances at winning a medal were slim. When interviewed, reporters rarely asked about Acuff’s athletic endeavors. They instead focused mostly on questions relating to her upcoming Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (Bernstein, 2002). Not only did Acuff receive more media coverage than Jones because of her traditionally “feminine” appearance, but also the attention Acuff received did not focus on her athletic ability at all.

Society is happy to allow women to prance around in leotards and sparkles, but it does not want to see women dripping with sweat or developing large muscles. Such displays compromise a person’s ability to appropriately “do” gender as public audiences would expect. Candace West and Don Zimmerman (1987) explain, “doing gender consists of managing such occasions so that, whatever the particulars, the outcome is seen and seeable in context as gender appropriate or, as the case may be, gender inappropriate, that is, accountable.” If a woman does not present herself in a way that is “physically appealing,” she is not playing into her gender role and is more likely to receive criticism. Society has taught females that participation in sports goes against feminine performance norms, and thus, women receive little praise for their involvement in athletics.

If a female decides to participate in athletics, especially in male-dominated sports, she is often subject to harsh criticism. After tennis powerhouse Serena Williams, won her 21st Grand Slam title, reporters were quick to judge her for her deviant portrayal of femininity. Rather than asking her about her athletic achievement, reporters questioned why she was not sitting, smiling and acting as if she had not just completed an exhausting athletic feat.

When girls decide to opt out of sports, they miss out on many of the benefits that physical exercise offer. Girls who participate in athletics tend to lead healthier lifestyles and perform better in school compared to girls who do not regularly participate in athletics. They are also less likely to consume alcohol, use drugs, or become pregnant as a teenager. Female athletes report higher levels of contentment with their lives than girls who do not participate in physical activities.

Girls should not lose out on all the benefits that physical exercise provides because of concern with their appearance—something they would not be conscientious about if society did not place such a large importance on it. Rather than imposing standards of beauty that discourage girls from participating in athletics, women and society would be better off focusing on the elimination of the inequality gaps between the genders in sports.

To my fellow female athletes:

When you go to a mall and cannot find a single pair of pants that fit you—that’s when you know you are too “big” in our society. Every time you go out to buy clothes, you get a constant reminder: “YOU ARE TOO BIG!” Having played hockey since I was young, I have had many of these experiences. I don’t know how many times I teared up in a fitting room not being able to fit into any of the clothes that I brought in. Online shopping? That’s not an option. I just end up returning 99% of the clothes that I’ve ordered. If you are like me, don’t worry about it. You are not alone in feeling that way. Many female college athletes struggle to find clothes that fit their muscular bodies and constantly receive the message that they are different from other “normal” women (Krane et al. 2004). Sadly, this is not the only negative experience that women who participate in sports go through.

As female athletes, we have to play two seemingly incompatible roles, as a woman and as an athlete. In our society, individuals who fail to perform gender appropriately are considered not competent or inferior (West & Zimmerman 1987). Therefore, to be accepted as competent women, we have to show traditionally feminine characteristics, such as being emotional, gentle, and passive. On the other hand, being successful athletes requires engaging in intense training and adopting more competitive and aggressive attitudes that are traditionally considered masculine characteristics (Krane 2001). Consequently, many female athletes struggle to balance the two sets of conflicting characteristics: traditional femininity and athleticism.

If we fail to show feminine characteristics, we face serious consequences, which can negatively impact our athletic performance. For instance, female athletes who appear masculine are more likely to suffer from verbal harassment by spectators. This can psychologically affect the athletes, which in turn, can affect their performance. Moreover, officials or judges favor female athletes who are more explicitly feminine (Kolnes 1995). This, unlike the spectator example, can directly influence the results of thier games. Given the indirect and direct effects of gender performance on athletic performance, we have to go out of our way to exhibit feminine characteristics.

It is not easy being female athletes and having to play the two incompatible roles at once. But because it is so difficult, we gain so much from it. Strength, self-esteem, independence, and pride—these are all characteristics that the college students in Krane et al. (2004) said they gained through their participation in sports. They even said that they were empowered by committing themselves to playing sports.

So next time you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of being female athletes, just remember three things:

  • You are not fighting alone. There are many female athletes struggling like you.
  • By playing sports and going through many hardships, you will become strong, confident, independent, and proud of yourself.
  • Most importantly, the very fact that you participate in sports challenges the current restricted definition of femininity (Krane 2001). You are playing an important role in freeing women from the narrow gender norms!


Woman First, Athlete Second

Participation in female athletics has skyrocketed in the past two decades and continues to be on the rise. The passing of Title IX in 1972 required all federally funded programs, including athletics, to provide equal treatment and opportunity for participation for men and women. High schools and public universities subsequently were required to spend equivalent amounts of time and money for male and female athletes (Curtis & Grant, 2001). Because of this law, more women began to participate in athletics. In 1971, only 1 in 27 girls participated in high school athletics, whereas in just 20 years, 1 and 3 girls participated (Women’s Sports Foundation, 1998).

Although female athletic participation increased, the media still objectifies their bodies. The popular magazine, Sports Illustrated, portrays male and female athletes very differently. In 1997, Sports Illustrated started using female athletes in the Swimsuit Edition. This had the potential to show the athleticism of female athletes. Instead, female athletes are posed exactly like fashion models; they show no athleticism in their photos. Similar to models, female athletes are portrayed to showcase their looks rather than their athletic talent.

Psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts proposed a theory explaining why women are portrayed as sex objects. The objectification theory proposes that women’s bodies are looked at, evaluated, and always potentially objectified. They believe people view women as bodies and evaluate them through a sexual gaze, specifically for their own pleasure. The American culture spotlights women’s bodies and body parts, causing viewers to have an implicit sexual gaze. The pictures in Sports Illustrated, in particular, show how the media targets women’s bodies for sexual objectification significantly more than men’s bodies (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). A previous study compared the female athletes in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition to the models in the same issue within 4 categories: photo location, hand placement, body pose, and facial expression. Researchers found few differences. They also discovered that female models were underrepresented in general coverage and over represented as sexual objects (Kim & Sagas, 2014).

Building upon this study, I looked at seventeen issues of Sports Illustrated, ranging from December 2015 to April 2016. Of these seventeen issues, five had women on the covers. Of these five, three were female athletes and two were models (swimsuit editions). The covers that were female athletes portrayed minimal athletic ability and depicted more femininity. Descriptions of the pictures are as followed:

Help me, Ronda?

The May 2015 issue has UFC fighter, Ronda Rousey, on the cover. Around her says “Worlds Most Dominant Athlete.” She is in fighting attire. However, her blow-dried, long, light brown hair is down and placed perfectly around her face. In the picture, she has on light pink lip-gloss, her cheeks are perfectly blushed, her stomach is showing, and her breasts are visible. On the page of the article, she is dressed in a short, navy blue skirt, a white, laced, see through shirt, and high, strappy, red heels. She has on bright red lipstick, and has her hair down in a more messy fashion. Her hand is on her hip, like a teenage girl often does, her back is arched so her breasts stick out, and she is stepping on strong men who are on the ground. In the corner of the image it says, “Help me, Ronda?”


“We got this dance.”

The March 2016 issue has University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball player, Breanna Stewart, on the cover. She wears black eyeliner and mascara. Her long, straightened, reddish-brownish hair is down. Her eyebrows are perfectly arched and photo shopped to complement her face. Her hand is also on her hip, and she is wearing earrings. A basketball sits on her arm. Her blue eyes pop right out of the page and right above her, the words, “we got this dance” are shown. Last time I checked, basketball had nothing to do with a dance.  


Tennis in a leotard?

Lastly, in the December 2015 issue, the cover shows “Sportsperson of the year,” Serena Williams. This picture shows no signs of athleticism; rather it shows multiple signs of femininity. Serena is posed to seduce the reader. Her long, black, shiny hair is perfectly curled; she has on dark red lipstick and has pink blushed cheeks. She wears a black, laced, partly see though leotard with black high heels. She sits sideways in the chair; one leg is up over the armrest, and the other is on the floor. Her legs are extremely shiny. Her face is seductive, serious and her cheekbones are very defined. The article is about her tennis ability…yet the picture has nothing to do with tennis.


I bring these examples to your attention because on every other magazine cover, there is a picture of a male athlete. These pictures are all action photos of the male playing his sport, showing masculinity, athleticism, and strength. Female athletes, on the other hand, are depicted as weak, feminine, sexy, and having no athletic ability.


What is the big deal…?

Depicting female athletes as sex objects reinforces gender stereotypes and stresses femininity rather than athleticism. The media already creates false expectations of female beauty with models. These gendered images and expectations can harm younger girls’ mental and physical health. In a study conducted by Fredrickson and Harrison (2003), sport magazine reading led to increased body shame and disordered eating for adolescent girls. Adolescent boys have plenty of athletic male role models to look up to, due to how they are portrayed by the media. Female adolescents, however, see the skinny, perfect looking models all over the media and think that is who they should look up to. How about we start providing real role models for young girls to idolize.