Despite the progress that ensued after the passing of Title IX, athletes who are women continue to be marginalized and undervalued. Compared to men’s athletics, women’s athletics are ignored by potential fans because they are viewed as an inferior product. In NCAA Division I schools, women make up approximately 53 percent of the student body, yet fewer than 46 percent of these schools’ student-athletes are women.
This statistic seemingly reinforces the belief that women “just aren’t as interested in being athletes as men are.” However, delving deeper into this subject, it is apparent that women’s participation is low due to social constructs and a persistent gender inequality in sports. If this is true, then it is important that this problem — symptomatic of larger societal ills — is addressed in order to change the way women are viewed.
In sports, there are clear constraints placed on women due to society’s perception of gender roles. According to researcher Carlie Minichino, “While men are looked at as athletes with no gender attached to this distinction, women are defined by their gender first and thus constrained to an idea that their participation in sport should be limited because of this.” Unless a sport is defined as exclusively for women, it is judged to be for men.
Sports are separated not only by labels, but also by rules. For example, checking is permissible in men’s ice hockey leagues but not in women’s ice hockey leagues because it is “too violent.” Differing rules in the same sport such as this example are rooted in gender expectations.
The absence of these rules in women’s sports can imply to the public that women are fragile and in need of special treatment. Conversely, men in these sports are seen as powerful and tough enough to endure a few bruises — an idea that can translate into the idea that men are better suited to more powerful positions in general.
There are three forces that ultimately lead to gender inequality in sports and therefore three solutions. The first cause for gender inequality in sports is the gender roles that are impressed upon children from an early age. When gender expectations and norms are strong enough to be deeply internalized, an individual is unlikely to take part in an activity that is typically thought of as suited for the opposite sex. If society continues in this direction, many young women will grow up without the desire to play sports. However, a young woman’s family has the ability to neutralize these constraints of gender expectations and gendered perceptions, which would be a possible solution.
The second force that contributes to gender inequality is society’s tendency to label athletes who are women as “female athletes,” since placing “female” before “athletes” signifies that by default, athleticism is for males. Therefore, athletes who are women must simply be referred to as “athletes.”
The final force that contributes to gender inequality is that women are not given an equal standing in sports. When women perform at the same level as men in the same sports with the same rules, there is evidence against the idea that women in sports are socially inferior, fragile and in need of protection.
Sport is a valuable place to fight for equality even though women are still fighting for equal rights elsewhere such as the workplace. One of society’s first instructions to children is through sport — boys should be aggressive and active, while girls should be timid and homely. Through this lens, the significance of proper representations of gender in sport cannot be overblown.
Sarah Tucker is a senior majoring in business administration.