Female Olympian handballers fined for playing in shorts instead of bikini bottoms. A female Paralympian told by a championship official that her shorts were “too short and inappropriate.” Olympic women gymnasts, tired of feeling sexualized, opted for full-length unitards instead of bikini-cut leotards.
But while women athletes’ attires are constantly scrutinized, no one has ever said that a baseball or football player’s pants are too tight, according to Philip Veliz, who – with Nicole Zarrett and Don Sabo – did a research on the factors influencing girls’ participation in sports.
The study – “Keeping Girls in the Game: Factors that Influence Sport Participation” – that was released by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that gender stereotypes and double standards, where female athletes are treated differently or aren’t taken as seriously as male counterparts, persist even among parents.
For this study, the researchers polled more than 3,000 boys and girls aged 7 to 17 and their parents/guardians across the USA. They found (sadly) that:
- roughly one third of parents (32%) believed that boys are better at sports than girls
- parents of youth who have never played sports are more likely to believe that girls are not as competitive as boys, and that sports are more important to boys than girls
While the study did not specifically look at the sexualization of girls in sports, Veliz said these stereotypes can lead to the type of sexualization of female athletes seen in the Olympic uniform controversy, where the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined for refusing to play in skimpy, mandated bikini outfits.
Girls (43%) are more likely to have never played sports than boys (35%) and less likely to be currently playing sports — 36% of girls compared to nearly 46% of boys. Overall, about 40% of youth surveyed said they currently play sports.
Sport is one of the most popular extracurricular activities for both boys and girls, but “we see this gender gap in participation persist, and parents may be driving some of this,” said Veliz.
The average age that kids enter sports is 6, which requires heavy parental involvement. And “if you believe that boys are better than girls, you may be taking girls to a different activity or not doing sports at all,” Veliz said.
Other findings included:
- those from minority sectors (e.g. people of color and low-income youths), but especially girls, were least likely to be current players, and most likely to have never played or dropped out
- boys and girls both reported being teased, but for girls, the teasing was worse for teens than during their younger years
- only 58% of girls had a female coach, compared to 88% of boys who reported having a male coach.
To deal with this gender disparity in sport, Veliz said it’s important to convince parents that boys and girls are equally interested in sports, and also to eliminate barriers to entry for female coaches. As more female athletes have daughters, this will naturally improve, he said. “If you have a mom who used to play sports, she will be more likely to say, ‘I want my daughter to participate in these activities like I did,’” Veliz ended.