The sports world is a completely different place for women than it is for men. This contrast applies to sports at all levels — from women in power at the top of the sports industry and pro athletes, to amateurs, college-level players, and young girls.
This leaves so many women and girls in sports wondering, why? What is gender imbalance in sports and where did it all come from?
Yes — men’s and women’s sports are different because men and women are different.
But physical differences don’t account for the massive scope of gender inequality in athletics that persists even when women work just as hard or achieve more than the men in their field.
When we delve deeper and examine how gender inequality in sports really functions, its systemic nature appears.
The underrepresentation of women in sports leadership, the gender gaps in athletes’ pay, and the differences in funding, opportunities, and support for female athletes accumulate into a troubling domino effect.
We should all be concerned that, compared to boys, girls are almost twice as likely to drop out of sports by age 14. For many girls, participating in sports is the best path toward health improvements, interpersonal skills, greater social equality, and confidence.
For current and upcoming generations of female athletes, let’s get to the bottom of why gender inequality still impacts sports.
What are some of the causes of gender inequality in sports?
There isn’t a proportionate number of women with access to power in the sports industry.
The most important decisions in any industry happen from the top down. A sports world that treats women and girls equally is therefore synonymous with a sports world that represents women equally in power and influence.
Many athletes receive income from the organization they play for, but corporate sponsorships are another major source of income for successful athletes. When considering both forms of compensation, women athletes get short-changed.
The gender pay gap is a problem because young women and girls deserve the chance to aspire to sports as a career to the same degree that boys and young men do. Of course, it’s harder to pursue dreams of going pro in a sport when your hard work is unlikely to pay off in the same way it would if you were male.
In the face of criticism toward the gender pay gap in sports, some athletic organizations have pointed to women athletes bringing in less revenue, though they still pay women lower percentages of said revenue. This argument only reveals the underlying gender gap in the way organizations market and promote women’s sports.
The discrepancy in marketing and promotion translates to smaller and less enthusiastic followings, fewer sponsorships, fewer profits, and ultimately lower pay.
Media coverage of women’s sports is often minimal, even when women athletes’ accomplishments outshine male athletes. Even worse, media portrayals of female athletes often focus on their outer appearance or sexualize them.
Those mentalities that originate from the sexist portrayal of women can harm young athletes’ performance and personal fulfillment in sports and make them more likely to drop out. What young girls in sports need is access to inspiring role models to celebrate for their excellence.
Acknowledging and celebrating women’s sports is key to driving widespread engagement, fandom, and participation.
In college sports, women’s athletic programs are often underfunded or underserviced compared to men’s sports.
Gender gaps in college funding for women’s sports can impact coaching, facilities, opportunities, promotional investment, and fan enthusiasm.
One of the most basic imbalances is the gender inequality in sports opportunities.
Arguably even more impactful on women’s sports than adequate media exposure for high-level female athletes, pay incentives, and college funding, is girls and women simply getting the chance to play. Having opportunities to play sports in and of itself cultivates the positive impact of sports on girls’ lives and the lifelong passion that follows.
Society overwhelmingly reinforces stereotypes to shape girls’ and boys’ feelings about sports as they grow up.
Girls are often subject to messaging that fails to encourage or altogether discourages equal participation in sports.
Participating in sports makes women and girls healthier physically and mentally, and lowers serious disease risks. Young women in sports also experience improved reproductive health, engage in less drug use, and have lower rates of gender-specific health problems.
The agency, empowerment, social integration, and personal development women and girls gain from sports are equally impactful.
Though plenty of us are actively pushing for change in the sports arena, balancing the scales in power, investment, representation, and opportunity won’t happen overnight.
These changes won’t happen by themselves, either. Social media has become a powerful tool to help women in sports push for change and gradually democratize the sports industry. Through social media, women in sports have a direct line to the public to take control of their marketing, promotion, sponsorships, and public image while speaking their minds, raising awareness, and becoming role models. It has also contributed to the increased media coverage of women’s sports that we are starting to see by granting visibility to women’s sports fans who take to the platform to expose inequities and celebrate female athletics. Additionally, there have been hundreds of gender inequality in sports articles written in the past few years that aim to help raise awareness
Encouragingly, all of us can join the charge and find ways to elevate female athletes of all ages in our own spheres and beyond.
Tell us your story on Instagram @goalfive and share what athletics has added to your life’s journey.
We know there’s no shortage of girls and women who have flourished due to casual, intramural, school, college, amateur, or professional sports.
That’s why we’re on a mission to share sports and their transformative impact on health,, social equality, and inner fulfillment with more girls around the world. Consider joining our equal play advocacy to help us make a difference.
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