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Gender Barriers in Sport

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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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Gender Barriers in Sport

Kerry Flanagan

2. What are the social and cultural costs and benefits of an individual (male or female) entering a non-traditional sport for their gender/sex (eg women who enter body building, power lifting, boxing; men who enter synchronized swimming or field hockey)?

Throughout history it is clear that not only women, but both genders have faced seemingly insurmountable barriers when attempting to break into a sport that is not "proper" or stereotypical for their gender to participate in. Though as a society we are making strides towards equality in sport, such as the advent of Title IX, it is clear that we still have a long way to go. Though breakthrough policies such as this are moving in the right direction, other evidence points towards the fact that as a society, we are still more comfortable with women in traditionally female sports such as field hockey as opposed to boxing, and men in traditionally male sports such as body building as opposed to synchronized swimming, since these activities fit with our preconceived notions of what is "normal" for a specific gender. Supporting this idea is the fact that though we seem to be moving towards equality in sport with many coeducational universities and colleges having sport opportunities for both sexes, funding is still extremely unequal, as states by the Women's Sports Foundation in 2001:
But women and girl athletes have yet to reach parity with men. Women are still only about one-third of interscholastic and intercollegiate athletes. In addition, women college athletes receive less than 26% of college sports' operating budgets, and less than 28% of college recruiting money.
Though as a society we are making progress towards equality, there is no way to proclaim women's sport's equal to those of men if funding and support is so drastically different.

Even organizations that claim to push for equality in sport seem to perpetuate these stereotypes themselves, an example of which is a quote found on the website organized by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity: "CAAWS is in business to encourage girls and women to get out of the bleachers, off the sidelines, and onto the fields and rinks, into the pools, locker rooms and board rooms of Canada". ( Though this association does seem to have the right idea in mind, to get women "out of the bleachers, off the sidelines", they perpetuate ideas of normative female sport participation by instructing women to go to pools and rinks, implying swimming and ice skating, stereotypical female sports, instead of instructing them to go to boxing rings or basketball courts.

The quote above also raises another interesting issue by connecting equality in sport with equality in the workplace. Throughout history, these two ideas seem to run directly parallel to one another, and even reflect the state of the other. As women have continued to become a stronger force in the workplace, they also seem to be breaking through the gender-constricting barriers of sport at the same time. This idea reflects the inclination of our society to keep women in roles that are normative not only in dealing with sport, but throughout all other areas of a woman's life as well. In this manner, a good course of action in attempting to deal with inequality is to attack it on all fronts at once, to not simply examine inequality in sport or inequality in the workplace as separate issues, but to instead investigate and attack the issue of gender inequality as a whole.

In addition, the roles that society encourages men and women to fill in sports activity reflects the roles of women and men in society as a whole, an idea exhibited by Abby Hoffman, former director of Sport Canada:
The number of events for men and women will still disproportionately favor the men by a significant margin. The women-only events (rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming) and men-only events (boxing, wrestling, weightlifting) reflect persistent biases regarding athleticism in each gender. The women-only events reflect the socially-acceptable notion of grace while the men's events stress combat and strength. (
In this manner, society seems to use sport to reinforce gender ideals that are already in place, such as the strong man and the graceful woman. It is when these ideals are disputed and challenged, such as the strong woman body builder, or the graceful male gymnast, that problems arise.

Another social cost that often confronts athletes attempting to participate in a sport that is non-traditional for their sex is questioning of their sexuality. Author Mariah Burton Nelson describes this situation in her book Are We Winning Yet?:
"Homophobia in sports serves as a way to control women, both gay and straight." Whether a woman is lesbian or straight, homophobia in sports and the society at large tends to discourage girls and women from pursuing traditionally "masculine" activities such as contact sports and team sports for fear of being labeled a homosexual. "Female athletes in traditionally masculine sports challenge the social dictates about proper behavior for females; therefore, the reasoning goes, there must be something wrong with them. Focusing on sexual orientation unfairly denies women opportunities in sports on the basis of personal preferences irrelevant to athletic abilities. (
The labeling of both male and female athletes who participate in non-traditional sports is another of the ways in which society today discourages athletes from breaking through gender barriers. As Nelson points out above, the focus needs to shift from sexuality to athletic ability.

Despite the social costs described above, there are certain benefits that non-traditional athletes experience when attempting to break down gender barriers in sport. These unconventional athletes usually receive a heightened media attention, and sometimes even instant fame. In addition, these athletes get to be remembered in history as the ones who paved the way for many others to follow, serving as role models for many children of both sexes, as described below by Sandi Bittler, Director of women's sports marketing for Nike:
It's not like when the boys used to play sports and the girls play with dolls. Now there is crossover in appeal. The first time I noticed it was in 1995 when I traveled with the women's national basketball team tour to 30 universities. For the first time I started seeing these female athletes touching younger kids and it didn't matter if it was a young boy or a young girl (
In this manner, it is clear that these athletes are taking strides towards equality by affecting the future of our society, youth. Though as a society we face many remaining obstacles in striving toward gender equality in sport, it is important to look at what has been accomplished, and also look to the future for what can still be done.



Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

01/10/2006, from a Reader on the Web

In Kerry Flanagan's "Gender Barriers in Sports", she quotes "'CAAWS is in business to encourage girls and women to get out of the bleachers, off the sidelines, and onto the fields and rinks, into the pools, locker rooms and board rooms of Canada'. ( Though this association does seem to have the right idea in mind, to get women 'out of the bleachers, off the sidelines', they perpetuate ideas of normative female sport participation by instructing women to go to pools and rinks[and fields], implying swimming and ice skating, stereotypical female sports, instead of instructing them to go to boxing rings or basketball courts." Kerry is here assuming that "rinks" cannot refer to hockey, and "pools" to water polo. Kerry also leaves out fields, which can include many steriotypically male sports. Perhaps Kerry should not jump to conclusions so quickly simply for the sake of making a point.



Gwyn Harvey's picture

Equality in Sport

How to guarantee equality in sport?? Easy - just modify the rules. To see how easy go to

Serendip Visitor's picture


boys r worked harder

daniel pierce's picture


soo true <3

Pandaful's picture


I really disagree with this.. As a female athlete myself, i know we get work just as hard if not more as we are constantly having to prove we are better then men. We get pushed in training at our sport just as much as men.

Serendip Visitor's picture


at the end of the day women will never be as goos as men at sport and until they do, the majority oif the populatio will watch male sports on tv or live at the stadium. it is until women can hit a gold ball further than a male or have a fast paced game of football or basketball that it becomes interesting then the money will start coming in to fund more sprts for women.

Serendip Visitor's picture

fair enough thats your

fair enough thats your opinion of this but really could your head be any furthur up your arse, read this, its titled "Women footballers are tougher than men, research finds"

WomenCAN Int&#039;l's picture

Women's Canoe & Olympic Inequity

Would like to talk with anyone who would be interested in helping bring more awareness to the plight of women in Olympic Canoeing. and facebook "Vote Yes for Women's Canoe". We are the last summer Olympic sport to not have gender equity. Boxing is now in for 2012. Women's Ski Jumping just got in the Winter Olympics for 2014 after a long battle. We are a small sport so get overlooked. We need help to make our plight more "viral" on the internet - which can only bring more pressure on the International Canoe Federation and every national federation around the world to do the right thing. Thanks to any and all for support.

Mitch's picture


I don't know if I will ever see equality in sports during the course of the present living generations. Reason being it's the way American society has been throughout the course of its existence. If we can't get past the simple concept of civil rights for all people (which parts of the country still struggle through), then how can we not only as a nation, but as a spectator sporting world be tolerant with those who openly live alternative lifestyles or consciously change their gender to suit their though patterns?

friend's picture

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Anonymous's picture

love the idea

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