Nicole M. LaVoi on the status of women’s sports after 40 years
This year Title IX, a landmark piece of federal legislation, turns 40. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
In the 40 years since it passed, Title IX has played an important role in girls’ and women’s sport participation in the United States. Record numbers of females are playing sports at all levels. In 1972, the year Title IX was passed, 1 in 27 girls played sports; in 2012 that number is approximately 1 in 2.5. Today, females comprise approximately 40 percent of all interscholastic and intercollegiate sport participants, and play professional level sports that seemed beyond reach 40 years ago-including professional football (Independent Women’s Football League), basketball (Women’s National Basketball Association) and softball (National Pro Fastpitch League).
As Mary Jo Kane, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota often states, “In one generation we’ve gone from girls hoping there was a team, to girls hoping they’d make the team.” More females than ever before are reaping the health and developmental benefits that can accrue through sport participation.
The sheer numbers, visibility and excellence of female athletes and women’s sports have helped create a broader cultural context in which female athleticism is increasingly commonplace and celebrated. Yet we are far from a world of gender equality in American sport-access and participation opportunity vary drastically depending on the intersections of gender, race, class and geography.
Based on the 2011 National Federation of State High School Association’s data, boys (4,494,406) outnumber girls (3,173,549) and the same pattern is true for college athletes where males comprise 57 percent of all athletes while only 43 percent of the college student population is male. Inequities remain for female athletes in other realms too-especially in terms of media attention and opportunities to coach and lead in the world of sport.
“Seeing” female athletes in the media
Thirty years of sport media researchers have documented that female athletes are drastically underrepresented in sport media proportional to participation rates. Based on the latest data in 2009, televised news coverage of women’s sport is at its lowest level in 20 years-accounting for less than 2 percent.
When female athletes do receive mainstream media attention, portrayals are typically sexualized in ways that highlight traditional gender roles, and marginalize and trivialize athleticism. Audiences are more likely to see a female athlete in her swimsuit posing on the beach than in her uniform on the court. For example, since the early 2000s, Sports Illustrated (SI) has featured female athletes in the annual “Swimsuit Issue”-its best-selling issue every year. Yet female athletes appear on the cover of non-swimsuit issues of SI less than 5 percent of the time. The same pattern exists for ESPN The Magazine, where female athletes appear nude on the cover of “The Body” issue, but rarely appear on the cover of non-“body” issues.
Females underrepresented in power positions
Women are scarce in positions of power within sports organizations. Proportionally fewer female head coaches of female college athletes exist in 2012 (about 43 percent), than in 1972 (about 90 percent). In collegiate, interscholastic and youth sport, females comprise less than 20 percent of all coaches. Only five of the 120 athletic directors in NCAA Division I-A-the biggest and most prominent collegiate programs-are female. Today 19 percent of collegiate athletic directors across all divisional levels are female, representing a sharp decline from 1972 when over 90 percent of those who oversaw female athletics programs were female. Many call these declines “unintended consequences” of Title IX.
The explanatory factors are many and complex. Females often have to perform at higher levels than their male colleagues to succeed, face stereotypes about competence, gender and leadership, feel scrutinized and not supported, are at increased risk for gender discrimination due to sexual harassment and face wage inequities and limited opportunities for promotion. Women in sport often experience informal negative social interactions, including overt sexism and challenges to their authority by male coaches, parents and the “old-boys network” at work in their leagues.At the higher, more competitive levels of sport, homophobia and heterosexism also impact female career trajectories. Some lesbians remain closeted due to perceived threats to their job security and advancement, recruitment issues and fear of discrimination and backlash. Heterosexual athletes and coaches-who must constantly “prove” their sexual identity, deal with persistent negative stereotypes, or defend their sport participation choices-are also affected.
These experiences, taken together, create what some call a “glass ceiling” or “glass wall” that influence many women not to enter or “opt out” of volunteer opportunities or careers in sport.
What lies ahead? The Next 40.
The 40th anniversary of Title IX presents the opportunity to advocate, agitate, educate and reflect upon its promises and limitations. Despite progress, the movement for gender equality in American sport remains contested and incomplete. This important anniversary can provide a catalyst for creating strategies to achieve participation access and opportunity for all girls, increased representation of females in positions of power in sport, and proportional media coverage primarily focused on athleticism. Such initiatives can help change outdated stereotypes about the capabilities and capacities of females-which isn’t just good for girls and women, it’s good for everyone.
Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D. is the associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport and teaches sport psychology and sport sociology in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota. Her blog, One Sport Voice, is at www.nicolemlavoi.com
Editor’s note: This article in part is conceptually driven from Cooky, C. & LaVoi, N.M. (2012). Playing but Losing: Women’s Sports after Title IX. Contexts, 11, 42-45.
Nicole M. LaVoi recommends these readings and websites for further background on Title IX:
Women in Intercollegiate Sport: a Longitudinal, National Study 35 Year Update. Acosta, V., & Carpenter, L. J. (2012). www.acostacarpenter.org
The Glass Wall: Women continue to shatter stereotypes as athletes. So how come they can’t catch a break as coaches? Fagan, K. & Cyphers, L. (2012). http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=theGlassWall
NCAA® Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report, 1981-82 to 2009-10. NCAA (November, 2010). www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/PR2011.pdf
Participation Statistics. National Federation of State High School Associations (2011). www.nfhs.org/Participation/SportSearch.aspx
The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport www.tuckercenter.org
National Women’s Law Centerwww.nwlc.org
Alliance for Women Coacheswww.gocoaches.org