In the 21st century, it is disheartening to learn that fewer girls participate in sports than boys. Furthermore, of the girls that do sign up for sports, many of them are reported to drop out. One potential factor contributing to this gender disparity is the persistent binary narrative that girls are weaker and less athletically capable than boys.
To challenge this narrative, some experts have proposed that girls and women should be given the same opportunities as boys and men in terms of sport participation. For instance, moving away from gender-segregated leagues and fostering diversity and inclusion beyond the binary lens.
To date, there is limited research on the experiences — both positive and negative — of gender-integrated sports teams. For this reason, Melissa deJonge, a PhD student from the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto, and her colleagues set out to explore the experience of adolescent girls playing on a boys’ sports team.
Their research study was published in March 2023 in Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health.
Eleven young women around the age of 20 were recruited for the study, and an individual, retrospective semi-structured interview was conducted with each participant. All participants had at least one year of experience playing on boys’ sports teams during their adolescence (ages 11 to 18).
The interviews were centred around two main themes: 1) How did playing on a boys’ sports team influence your sports experience and participation? and 2) What were some experiences that either included or excluded you as a girl from playing on the boys’ sports team?
The results of the study highlighted that societal norms and beliefs regarding girls’ inferiority in sports persist, and they are perpetuated by all members of the sporting community — including teammates, parents, and coaches. For example, the young women in the study shared experiences of consistently being positioned as the outsider or “the odd one out” on their teams. Ultimately, this made the young women lose their sense of belonging, which is an important aspect of being part of a sports team.
The participants also expressed challenges in navigating their femininity while playing on a boys’ sports team, often resorting to measures such as altering their appearance to fit masculine ideals. For example, one of the young women discussed how she kept her hair short during the hockey season so the opponents and their parents couldn’t tell that she identified as girl. Another participant discussed avoiding nail polish during the baseball season because she didn’t want to be seen as stereotypically “feminine” and perhaps weak to her teammates and opponents.
All in all, the study’s findings indicate that the sporting world continues to undermine the presence of girls, despite research showing that many girls outperform boys in athletic capabilities.
With age, the disparity in sports becomes even bigger. Men’s teams — from recreational leagues to professional leagues — receive better resources, funding, support, and ultimately greater visibility compared to women’s teams.
The researchers emphasized that the lack of equal training, athletic programs, and competitive opportunities that girls and women receive may contribute to the lower sport participation rates among girls. Perhaps this also explains why there is an under-representation of women in sports leadership and coaching roles.
This research study serves as a significant step forward in uncovering the inequalities faced by girls and women in the realm of sports. It brings much-needed attention to an important issue and paves the way for further exploration and understanding of the challenges and barriers that need to be addressed.
Hopefully, in the near future, gender-integrated leagues will become the norm with team members picked based on athletic abilities rather than gender identity. However, in the meantime, we must begin to challenge the deeply ingrained assumption about gender differences in sports and athletic performance.
As one of the researchers stated in a University of Toronto blog post, this starts with generating gender-inclusive behaviours and communication strategies within organized sports which in turn will develop safe and inclusive sports environments for all genders.