A girl plays basketball

Progress and Inequality: Women’s Sports and the Gender Gap

Editor’s Note: February 1, 2017 marks the 31st National Girls & Women in Sports Day, an observance of the outstanding achievements of athletes, coaches, athletic directors, parents and lawmakers committed to women and girls’ sports.

Women’s sports, both professional and collegiate, have made enormous progress since Title IX (federal civil rights legislation designed to prohibit gender discrimination in educational institutions) was passed in 1972, but the gender gap underscoring large inequalities – and myths about women’s sports – still exist. The University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD)’s Tucker Center, is committed to conducting research and outreach initiatives to help bridge the gap between women and men’s sports.

The Coaching Gap

Title IX was a huge victory for women’s sports. In the decades since it passed, we’ve seen participation in women’s sports increase dramatically from the elementary to professional level. Unfortunately, it’s had the opposite effect in women’s coaching.

In the wake of Title IX, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of women in coaching and leadership positions in women’s athletics. For example, prior to 1972, 90% of all head coaches in women’s athletics at the college level were women; today, the number is about 43%.

Ironically, one of the most frequent criticisms of Title IX is that it has forced universities to eliminate non-revenue men’s athletic programs, yet it has also created huge boom in opportunities for male coaches in women’s athletics. This employment trend is the result of increased interest and funding in women’s sports because of Title IX. Prior to Title IX, most women’s sports were barely funded and run largely by volunteer coaches – usually a moonlighting female physical education teacher. As women’s collegiate athletics became professional (and lucrative), more male coaches entered the field.

Of course, this trend wouldn’t be as distressing if women’s coaches were afforded the same opportunities to coach men’s sports, but that’s not the case. Currently, only 2% of collegiate men’s head coaches are women, and they are generally not in high-profile team sports like football, hockey and basketball.

The Roots of Inequality in Coaching

My colleague at the Tucker Center, Dr. Nicole LaVoi, has worked with me to extensively research the coaching gap, and found that the root of the problem lies on an institutional level. Interviewing male and female athletic directors, we found a sharp contrast in their thinking about why the decline of women in coaching.

When asked about reasons for the decline in the number of female head coaches in women’s sports, female athletic directors tended to view the coaching gap as the result of structural and institutional factors. These included the “Old Boy’s Club” – men tending to hire from a pool of male coaching candidates they were familiar with – and a variety of conscious and unconscious gender biases.

Conversely, the male athletic directors said the primary reasons for the decline had to do with the so-called failures of individual women coaches, a lack of qualified female applicants and women’s greater time constraints than men due to family obligations. They held these perceptions despite having no empirical data to support them. However, given the fact that a vast majority of athletic directors in college sports are men, these perceptions are very influential when hiring and firing decisions are made.

Women’s Sports and the Media

This disparity between women and men in sports is even more stark in terms of media coverage. Many studies have been done comparing the coverage of women’s and men’s sports, identifying two trends that have remained consistent over the past 35 years.

  1. Underrepresentation of coverage. Even though 40% of all sports participants (and 43% of all scholarship athletes) are women, women’s sports still receive only 2% to 4% of all sports coverage. Sport media scholars like myself are not suggesting that coverage needs to be equal, but this glaring disparity reflects the fact that the media doesn’t just under-report women’s sports, it actively suppresses information about it.
  2. Feminization and sexualization. Within the small amount of coverage that women’s athletics do receive, we find that female athletes are more likely to be portrayed off the court, out of uniform and in highly sexualized poses where the emphasis is on their femininity and their physical attractiveness rather than their athletic competence.

For years, male sports writers and editors have told me that the reason they don’t cover women’s sports is because “nobody is interested.” I eventually came to realize it was they who weren’t interested, and that there is a large and untapped audience for women’s sports.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you are a person who is interested in women’s sports and read a newspaper or sports website, you never see any coverage of women’s sports. Eventually, you stop going to that site or reading the sports section. Then, when the paper or website does marketing analysis, they find out that there doesn’t appear to be great interest in reading about their coverage of women’s sports. But it’s not because “nobody is interested”; it’s because there is nothing there. This creates a vicious cycle. Thankfully, the advent of new media and social media have opened opportunities for independent bloggers and websites like espnW, which focus exclusively on women’s sports.

Working Towards Progress in Women’s Sports

People often ask me, “Are things getting better in women’s sports?” I believe the answer to that question depends on your baseline of comparison. If you compare women’s sports to men’s sports, you’ll find that severe inequalities still exist on every level. However, if we look at where women’s sports are now compared to where they were before Title IX, we see a dramatic improvement.

Despite the ongoing disparity in media coverage of women’s and men’s athletics, I do see some signs of encouragement. In a recent Guardian article, I was interviewed about the popularity – and major media coverage – of female mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, particularly Ronda Rousey. It’s remarkable to me that the sports in which women seem to be getting equivalent coverage and respect is one that is the antithesis of our traditional expectations about femininity, women’s physical capacity and behavior. More importantly, instead of the expected portrayal of women’s MMA as a “catfight,” fighters like Ronda Rousey have been taken very seriously as a professional athlete.

Locally, I’ve been impressed by the media’s coverage of the Minnesota Lynx and the team’s multiple championships and playoff runs in recent years. More importantly, they cover the Lynx in the same way they cover men’s sports, emphasizing the players’ on-court competence, strategy, team rivalries and the great coaching of Cheryl Reeve.

As for the significant challenges that still exist, the Tucker Center will continue its mission of researching women’s sports and creating opportunity for female athletes and coaches. On April 21, we’ll be hosting the 4th Annual Women Coaches Symposium, which provides programming for educational and professional development, and valuable community building and networking opportunities, for women in coaching. We’ll also be publishing our third 10-year update of the Developing Physically Active Girls research report, a multidisciplinary study of how sports and physical activity impacts adolescent females from a sports and social science perspective.

While I’m proud of the work we’ve done at the Tucker Center since its founding in 1993 and encouraged by the progress women’s sports have made, our mission is far from done. By providing leading research, best practices and professional outreach for women athletes and coaches, CEHD and the Tucker Center will continue to push for real change – and true equality – in women’s sports.

Mary Jo Kane

About the Author

Mary Jo Kane, Ph.D.

  • Professor of Sport Sociology, School of Kinesiology
  • Director, Tucker Center
  • College of Education and Human Development

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