Giving Girls a Playbook for Gender Equity On and Off the Field

Crowd holding up U.S. flags during a soccer match

The U.S. women’s national soccer team is racking up goals in France, hurtling past its opponents, and heading toward a record fourth World Cup victory on July 7. The team also faces the formidable opponent of gender inequity, like the unfairness millions of girls encounter each day in school and community sports. Our super star female athletes are teaching girls everywhere far more than how to advance the ball up the field, but how to advance gender equity in society in the face of adversity.

As tensions flare in the team’s equity crusade, such as during Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger’s recent Twitter dust-up with Donald Trump in their stand against the Administration’s discriminatory policies and practices, girls are taking note of the strength, courage, and persistence it takes to even the scales. The U.S. women’s team struggle is exactly that of young women nationwide who are all too often treated as a second class and who encounter intimidation efforts after complaining. When the World Cup soon passes, we must continue supporting female sports day in and day out within our families and neighborhoods with the same bravery, brawn, and brains we see in our soccer super-sheroes.

Fed up with years of being paid less and treated worse than their male counterparts, the U.S. women are suing American soccer’s governing body, alleging gender discrimination. The unequal treatment faced by the team parallels that endured by countless girls nationwide, from California to Washington D.C., and everywhere in between, who want to play sports but lack opportunity or who play and are treated worse than boys.Even 47 years after Title IX was passed, a federal law banning sex discrimination in education, girls face a range of unfair athletic practices amounting to pervasive gender bias that corrosively signal to girls they are somehow less.

Girls contend with fewer sports offerings, a lack of consistent, experienced coaches, inferior and sometimes dangerous facilities, second-hand equipment and uniforms, and sparse publicity in comparison to that lavished on boys’ sports. In school and community sports leagues, girls get lip service from principals, athletic directors, and recreation departments that they matter, while male athletes are placed on a pedestal. And families who complain face retaliation, making them and others fearful to stand up to a superintendent or little league commissioner.  

These chronic inequities contribute to the gender pay gap. Boys and girls who play sports in high school make at least 7 percent higher wages as adults — meaning tens of thousands of dollars more in earning power over a lifetime — according to one study controlling for a host of variables. Yet a million more boys play high school sports compared to girls, even though girls make up half of our youth and want to play just as much.

In addition, girls who play sports are more likely than those who don’t to stay in school, go to college, and lead healthy lives, research shows. And girls who play sports have higher levels of self-confidence, more positive body image, and greater self-esteem, independent of relationships with boys, arming girls with tools to directly combat the misogynistic, appearance-judging vitriol from the likes of Donald Trump. For many girls, especially girls from low-income communities and girls of color, playing sports is about more than fun and games, it’s an ingredient of lifetime success.

The different ways we treat girls’ and boys’ sports are soingrained in our culture that they are hard to spot and root out. Girls who want to join in recess pickup games are often boxed out by dominating boys, while no adult intervenes to ensure girls are welcomed and encouraged. Despite the popularity and skill of the U.S. women’s soccer team and other female leagues, women’s sports are far less televised than men’s sports, making it harder for girls (and boys) to develop female athletic role models. And families prioritize watching men’s sports at home and at the local arena, versus women’s sports, despite female athletes’ top-level play. 

Still, there are crucial steps we can take to require fairness and begin changing these deep-seated attitudes.

Schools and cities should swiftly audit their existing sports programs to determine how many girls and boys are playing, then ensure girls are playing the sports they want to play and in numbers matching their interest, as laws like Title IX require. Kids often get their first chance to play in park and recreation leagues, yet studies and agency self-reporting reveal that girls are getting only one-third of local opportunities compared to the lion’s share going to boys. From a young age, girls are missing the gateways to school-level participation.

Parents and adult mentors can help, too, by being dogged, fearless advocates for girls. Take a hard look at available leagues, facilities, and amenities for female and male athletes and press for change wherever it’s needed. When considering schools for your kids, look beyond test scores and ask, will my daughter be treated the same as my son in the classroom and in after-school campus activities? We wouldn’t afford male students faster computers or more-educated teachers than female students, so we shouldn’t tolerate better-equipped locker rooms and more-experienced coaches for boys’ teams over girls’ teams. And relying on anti-retaliation measures in Title IX, for example, can safeguard complainants from backlash, emboldening them to speak up in the bold manner of Rapinoe, Krieger, and Morgan.

And make sure you’re encouraging girls to get involved in sports just as much as you do with boys to bring girls up to the starting line and not stuck well behind it.  

If superstars like the U.S. women’s national team can be victims of gender discrimination, it’s not surprising that it’s happening to so many girls across the country. They all just want the chance to compete on a level playing field. Getting there would be the biggest win of all.

Kim Turner is a senior staff attorney with the Fair Play for Girls in Sports project litigating Title IX federal class actions, training schools and park and recreation departments, supporting legislative reform, and educating communities as to their rights and responsibilities with the nonprofit Legal Aid at Work based in San Francisco, California.

Categorized as Blog Post
Quick Escape