Today, more girls and women than ever before are participating in high school and college sports. Sports benefit physical and mental health, and also teach girls important life skills – team work, goal-setting, perseverance, the value of hard work. Girls who participate in high school sports do better on tests, graduate at higher rates, and earn higher wages throughout their careers.
But these lessons and benefits are not reaching all girls. The total number of girls participating in high school sports today (3.4 million) still has not reached the total number of boys participating in high school sports in 1972, when Title IX was passed (3.7 million), despite population growth. Schools with higher percentages of minority or low income students are much less likely to have equal sports opportunities for girls. Geographical inequity also persists – the Deep South has the biggest gender participation gaps nationwide in high school sports.
And while participation numbers are important for measuring the progress of girls in society, so is overall cultural change. Title IX is not just about girls participating, but also about girls growing and thriving. Title IX is about changing the culture of the country to respect girls and women, and in that endeavor we still have a lot to do.
Female athletes are still not recognized or respected in the same way as male athletes. Total media coverage of women’s sports “barely budged” between 1989 and 2015. Rules enforced against professional female athletes are ignored for male athletes in the same sport. Serena Williams—arguably the greatest athlete in history, of any gender and in any sport—was severely penalized for yelling at a referee, while male players admit to regularly engaging in worse behavior without receiving any punishment. Recent news coverage shows that Nike profited from promoting female athletes—including Serena—while simultaneously punishing women for taking maternity leave. Any female college athlete can tell you the majority of the time, more of her peers attend the men’s games than women’s games (on a related note, maybe we should be asking ourselves why “spectator sports” are all in traditionally male-dominated fields).
Female athletes are also not immune to gender biases and harassment that plague the rest of American culture. Sports teach girls about independence, achievement, and work ethic, but can also create environments of fear and shame. Female athletes endure unique power imbalances in their relationships with (often male) coaches, trainers, and fellow athletes. The Me Too movement shined light on girls in sports as victims of sexual assault and subject to organizational cover-ups and denials.
How do we use Title IX to continue to progress? To start with, we must acknowledge that focusing on participation numbers is not enough. We need a deeper cultural change to ensure we are respecting female athletes, listening to girls, and valuing the contributions of women in society. We do that by changing the channel to show women’s games in bars, restaurants, and public spaces. We teach girls and boys that all people deserve respect, on and off the field. We implement sexual harassment trainings for all coaches, trainers, and athletes nationwide. And we recognize that these actions are just the beginning.
On this anniversary of Title IX, let’s celebrate how we far we have come as a country. But let’s not lose sight of all the progress we have yet to make.