Every day, girls and young women face persistent, blatant gender inequities in school and community sports in towns and cities throughout the nation. Across the U.S., even though girls want to play in greater numbers, high schools give one million more athletic opportunities to boys compared to girls, including 100,000+ more in California. In community sports leagues run or hosted by public park and recreation departments, departments report that girls get just one-third—or even fewer—of the opportunities to play on teams. One large California park and rec. department reported that girls currently receive a mere 12% of the athletic opportunities. And, when girls do get to play sports, they are told they don’t matter as much through inferior conditions such as second-rate facilities, coaches who don’t know the sport, and little to no recognition in the school or community publicity.
This National Girls and Women in Sports Day (Feb. 3), the time is now to recognize the epidemic of gender inequity in youth sports made illegal by Title IX. It is important to take action not just because it is the right thing to do but so more girls can experience the lifelong benefits from playing sports:
- Girls who play sports in high school are correlated to make 7% higher wages as adults and are more likely to enter male-dominated professions.
- Girls who play sports experience greater academic success.
- Girls who play sports have higher self-esteem and confidence.
- And girls who play sports are more likely to avoid breast cancer as adults and experience a wide range of lasting mental and physical health benefits, including preventing certain diabetes conditions that make one more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Think about your own high school or youth community sports league, or that of your daughter, granddaughter, niece, or neighbor. When you consider the local baseball field and the softball field, are they equal, or is one less maintained and far away? Are girls’ teams getting equal mention in social media, rallies, and announcements, or do they get the crumbs of acknowledgment? Are girls’ locker rooms and team rooms equal to those afforded to boys, or are girls handed the smaller, less-equipped areas, or no areas at all, for their teams and sports development? This can all be fixed and it need not take years, or even months. We can start right now to level the playing field for female youth sports. Here’s how to start:
1. EXAMINE YOUTH SPORTS PROGRAMS WITH A GENDER LENS.
Even if youth sports programming in schools or the community are paused right now, this is a great time to step back and examine:
- Are boys getting the majority of sports opportunities in the local schools or community leagues? CA requires public elementary, middle, and high schools with competitive athletics to post athletic participation data on their web sites. Ask for the data if it’s not posted!
- Are boys getting superior benefits, including facilities, scheduling slots, coach experience, fundraising opportunities, and more?
2. FIND THE LOW-HANGING FRUIT FOR INSTILLING EQUITY.
For example, in your school or community, if boys have the best fields or gyms, or better access to locker rooms and team rooms, simply ROTATE these areas among girls’ and boys’ teams (i.e., don’t permit boys’ football to dominate locker and team rooms all year round but instead apportion spaces evenly among ALL teams). These are publicly-enabled resources that should be equally enjoyed by youth regardless of gender. (Note: Welcoming and accommodating all LGBTQI youth is key – contact Fair Play for more resources about inclusion, as needed!)
3. MAKE / REQUEST LONG AND SHORT-TERM PLANS TO ENSURE GENDER EQUITY IN YOUTH SPORTS.
- Survey girls in the school (example) or community (example) on what girls want to play and what barriers may be keeping them from play, then add the sports they identify and remove the barriers to participation.
- Review existing guides on how to instill gender equity in K-12 public school athletics and in public community-enabled sports programs. Accessible, engaging guides are here for schools and community park and recreation.
- Recognize that the high-hanging fruit is critical and attainable too, such as ensuring newly-built or renovated school sports facilities and community sports complexes are gender-equitable and encompass girls in terms of their sports interests.
Ensure community members, families, girls, stakeholders, and youth sports program staff, coaches, and leadership persist by rapidly diagnosing gender inequity issues in youth sports, finding and addressing unfairness with concerted plans, and providing support and funding (creativity with resources works!) for all necessary changes.
Know that gender equity is indeed possible. Fair Play for Girls in Sports, a project of the nonprofit Legal Aid at Work, has worked for nearly two decades on helping girls establish equity in youth sports, especially in low-income communities of color where female athletes have too often been sidelined.
Representative of our work, Fair Play recently concluded the monitoring of four different high schools across two states, spurring the following changes:
- Hundreds more athletic opportunities for girls in the form of new sports team levels (e.g., frosh/soph/novice teams) and expanded sport offerings (responsive to what girls actually want to play). For example, where there are three levels of football afforded to boys, a school should establish three levels of girls’ soccer, basketball, or other in-demand girls’ sports with comparable coaching and support.
- Rotated and/or upgraded athletic facilities for girls so girls’ teams are finally gaining equal access to publicly-funded locker rooms, team rooms, fields, conditioning spaces and more. At one California school, girls’ softball had decrepit chain-link dugouts and no proper hitting barn whereas boys’ baseball had shaded, sturdy cinderblock dugouts and a hitting complex—on the same campus, a tale of two teams.
After Fair Play intervened, the school created a new girls’ softball field, with cinderblock dugouts and a hitting structure for girls—among other changes. Now, girls may once and for all experience a level playing field.
Gender equity in youth sports leagues, throughout schools and park and recreation community teams, can be a reality—right now. Start today by checking out the tools and videos at Fair Play’s website: www.fairplayforgirlsinsports.org and please contact us for more information. If you wish to support our Fair Play efforts to level the playing field, you can also donate here and/or sign up for e-news on our site. Happy National Girls and Women in Sports Day!