Representation, Participation & Pay for Women in Sports: Takeaways From the Chasing Equity Report

The Women’s Sports Foundation released its Chasing Equity report on the land­scape for women and girls in sports at the begin­ning of 2020. Some of the find­ings are promis­ing. Others are stag­ger­ing. Here’s what you should know.

Representation, Participation & Pay for Women in Sports: Takeaways From the Chasing Equity Report

The Women’s Sports Foundation released its Chasing Equity report on the land­scape for women and girls in sports at the begin­ning of 2020. Some of the find­ings are promis­ing. Others are stag­ger­ing. Here’s what you should know.

The Women’s Sports Foundation released its Chasing Equity report at the begin­ning of 2020. At 70 pages (not includ­ing the appen­dices), it’s a thor­ough account of the cur­rent land­scape for women and girls in sports. 

Some of the find­ings are promis­ing. For exam­ple, 50% of high school girls now play sports. But oth­ers are stag­ger­ing — high school girls leave sports at a rate two-to-three times high­er than boys. 

Here’s what you should know. 

Let’s start with the good news.

There are more oppor­tu­ni­ties than ever. Access to all sports across all lev­els has improved for women and girls. Athletic oppor­tu­ni­ties for women in the NCAA increased by 291% from 1981 – 82 to 2017 – 18. Today 54% of NCAA teams across all divi­sions are women’s teams. 

Participation is increas­ing. Girls’ par­tic­i­pa­tion has been on an upward tra­jec­to­ry for near­ly 30 years. Before Title IX, one in 27 high school girls par­tic­i­pat­ed in sports; now one in two do. 93% of girls ages sev­en to 13 said they love to play sports, and 75% of them plan to play in high school and beyond.

The bad news? There’s a lot of room for improvement. 

Girls and women still have few­er oppor­tu­ni­ties to par­tic­i­pate and work in sports. Even though they make up half the nation­al stu­dent body, girls have less than 43% of all oppor­tu­ni­ties in high school sports — 3.4 mil­lion oppor­tu­ni­ties com­pared to 4.5 oppor­tu­ni­ties for boys. And while girls’ par­tic­i­pa­tion has been on an upward tra­jec­to­ry for near­ly 30 years, oppor­tu­ni­ties declined by more than 10,000 in 2018 – 19.

Coaching oppor­tu­ni­ties for women have actu­al­ly decreased. While Title IX has great­ly increased girls’ par­tic­i­pa­tion, there’s been a huge decline in women coach­ing since it was enact­ed. In 1971, 90% of women’s col­lege teams were coached by women, but in 2017, less than half (43%) of those teams were coached by women. Women coach only 5% of men’s teams. 

Nearly 80% of col­lege ath­let­ic direc­tors are men across all NCAA divi­sions, with women mak­ing up only 11% of all NCAA Div. I ath­let­ic directors. 

Even in the WBNA, the league with the high­est racial and gen­der diver­si­ty rank­ings, there’s cause for con­cern—only four of the 12 teams have female head coaches. 

Girls’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in sports has yet to catch up to boys’. While boys start sports at 6.8 years old on aver­age, girls start at 7.4. From ages six to 10, girls’ par­tic­i­pa­tion lags 10 per­cent­age points behind boys’. In grades eight to 12, girls leave sports at a rate two-to-three times high­er than boys. And while 47% of high school boys play two or more sports, only 29% of girls do. 

Women of col­or and LGBTQ women face addi­tion­al bar­ri­ers. While 68% of all high school stu­dents par­tic­i­pate in sports, only 29% of LGBTQ girls do — which is unsur­pris­ing since 84% of Americans say they’ve wit­nessed or expe­ri­enced anti-LGBTQ atti­tudes in sports. 

Meanwhile, girls of col­or in urban areas drop out of sports at twice the rate of sub­ur­ban White girls. 33% of African American par­ents said finan­cial rea­sons kept their daugh­ters from par­tic­i­pat­ing in sports, com­pared to 18% of White par­ents. And in 2017 – 18, only 3% of head coach­es in the NCAA were women of color. 

Female ath­letes are under­rep­re­sent­ed in the media. In the U.S., only 3.2% of cov­er­age is devot­ed to women’s sports. The num­bers aren’t much bet­ter world­wide. In a study of 20 dif­fer­ent coun­tries, sto­ries on women’s sports made up just 11% of the total coverage. 

Coverage has fall­en over a 25-year peri­od, and it could be due to few­er female sports edi­tors — a study of 100 U.S. and Canadian news­pa­pers saw female sports edi­tors fall from more than 17% per­cent in 2012 to less than 10% in 2014. A 2018 study of 75 news­pa­pers and web­sites found that 90% of sports edi­tors were men. 

And even when women’s sports are cov­ered, that cov­er­age isn’t always equi­table. Studies showed female ath­letes are more like­ly to be shown off-court and out of uni­form than their male counterparts. 

Women in sports are still fight­ing for equal pay. The USWNT soc­cer play­ers’ wide­ly-pub­li­cized fight for equal pay is ongo­ing. On the coach­ing front, for­mer USWNT head coach Jill Ellis was offered a salary increase from $300,000 to $500,000 — still sig­nif­i­cant­ly less than the $899,348 USMNT head coach Bruce Arena made in 2017. (Previous head coach Jurgen Klinsmann made $3.3 mil­lion dur­ing his final year coach­ing in 2016, despite the team’s elim­i­na­tion in the round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup, and fail­ure to qual­i­fy for the 2018 tournament.) 

The women’s National Ice Hockey Team, WNBA play­ers, and indi­vid­ual ath­letes like gym­nast Simone Biles and run­ners Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher have also spo­ken out against dis­parate pay in their sports. 

This issue also exists at the col­le­giate lev­el. In the 2015 – 16 aca­d­e­m­ic year, head coach­es of women’s teams in Div. I schools received only 30% of the mon­ey allo­cat­ed for all head coach salaries in the divi­sion. (Divisions II and III were more equi­table, with 48% and 37% allo­cat­ed to women, respectively.)

Girls and women face dif­fer­ent expec­ta­tions and chal­lenges in ath­let­ics. Two-thirds of girls report­ed hav­ing been made fun of or made uncom­fort­able by boys while they prac­ticed their sport. In anoth­er sur­vey, 44% of par­ents said they expect­ed their sons to com­pete on a high school var­si­ty team, while only 36% expect­ed the same of their daughters. 

In a sur­vey of both male and female ath­letes, 23% of women said a coach had direct­ed pur­pose­ful­ly hurt­ful com­ments toward them, com­pared to 17% of men. (It’s worth not­ing that male ath­letes did report high­er instances of oth­er types of abu­sive behav­ior, such as hav­ing some­thing thrown at them by a coach.) More than 17% of female ath­letes have expe­ri­enced sex­u­al vio­lence when par­tic­i­pat­ing in sports as a child, com­pared to more than 10% of male athletes. 

What can we do?

A study of U.S. adults found 60% of adults agreed girls don’t have as many oppor­tu­ni­ties — but only 43% knew what they could do to help. 

Prioritize research. The mon­i­tor­ing and report­ing from orga­ni­za­tions like the Women’s Sports Foundation is key to under­stand­ing what work needs to be done to reach par­i­ty in women’s athletics. 

Champion the ben­e­fits of sport par­tic­i­pa­tion. Involvement in ath­let­ics has been shown to improve aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance. One study found sports par­tic­i­pa­tion was linked with high­er AP place­ment rates for all stu­dents. Another found female ath­letes grad­u­at­ed at an 8% high­er rate than female non-athletes. 

Sports have an impact beyond the class­room too — 75% of women busi­ness exec­u­tives said their sports back­ground helped accel­er­ate their careers. A study of women in C-suite posi­tions found that 94% of them com­pet­ed in sports, with 52% play­ing at the uni­ver­si­ty level.

Support women’s sports cov­er­age. To increase par­tic­i­pa­tion, young girls need to see them­selves rep­re­sent­ed in sports. While women’s sports are severe­ly under­re­port­ed on, one thing indi­vid­u­als can do is sub­scribe to newslet­ters like Power Plays and The IX, and pod­casts like Burn It All Down that are sole­ly ded­i­cat­ed women’s sports. 

Finally: hire women. To lev­el the play­ing field for women and girls in sport, women must have a seat at the table.