Home » Gender Gap in High School Sports Opportunities Widening, Reversing Previous Gains, Says New Study

Gender Gap in High School Sports Opportunities Widening, Reversing Previous Gains, Says New Study

Number of schools with no interscholastic sports doubled in past decade


The gender gap in high school sports opportunities has widened over the past decade while the number of schools without any interscholastic sports has doubled, finds a new study.  The report demonstrates that inequalities in sports programs at U.S. public schools persist, forty years after the passage of Title IX and raises troubling questions for the future of interscholastic sports.

Female soccer player about to kick a ball

The report, entitled "The Decade of Decline: Gender Equity in High School Sports," was issued by the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls (SHARP Center), a partnership between the University of Michigan's Department of Kinesiology and Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the Women's Sports Foundation.

Key findings 

Among the report's key findings are the following: 

Athletic opportunities: Expanded, but more for boys than girls:

Athletic opportunities - defined as a situation or condition within a school that allows a young person to participate in some sort of athletic activity, and measured primarily by the number, percentages and ratios of athletic participation opportunities provided to female and male students, and two secondary measures (the number of sports provided for girls and boys, and the number of teams provided by gender) - have expanded across the decade, but boys made more gains than girls. 

  • The percentage of athletic opportunities among girls increased by 9 percentage points (from 32% to 41%), while the percentage among boys moved up ten percentage points (from 43% to 53%). 
  • While more girls and boys were involved with interscholastic sports than ever before in American history, the gender gap persisted and actually grew from 11% to 12%, with girls remaining "way behind boys in the number of athletic opportunities allotted to them."
  • The report viewed this data as signaling a "protracted retreat from the legislative mandate of Title IX unfold[ing] across the decade" and the decade of the 2000s as "an era of lost opportunity."
  • By the end of the decade boys were receiving disproportionately more athletic opportunities than girls in all community settings (urban, suburban, town, and rural), with the gender gap remaining at 11% in urban schools and growing from 10% to 13% in suburban schools, 13% to 15% in town schools, and 11% to 13% in rural schools.  The data debunks the idea that equal opportunity in sports as a result of Title IX means a zero-sum game, with the researchers finding "absolutely no evidence" that boys somehow lost chances to play sports as a result of girls' gains in sport. The authors concluded from the data that "sons are being privileged, daughters are still being shortchanged."
  • Because the decade was marked by recession, unemployment, domestic and global economic uncertainty, the collapse of the housing market, declining consumer confidence, and the continued shrinking of the middle class which impacted communities and schools differently, researchers expected that the provision of athletic opportunities would vary with school economic resources across the decade.  They found instead that boys were afforded more athletic participation opportunities than girls regardless of the economic resources of the school.  "During a decade of expanding athletic participation opportunities across U.S. high schools, boys received more than girls, and, despite the level of economic resources, back-peddling on gender equity was the rule not the exception," the report found.
  • The provision of athletic opportunities varied markedly across geographic regions, with Northeastern and Midwestern schools providing the most athletic opportunities per 100 students among both boys and girls.  The only region in which girls' share of athletic participation opportunities increased in the 2000's was the Midwest, moving from 46% to 51%. Girls' gains either stalled or dipped between 2005-06 and 2009-10 in the Northeast, South, and West.  While girls' overall chance of athletic opportunities inched forward from 1993-94 to 2005-06, it dipped to 40% by 2009-10.  Boys' share of such opportunities not only remained higher than that of their female counterparts across the time frame, but also boys logged a 6 percentage point net gain (47% to 53%) during the 2000s.
  • On average, boys were consistently provided more teams than girls in every region throughout the decade.  Southern schools added the most teams for both girls and boys - an average of 3.8 and 3.9, respectively.  And yet, in the Northeast and South, girls actually lost ground to boys.  The bottom line conclusion supported by the data is that, despite overall increases in the number of teams across the decade, there was no measurable progress towards gender equity.

High school sports programs are declining:

  • The percentage of schools offering no sports programs nearly doubled in the 2000s, from 8.2 percent of schools in 2000, to approximately 15 percent in 2010, a figure the report viewed as "sobering." 
  • Seven percent of public schools dropped sports programs between 2000 and 2010, while less than one percent added sports to their curriculum. 
  • The upward trend in the number of schools that dropped sports seemed to be related to community type, with 9.6% of urban high schools dropping sports, compared with 5.8% of suburban schools, 6.6% of town schools, and 7.7% of rural schools. 
  • Most apt to drop interscholastic sports were schools with fewer economic resources and, concomitantly, student bodies that come from working-class or poorer communities where families and children are already disproportionately disadvantaged.
  • Schools with disproportionately higher female enrollments (i.e., where the student body was 56 percent female or higher) and in which whites have the lowest rates of enrollment, were more likely to have dropped interscholastic sports between 2000 and 2010.  These findings suggest that athletic programs in schools with fewer economic resources, urban locations, fewer whites and larger female enrollments may be on a path toward attrition; and
  • More than one-quarter (27%) of U.S. public high schools (4,398 schools) will be without any interscholastic sports by 2020, assuming present trends continue, which would mean an estimated 3.4 million young Americans (1,658,046 girls and 1,798,782 boys) would not have any school-based sports activities in which to participate just eight years from now.

The data raise serious concerns for the future and left co-authors, Don Sabo, Ph.D., Professor of Health Policy at D'Youville College in Buffalo, New York, and Philip Veliz, Ph.D., Research Fellow at the University of Michigan, to ponder, among other questions:

  • What American high schools and their surrounding communities would be like with no interscholastic sports?
  • Where will the "would-have-been" athletes from working-class or poor families who cannot afford "pay to play" sports opportunities for their daughters and sons, equipment, uniforms or fees that allow entry into commercial sports programs, find opportunities to be physically active, learn sport and absorb the life lessons that participation can often provide?
  • What will secondary education look like if sports programs became the exception rather than the rule? and
  • How will the elimination of more athletic programs impact school dropout and suspension rates, academic performance, school violence, youth physical activity levels, obesity risk, and the long-term health of adolescents?
"Sadly," says the report, "it appears that across the decade of the 2000's, school leaders have not only failed to provide gender equity in high school sport, they may also be unaware of the pace of atrophy within interscholastic sports.

Alarming signs

Sabo and Veliz viewed the failure to create gender equity in sports and the fact that more schools are abandoning athletic programs entirely as possible signs "of a more pervasive decline in America's capacity for national and global leadership": 

  • "While researchers have increasingly documented favorable educational gains associated with sport, many schools are cutting programs and turning their backs on girls in sport."
  • "While public health planners warn about the costs of treating chronic illnesses linked to rising obesity rates and teen pregnancy, athletic programs that help reduce that risk for these outcomes are being defunded or dropped."
  • "Economists and political scientists are quantifying women's growing contributions to national economic development and the U.S.'s competitive stature in the global economy. And yet, at the same time, girls are being short-changed in high school sports - an educational launching pad for college-going behavior and academic achievement once in college."
  •  "One sociological tenet contends that, during times of economic hardship, social inequalities tend to grow more marked rather than diminish.  This dynamic may be playing out with regard to gender equity in high school sports."

Policy recommendations

The report calls for: 

  • Strengthened enforcement of Title IX at the secondary school level by the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education;
  • Federal policymakers to require high schools to publicly disclose gender equity data about their athletic programs;
  • Urban schools, in particular, to redouble their efforts to increase the number of athletic opportunities that they provide girls;
  • All schools to have Title IX Coordinators and regularly conduct Title IX self-evaluations to ensure that they are complying with the law;
  • Additional research to examine the identified trend of schools dropping sports for all students; and
  • Additional research to examine what factors contribute to the varying numbers of athletic opportunities and participation gaps by gender, community setting, level of school economic resources, and geographic region.
"In the wake of the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games, the state of women's sports in the U.S. has generated great praise, and many believe that girls and women have finally achieved athletic equality. However, these findings suggest that we simply aren't there yet. In fact, we are moving farther and farther away from equality with the cutting of interscholastic sports," said Kathryn Olson, Chief Executive Officer of the Women's Sports Foundation. "It goes beyond the physical benefits of sport. Sports are an integral part of the educational experience; students who participate in sports are shown to achieve greater academic success. The decline of interscholastic athletic opportunities should be looked at as an erosion of the educational capacity."

Source: Sabo, D. and Veliz, P. (2012). The Decade of Decline: Gender Equity in High School Sports. Ann Arbor, MI: SHARP Center for Women and Girls.

Posted October 8, 2012