1 in 3 parents think boys better at sports: study

Persistent stereotypes sexualize female athletes and create an environment where women are held to a different standard than men.

Dave Yasvinski 4 minute read July 28, 2021
boys girls sports

The study shows just how pervasive stereotypes can be. Getty

Roughly one-third of parents believe that boys are better than girls at sports, a pervasive attitude researchers say fuels gender stereotypes, double standards and the ongoing sexualization of female athletes currently on display at the highest levels of sport.

The study, titled Keeping Girls in the Game: Factors that Influence Sports Participation, found that parents who have never played sports are more likely believe girls are not as competitive as boys and that this form of physical activity is more important to boys than girls. According to researchers, the end result of these persistent stereotypes is the sexualization of female athletes and the creation of an environment where women are held to a different standard than men.

The Norwegian women’s beach handball team felt the full force of this phenomenon last week when they were fined for refusing to wear the skimpy bikini bottoms mandated for their match against Spain at the Beach Handball Euro 2021 tournament.

“Women athletes’ attire is constantly scrutinized,” said Philip Veliz, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing and associate director of the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center. “No one has ever said that a baseball or football player’s pants are too tight.”

A poll of more than 3,000 boys and girls between the ages of seven and 17 found the seeds for these stereotypes are sown early by the 32 per cent of parents who do not believe girls are as good at sports as boys. It found these attitudes are further fostered by the absence of women coaches as role models for young athletes. “The average age that kids enter sports is six, which requires heavy parental involvement,” Veliz said. “If you believe that boys are better than girls, you may be taking girls to a different activity or not doing sports at all.”

The study found girls were more likely to have never played sports than boys (43 per cent to 35 per cent), a discrepancy that prevents many from starting down the road to a healthy life full of physical activity. “Sport is the most popular extracurricular activity in the United States for both boys and girls,” said Veliz. “Yet, we see this gender gap in participation persist and parents may be driving some of this.”

African American and low-income youth — but particularly girls — were least likely to currently be engaged in youth sports and most likely to have never participated or dropped out. Of the survey’s respondents, just 58 per cent of girls reported having had a female coach, compared to 88 per cent of boys with a male coach. “We’re seeing a big gender disparity between who’s coaching boys and girls,” Veliz said. “We need to ask why we don’t have more female coaches. We should have 88 per cent of girls saying they have a female coach. However, we still see females being underrepresented in coaching at the youth level and beyond.”

The best way to level the playing field is to convince parents that boys and girls have an equal interest in sports while making it easier for women to assume coaching roles. This should begin to occur naturally as more female athletes start having daughters, Veliz said. “If you have a mom who used to play sports, she will be more likely to say, ‘I want my daughter to participate in these activities like I did,’” he said.

The study also found that most kids who quit sports do so at the age of 11 — roughly the time at which enjoyment of a game can begin to take a backseat to other considerations. “One of the problems with sports in the United States is it’s really about the competition and some kids just want to play for fun,” Veliz said.

Ideally, he would like to see kids stay involved until they graduate from high school. “Sports is really the main source of physical activity for kids,” he said. “It will set the stage for them as they grow up.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer withHealthing.ca