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


Not a proponent of this approach

As a strong supporter of Title IX and its benefits to girls/women I really do not "get" this latest strategy of certain proponents to try and focus on "participation opportunities" in high school sports -- as though there was some finite number of "participation opportunities" that a school could offer to its students. In my view, the Title IX focus should be kept on real violations when and where they arise. Goodness knows there are enough of those to keep anyone, or any group, busy.

To me, the "participation opportunity" argument buys into the worst of the Title IX justifications, and gives Title IX opponents more ammunition to proclaim that Title IX supporters either do not understand what is going on with high school sports, or are really just trying to force schools to shut down boys' sports in the name of equality.
Let’s just address the issues head-on rather than hide behind this newly created “participation opportunity” theory. The issues are not secret – they have been around for decades although there have been some mostly positive changes over time. Set aside the argument that boys like sports more than girls (one I strongly disagree with by the way), there are more boys participating in high school sports than girls because: (a) Football is a very popular sport where teams typically will accept every kid who wants to play (it is a “no cut” sport); (b) Wrestling is essentially a boys only sport and there are typically no cuts for the wrestling team; (c) Lacrosse is a rapidly growing high school sport and while public schools typically field both boys and girls teams, more boys play than girls. (d) Hockey also has the same issue as lacrosse although not every school with a boys’ hockey team fields a girls hockey team; and (e) We do not count other activities as “participation opportunities”.

There are few sports that are essentially girls only to offset sports that are essentially just boys (football, wrestling and to a large extent ice hockey). Volleyball is the most popular girls sport in terms of participation numbers, and I believe only California offers boys volleyball as a varsity sport. Gymnastics is another essentially girls only sport, but it is dying out at the high school level for obvious reasons (cost, safety, interest), and field hockey is still played in small numbers of public schools.

The sport that Title IX advocates struggle to deal with – cheerleading -- does not count for Title IX purposes in almost every state. Cheerleading is difficult to address, because of most folks’ perception is that cheer consists of pretty girls bouncing around in short skirts watching boys play sports. I will suggest that very few cheerleaders believe that to be the case, BUT it is difficult to make cheer into a varsity sport that would count for Title IX purposes. Why?

The Dept. of Justice Civil Rights division has clearly said that cheerleading can be a varsity sport for Title IX purposes PROVIDED that the governing body for high school sports treats it like any other varsity sport, i.e. there are league competitions (no problem), state championships (no problem), and the sport follows the rules for other varsity sports (oops – problem). Oddly, cheerleaders run afoul of varsity sport rules because they typically train too often and for far too long a time period.

High school sports have very defined seasons and very defined rules about when coaches are allowed to be with the kids to practice. In most schools cheer practices start in the summer and continue through the end of the winter sports season – usually February or March. No other sport would come close to that lengthy of a season. Very few states have tried to make cheer into a varsity sport for that reason. Another oddity with cheer – Michigan, whose governing high school sports association is arguably one of the least progressive when it comes to Title IX, has actually accomplished the task, by creating a distinct sport of “competitive cheer”. They deserve some kudos for having done so – and for having stuck with it. The key is that it had to be cheer oriented, while also being different from what you would see on the sideline of a football or basketball game so as to avoid breaking the general varsity sports rules barring off-season training. If you included cheer as a “sport” for “participation opportunity” purposes then the gap between boys and girls closes significantly (although not completely).

What else is holding down girls’ numbers? First to me, we need more youth sports programs for girls. That requires parents to step up and volunteer to help run those programs, and communities to commit resources to support those organizations. The time to introduce kids to sports is when they are young – not when they get to high school.

Secondly: If the concern is “participation opportunities” then I think it is disingenuous to focus solely on sports. There is the cheerleading issue discussed above, but there are also other time intensive extra-curricular activities like marching band, school plays/musicals, and debate/forensics that need to be considered as well. The time commitment associated with those types of activities often precludes kids from also undertaking a high school sport during those “seasons”. Yes it can be done, but it is silly to think that kids do not make choices about what they want to focus on given their limited time. My view is that if the goal is to look at “participation opportunities” we should not penalize a school that offers kids a variety of extra-curricular “participation opportunities” – not just sports.

Finally, while I think we need to focus on the real Title IX issues that are out there still waiting to be addressed, I am in favor of looking at “participation opportunities” if we are going to expand beyond just traditional sports. I do not want to try and force girls to play field hockey or join a bowling team, nor do I want to disband a wrestling team, just so we can say we equalized the number of boys and girls playing high school sports. I would rather add extra-curricular programs that might appeal to kids who are not into traditional sports, e.g. dance, yoga, and personal fitness.

Where to begin..just some

Where to begin..just some random thoughts...

-The whole emphasis of Title IX was great in the beginning, because there really was a "lack of opportunity". That does not exist now. Yes, there are restrictions, mostly due to lack on interest, and / or lack of funds. (this is reality, lack of funds).

-Boys and girls are different. It's amazing to me that intelligent people continue to bang their head against the wall about this concept. In general, boys WANT to play sports, and typically WANT to play more as they get older. The peak athletic time for boys are age 8-30. Girls WANT to play IF, they like it, if their friends do it, but largely, girls lose their competitiveness about age 15. Girls sports careers are from about age 6 to age 15. Folks, they change, their bodies change, their interests change, they have boyfriends, they want money so they get jobs, they just don't want to commit to a sports 80% of their down time. Why is this hard to figure out?

-boys and girls youth programs are higher and more available than in any time in history. Parents change their lives to mold their schedules around kids activities. Many volunteers get run off because of overbearing parents and continued legislation and regulations for safely, coaching certificates and other expensive red tape. Families pay thousands of dollars a season playing club volleyball, aau basketball and travel baseball and soccer.

-yes, competitive cheerleading takes time and is athletic, but the kids that stand on the sidelines at basketball and football games are not athletes. At some schools they are part of the athletic program, at some they are not. Talk about non-revenue? They take in $0 money, and want 3/4 sets of uniforms, sweats, etc. Most athletic departments just could not do it anymore.

-finally, we don't want to model anything after the Olympics, who've brought us sycronized swimming, trap shooting and badminton. Not exactly big time high school sports.

Common, your post made me

Common, your post made me laugh, but is indictative of attitudes that still exist and evidence why we need to continue to pay close attention to Title IX issues. Girls lose their competitiveness at about age 15??? -- geez Common.

But -- Common's post points out there are still folks out there with the attitude that girls do not really like sports, so we don't really need to pay that much attention. iRather than counting "participation opportunities", let's focus on correcting actual issues where we find them; and improving overall education so attitudes about girls and women playing sports will, eventually, change.

How often do real problems come up? More often than you might think. I was just reading about a small college that agreed to a consent order with the Dept of Justice Civil Rights Dept to remedy Title IX problems. The biggest issue? A few years ago the school built a multi-use stadium, but forgot to include a women's locker room. Crazy. Last year a local school district got (rightfully) taken to task because they spent a ton of money improving the boys' baseball field, but then "ran out of time" to fix up the girls' softball field. Just silly.