Expert Commentary

The decade of decline: Gender equity in high school sports

2012 report from a University of Michigan-affiliated policy center that examines how laws promoting women's opportunities in sports are being adopted.

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Title IX, the law that prohibits gender discrimination in all educational activities that receive federal funding — including public high school athletic programs — marks its 40th anniversary in 2012. There has obviously been a great deal of progress since the 1970s, and some research has found significant benefits for girls in later life. But how effective has the law been in recent years? A 2012 study conducted by the Sport, Health, and Activity Research Policy Center for Women and Girls, run in partnership with the University of Michigan, takes an in-depth look at how athletic opportunities in U.S. high schools have changed for girls between 2000 and 2010.

The 2012 study, “The Decade of Decline: Gender Equity in High School Sports,” analyzes public high school sports programs all over the United States, taking into account school size, gender composition, geographic location, type of community (rural, suburban, town or urban), and the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, as a measure of the community’s economic status. The study uses data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), drawing a sample of 7,254 public four-year high schools that participated in the CRDC during both the 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 school years. The researchers looked at three key variables when measuring the extent of athletic opportunities: the number of athletic participation opportunities; the number of athletic teams; and the number of sports. They describe and compare these opportunities among U.S. boys and girls to see what progress toward gender equality was made throughout the decade.

The report’s key findings include:

  • Although between 2000 and 2010 there was a 9% increase in athletic opportunities offered to girls (from 32% to 41%), there was a 10% increase for boys (from 43% to 53%.) This means that even by the 2009-2010 school year, 53 athletic opportunities were administered for every 100 boys, compared with 41 for every 100 girls.
  • During the 2009-10 school year, boys received more athletic opportunities than girls in all community settings. The gender gap in athletic participation opportunity remained at 11% in urban schools; grew from 10% to 13% in suburban schools; grew from 13% to 15% in town schools; and grew from 11% to 13% in rural schools.
  • Boys were given more athletic participation opportunities than girls regardless of the economic status of the school. The gender gap remained constant in the “upper-tier” schools, increased from 10% to 13% in the “lower-tier,” and increasing from 12% to 13% in the “middle-tier” schools.
  • Of the schools where girls comprised 55% or more of the school population, 20.5% dropped sports during the decade; of schools where boys were the majority of students, only 10.8% dropped sports from their extracurricular offerings.
  • The average number of female-only sports teams went from 10.9 per school during the 1999-2000 school year to 14.3 during 2009-2010; these averages for boys were 12.3 in 2000 and 15.6, in 2010. So, while the average number of teams for both genders increased, the gender gap remained almost the same.
  • The share of athletic participation opportunities for boys increased more than the share for girls did in 29 states (57%) and remained the same in five states (10%). By the end of the decade, girls had a higher percentage gain in athletic opportunities than boys in only 17 states (33%).

The researchers conclude the past decade represented “a protracted retreat from the legislative mandate of Title IX.” While girls’ share of athletic participation opportunities increased between the 1993-94 and 1999-2000 school years, this progress toward gender equality in athletic opportunity “slowed and, perhaps, even reversed direction during the 2000s.” The authors end with specific policy recommendations, including: the Office for Civil Rights should strengthen its enforcement of Title IX at the secondary school level; federal policymakers should require high schools to publicly disclose gender equity data about their athletics programs; and schools — particularly urban ones, which offer the fewest opportunities for female athletes — should redouble their efforts to increase the numbers of athletic opportunities that they provide to girls.

Tags: sports, youth

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