By Dr. Brittany Jacobs  |  01/31/2024

gender discrimination in sports


Despite many advances over time, gender inequality and sex discrimination are still rampant in sports. But while females make up more than half of the U.S. population according to the U.S. Census Bureau they are still fighting for equity, both in society and within the sporting sector.


Females in Sports during the Late 1800s

In the late 1800s, the male head of a household or domestic responsibilities limited sports opportunities for females. Despite the challenges and public outcry, women's colleges served as a sporting enclave, organizing regular sports competitions, much to the chagrin of society.

In 1884, women tennis players were first permitted to compete at Wimbledon, but not before these opportunities were denied many times by the All England Club. Tennis Majors notes that Black women were not permitted to compete at Wimbledon until 1951, and the intersectionality of identities often further marginalizes women in the sporting sector.


Early 1900s: Growth and a Partial Rise in Interest in Women's Sports

In the early 1900s, the advent of women's athletic clubs led to the exploration of additional sports that had previously been designated for men only. During the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, France, the Olympic Game organizers allowed women to compete.

Women's athletics clubs blossomed from the early 1900s to 1930s. As a result, female athletes began to formalize sport participation through organizations like the Women's Athletic Association (WAA). But a trend towards limiting women and girls taking part in sports began to sweep the country.

Organizations like the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) began to speak out against women athletes in sports, noting that women's sports should not be for competition or monetary gain, and women play for just recreation. Society doubled down on the belief that a woman's primary duty was reproduction, which meant that too much energy expenditure or engaging in “unladylike sports” might render them infertile.


The 1940s: World War II's Impact on Women's Sports

With the onset of WWII and the majority of men serving overseas, women's sporting opportunities increased dramatically during the 1940s. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, created to ensure the continuance of baseball during wartime, ultimately featured nearly 600 female athletes.

Though recruited for their skill, these athletes were also expected to fit the "feminine ideal" and marketed accordingly – a challenge women in sport continue to face today. The most successful team in the league, the Rockford Peaches, was the inspiration for the popular 1990s movie "A League of Their Own" and the 2022 TV show by the same name.


The 1950s: Athletes vs. Housewives

The 1950s saw Althea Gibson dominating the tennis scene as the first Black player to compete in both the U.S. National Championships and Wimbledon. But gender and racial stratification and segregation remained the norm.

Most high schools did not sponsor women's sports, and those that did often used sports to promote matchmaking. With the folding of the All-American Girl's Professional Baseball League in 1954, athletes were expected to return from their “Rosie the Riveter” days and re-embrace the role of the housewife.


The 1960s: Change and Free Love

In the 1960s, many colleges and universities began offering women's sports, and some even sponsored varsity programs. But the majority of women remained virtually barred from athletic opportunities.

In 1966, Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon by competing unofficially, and Kathrine Switzer officially ran in the 1967 Boston Marathon. The notorious picture of Switzer being nearly run off course by the race’s director, Jock Semple, epitomizes the sporting landscape of the day.


The 1970s to the Present: Title IX

The passage of Title IX in 1972 may be the single most transformational moment for women's sports. Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.


Why Is Title IX Related to Sports?

In the United States, sports are intrinsically tied to academics. Because sports programs are managed as part of the educational offerings of K-12 schools, colleges, and universities, Title IX also applies to these programs.

As a result, recipients of federal financial assistance that sponsor intercollegiate, interscholastic, club, or intramural athletics are required to provide equal (proportional) athletic opportunities for both sexes. Also, Title IX includes not only participatory opportunities, but also resources like the provision of equipment, facilities, housing, travel, and support services.

To determine if an institution is meeting Title IX requirements, a three-prong test is applied.


Prong 1 – Proportionality

Based on this prong, an athletic department should provide opportunities for each sex that are proportional to the ratio of females/males within the educational institution. For example, if a university has 60% females and 40% males, athletic opportunities at that university should reflect this proportion:

  • 60% opportunities for female athletes
  • 40% opportunities for male athletes

If the opportunities for athletic involvement for either sex (typically female athletes) are lower than the proportion of females/males within the school, this prong would not be met.


Prong 2 – Expansion

If a school fails to satisfy the first prong, it can still comply with Title IX if the requirements of the second prong are met. The second prong notes that a school must show a history and continuance of expanding athletic opportunities towards proportionality, which typically means for female athletes.


Prong 3 – Accommodating Interests

If a school has disproportionate athletic programs and cannot show that it has or is continuing to expand opportunities, compliance with Title IX can be demonstrated by ensuring accommodation of the interests of both sexes.


Has Title IX Improved the Fate of Women in Sports?

Title IX protects both sexes, though we often see it used to improve female athletic opportunities since women athletes have faced sex and gender discrimination in sports for decades. Since the passage of Title IX, there has been more than a 1,000% increase in girls’ involvement in sports, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That change shows the historic inequities between male and female athletes and the impact this legislation has made on women's athletics since its passage.

Additionally, a proposed Title IX rule seeks to establish policies that categorically ban a transgender athlete from participating on a sports team that aligns with that athlete’s gender identity.

Despite the growth attributed to Title IX, boys participating in sports at the high school level still exceed girls by more than one million and women participants make up only 42% of all high school players according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Schools that have higher percentages of students of color also have higher instances of gender inequity in sports. Title IX non-compliance, therefore, disproportionately impacts women and young girls of color.

At the intercollegiate level, 92.7% of college and university athletic departments are out of compliance with Title IX, observes Champion Women. At the collegiate level, there is significant gender discrimination, which adversely impacts women's sports.

To meet the proportionality prong, Champion Women says that 225,000 women’s sports opportunities would need to be added. In addition, women are being shorted nearly $1.1 billion dollars in athletic scholarships annually, according to Champion Women.


The Future of Women's Sports

The opportunities for women in sports have increased substantially since the passage of Title IX, but more work remains. For the first time in Olympic history, the Paris Olympics in 2024 will achieve numerical gender parity, with 5,250 women and men competing for the chance to become an Olympic champion.

However, there is still a major gender gap across leadership roles within the Olympic movement. Only 13% of coaches at the Tokyo 2020 Games and 10% at Beijing 2022 were women, according to

Gender stereotypes about who should be playing sports, what kinds of sports are appropriate for women, and what women should look like when they play their sports persist. In fact, 32.2% of parents support the belief that boys are better than girls at sport, notes the Women’s Sport sFoundation.

This internalized sexism can lead to the intentional or unintentional propagation of discrimination against female athletes. Despite this discrimination, Korn Ferry observes, 90% of female executives of Fortune 500 companies have been athletes, and women who play sports are shown to earn 8% more than those who did not. Ideally, more people should support girls as athletes during their middle and high school years.

Missed sporting opportunities and discrimination result in a lack of opportunity that can have longstanding effects on the female population. One-third of women in midlife (41-60 years old) are not meeting guidelines for weekly physical activity, and 84% say they seek to be more active, according to Women in Sport.


Broadcast Coverage to Promote Women's Sports

Over the last decade, women's sports received an average share of approximately 4% of media coverage. Sports Pro Media says that as of 2022, this percentage has increased to 15% and should hit 20% by 2025, based on the current growth rate.

However, ESPN did not place the 2023 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship in a prime-time slot, despite drawing more than 10 million viewers in 2022. In professional men’s sports, the average viewership is often lower:

A perennial challenge faced by women's sports is that even when media coverage is provided, female athletes are regularly objectified. The media focus often strays from athleticism and in-game play to maternal and spousal roles, parental figures, or fashion.

Despite this objectification of women, media coverage is an important asset. It gives more people the opportunity to view the game and become fans, ultimately increasing interest and support for the team, athlete, or league.


The Fight to Address the Gender Pay Gap

The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team has led the charge to address the gender pay gap within the United States. As World Cup and Olympic champions, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team members were significantly more successful than their male counterparts, but they earn less money than athletes playing men's sports.

By suing the United States Soccer Federation, this women’s soccer team was ultimately able to sign a new collective bargaining agreement to change that pay gap. It included more equal pay structures and distribution of World Cup prize money, commensurate with that of their male counterparts.

Legislation Supporting Equity for Women in Professional Sports

This success has led other female athletes to begin addressing gender inequality and seeking additional money for their athletic contributions. On January 5, 2023, President Biden signed the Equal Pay for Team USA Act into law.

This legislation requires the representatives of the United States in global amateur athletic competitions to receive equal compensation and support, no matter their gender. While the need for legislation to create pay equality is unfortunately necessary, codifying these regulations will almost certainly lead to a reduction in discrimination.

The law applies to the national governing bodies for 50 different sports, including:

  • USA Rugby
  • USA Volleyball
  • United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC)


Gender Inequality and Women's Soccer Athletes

Outside of the United States, FIFA (also known as the International Federation of Association Football) announced a 300% increase in bonuses for the Women's World Cup in 2023 according to CNN. While this announcement is a step in the right direction, Euronews says that only 40% of the women athletes participating considered themselves to be professional soccer players.

These elite players earn, on average, 25 cents for every dollar of pay earned by male athletes. Shockingly, Euronews says that this figure was eight cents to the dollar during 2019.

Comparatively, the 300% increase in compensation represents progress but simultaneously highlights the existing issues with gender equity. For example, there is a significant need for leaders of different countries to promote women's sport and ensure more money and equal opportunities for female athletes.


Female Coaches, Officials, and Sports Managers

The lack of women in sports extends beyond athletes participating on the field or court. Women are also underrepresented in coaching roles as officials and sports administrators.

In college athletics, Tide Sport says that Division I women athletic directors (AD) make up only 15% of all AD positions. At the Division I and II levels, Tide Sport notes that women hold 25% and 33% of athletic director positions, respectively.

The underrepresentation of women, particularly Black women, is also found in head coaching roles and across the executive suite of professional sports. With limited opportunities for women to serve in managerial capacities in sports, some organizations have begun implementing rules that facilitate the hiring of candidates from underrepresented groups.


The Russell Rule

The West Coast Conference (WCC) has implemented the Russell Rule, requiring schools to interview candidates from underrepresented groups when hiring an athletic director, senior administrator, head coach, or full-time assistant. Those candidates can include women.

The key to the WCC's success has been monitoring and accountability. A third-party group, TIDES, ensures conference schools are abiding by this rule.

In the first hiring cycle since implementation, half of the hired candidates were from underrepresented groups. The pipeline of talent and opportunities for this talent is important for ensuring representation of all groups across all sectors of sports.


The Power of Women in the Sporting Sector

When women's sport is supported, massive opportunities for growth will likely emerge. The change will not only benefit female players, but also the brands that associate with them and the organizations that seek gender balance in their workforce.

It will be necessary to address important issues such as discrimination, gender equity, less pay, sexual harassment, and sexist questions in media coverage. Once these issues are resolved, the public interest in women's sporting products will further increase.

The teams and leagues will likely generate additional money, and fans will continue to form affiliations as they watch women athletes play. The surge of support for women's sports does not discount men's sports as there is space in the market for both types of sports.

Similarly, women who hold executive roles or leadership roles in sports will create more opportunities for others who want to become leaders. Women athletes in the C-suite provide different perspectives to business issues, leading to optimal solutions and better organizational performance.

Also, female athletes are powerful social media endorsers. Young females who participate in sports have higher levels of self-esteem and confidence and lower levels of depression.

Despite the discrimination in sports that has existed throughout history, women in sports will continue to fight for equality. They will promote sports participation and earn fans, encouraging women make progress in business and in sports.


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About the Author
Dr. Brittany Jacobs

Dr. Brittany Jacobs is an Associate Professor and Department Chair for the Sports Management & Esports program at American Public University. She is highly involved in the Olympic & Paralympic movements and before returning to academia worked for USA Rugby. Much of her current research centers around officials and other marginalized populations providing a direct connection to her previous coaching and officiating experiences.

Brittany earned her Ph.D. from the University of Northern Colorado in Sports & Exercise Science with a Doctoral Minor in Statistics. She also holds a master’s degree in Sports Management from the University of Texas, a master’s degree in Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and a B.S. in Kinesiology from the University of New Hampshire, where she also played collegiate field hockey. 

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