Opportunity Differences for Male and Females in Sports

Kids playing sports

Over the last 50 years we have come to the stark realization that when it comes to improving and maintaining health across the lifespan, exercise is key. Within this, we have also concluded that sports offer the perfect medium to get and keep people active. 

And obviously, this holds true irrespective of your gender.

But do female athletes get the same sports opportunities as their male counterparts – because we know they should?


Do sport opportunities vary among gender?

If we take a step back and look at the interesting history of females in sports, it becomes apparent that things have never really been equal – and while things are certainly getting better, we still aren’t quite there yet.

The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896 in Athens, Greece.

And guess what?

Women were not allowed to compete. 

However, a mere four years later at the 1900 Paris Games, women were permitted to compete – although they could only compete in what were deemed to be feminine sporting events (lawn tennis, golf, croquet, and sailing).

Although the restrictions on women in the Olympics did get better over the years, it was still slow going.

Nineteenth-century America idealized female modesty. As a result, they frowned upon sports as a threat to femininity. It was perceived as a masculine activity, and therefore something that should be left to males.

Hell, this double standard lasted long after even slavery was abolished. Women simply did not exert themselves – rather their servants did. 

Instead, those women from affluent families joined country clubs, where a select few sports were deemed acceptable for aristocratic ladies. You know the ones I am talking about – tennis, croquet, archery, and swimming.


Then we finally saw some progress. 

The Civil Rights act of 1964 was amended with Title IX in 1972.

Title IX was aimed at outlawing discrimination in schools, a push that managed to receive federal assistance at the time. The lack of opportunities for females in sports was then interpreted as a type of discrimination, and the flood gates started to open.

Females gradually saw increased opportunities to transition into the professional sports marketplace as three professional women’s basketball leagues, two professional women’s softball leagues, and a professional women’s soccer league were introduced to the nation.

Over the last decade, we have seen a steady increase in female sport across the globe. This has come with increased interest, increased observation, and increased participation – all of which have been driven by an appreciation for our top-level female athletes.

However, we are not there yet.

As of 2012, there were still a whopping 39 events that were not available to women in the Olympic Games. Moreover, female sports get much fewer media coverage than their male counterparts – reducing funding, and also reducing the opportunity for females to participate.

In short, inequality remains.


How has opportunity differences changed over the years for females?

Group workout at a gym

Now, I appreciate that the above information paints a somewhat dark picture for female sports – which is I why I want to highlight the fact that things are getting better.

Particularly when we look at the growth of women’s participation in sports over the last few decades (Stracciolini, 2018):

  • In high school, the number of female athletes has increased from 295,000 in 1972, to more than 2.6 million 
  • We have observed a similar increase in female college athletes, which has jumped 30,000 all the way to 1500,00
  • Incredibly, in NCAA intercollegiate sports, females comprised less than one-third of athletes in 1982. Since 2003, approximately 53% of the championship sports teams in the NCAA were women’s teams

So, looking at how opportunities vary among high school, college, and elite female athletes, we can see that sports participation continues to grow.


Do male and female expectations of becoming elite differ?

When we take a deep dive into why female sport participation at the elite level is markedly less than those of males, we discover some answers (Flanagan, 2007).

Researchers focusing on gender inequality in sports have long noticed the disparity in earning potential between female and male athletes.

To put it simply, female athletes get paid much less than males.

While this could come down to the fact that women sports tend to get fewer sponsors and fewer viewers than males who play the same sport, I believe it goes deeper than that.

In general, female athletes get less funding than male athletes. This means that they get less advertising and less investment.

As a result, they are not really expected to make a living out of the sport.

And then going back even further, it is still apparent that sports are viewed as a somewhat masculine activity. With this in mind, sports are generally considered – and taught – as a lower priority for female children than it is for males.

Really, is it no wonder that women’s equality in sports is an ongoing issue?


The decline in female coaches and administrators 

Woman running in a endurance race

Now interestingly, it is important to note that women are still underrepresented in all aspects of the sport – even when it comes to coaching and administration, which have strangely decreased since the introduction of Title IX. 

See, in 1972, coaches in female sports were approximately 90 percent women. 

However, by 1998, that percentage had decreased all the way to 58 percent. Then, in 2003, it had declined further, dropping to a mere 44 percent. 

And in that same year, only 18 percent of female sports programs were administered by women.

The scary thing?

This statistic only looks to decline further.

You may also like: Re-Thinking Gender Based Nutrition


How publicity varies among genders

In general, female athletes are given less media attention than male athletes. Moreover, they tend to play at less desirable times, and in facilities that hold fewer people (Capranica, 2013).

Yes, they receive less publicity.

But that isn’t the only problem when it comes to gender publicity in sports.

Yep, I am talking about the media’s sexualization of female athletes. 

Unlike most male athletes, female athletes rarely get portrayed as strictly performance athletes. In fact, more often than not, coverage of their beauty and ‘sex appeal’ overshadows their real sporting accomplishments. 

Depicting female athletes in suggestive poses and clothing, the media project a woman first athlete second attitude that seriously detracts from the effort they put into their craft.

And it needs to stop.


Do male athletes get paid more?

What about the gender pay gap in sports?

Historically females have been paid much less than males, irrespective of their competition. However, over the last decade, we have seen the gender pay gap narrow significantly (Zerunyan, 2017).

In fact, according to some interesting research conducted by the BBC, it has been estimated that approximately 83% of all sports now reward men and women equally.

This means they often receive the same prize money, and often the same earnings per minute.

Although I should note that some disparities do indeed remain.

When we start to look at the highest-paid male athletes in the world, they still earn much more than some of the best female athletes. While much of this is through sponsorship deals, it still highlights a distinct difference between the two.

Some would even suggest that it indicates male athletes are still prioritized by big-name sporting companies.


The importance of sports in young female athletes’ lives

So why do we care? I mean, really, why is sport important for women?

Well, an easier question to answer is why isn’t sport important for women.

At the most basic level, sports participation increases physical activity levels. This means it protects against the onset of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and osteoporosis, as well as mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety (Eime, 2013; Stracciolini, 2018).

Incredibly, those individuals who participate in sport as a child are more likely to participate in sport as an adult – suggesting that getting your kids to participate in sport at an early age will literally change their lives forever.

On another level, competing in sport builds character. It allows you to foster independence and resilience while building self-esteem and self-confidence.

It ultimately creates a platform of values for which you can build the rest of your life. 

So again, answer me this – why isn’t sport important for women?


Take-Home Message

Since the 1970s we have seen the opportunities for women to participate in sport at every level increase exponentially – but still, some key inequalities remain.

Females athletes are generally underfunded and underprioritized by the media. They also receive less sponsorship and less attention and are treated markedly different from the media than their male counterparts.

However, if we start to rectify these problems, I am sure we will see some huge improvements across the board.



Flanagan, Kelly E., et al. “The Effect of Gender Opportunity in Sports on the Priorities and Aspirations of Young Athletes.” The Shield-Research Journal of Physical Education & Sports Science. 2 (2007).

Stracciolini, Andrea, et al. “Female Sport Participation Effect on Long-Term Health-Related Quality of Life.” Clinical journal of sport medicine: official journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine (2018).

Capranica, Laura, et al. “The gender gap in sport performance: equity influences equality.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 8.1 (2013): 99-103.

Zerunyan, Nicole. “Time’s Up: Addressing Gender-Based Wage Discrimination in Professional Sports.” Loy. LA Ent. L. Rev. 38 (2017): 229.

Eime, Rochelle M., et al. “A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport.” International journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity 10.1 (2013): 98.

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