Gender roles in sports

From a sociological perspective, sports play an important role in the shaping of society. When applied on the elementary level, sports act as an inclusive force, providing a place where individuals learn, grow, and develop a host of different skills. This topic has been covered in full by research over the years, but there is one area that must be extended. That has to do with gender roles in sports and how those roles appear to be changing over time. Societies are making serious strides in this regard, as the last two decades have brought about a global shift in women’s roles and women’s rights.

Though sports in general have traditionally been dominated by men from the elementary to professional level, that appears to be changing, as more and more girls are playing sports around the world. More importantly, the question of sport stereotyping bears repeating. Are women being pigeon-holed into certain sports, while men continue to dominate others? The historical precedent for this has been set, but women seem to be making serious strides in this regard.

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Overall, it appears that the role of women in sports is becoming more enhanced and more developed, as a greater number of women take up the global initiative and use sports as a tool for personal growth. In order to better examine the changing dynamic of gender roles in sports, one must first understand where things began. In many cultures around the world, this has not changed much. A global report handled by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation sums up the traditional gender roles in sport perfect when it says, “Sport is traditionally associated with «masculinity».

In many societies, it is considered inappropriate for women to engage in sports, and women who do may be perceived as «masculine». Conversely men who do not engage in sports or who re not talented in sports may be labeled as unmanly” (SDC). For many centuries, women have been essentially shut out of the sports world. At the very least, women have been limited in their roles and they have been restricted to certain sports. One of the central challenges for women in sports has been overcoming the stereotypes that have long held them into only a select number of sports.

This problem forms the foundation for the issues facing women in sports. Some growth has taken place, but this traditional view is worth understanding for any person who seeks a better handle on gender roles in sports. In an article published by Bryn Mawr College, Jennifer Banas speaks to this fact. She writes, “It has been seen as unladylike for women to participate in certain sports, let alone those that are primarily male dominated. The American public’s fascination with female athletes: tennis players, professional golfers, figure skaters, and gymnasts.

These sports demonstrate the agility and elegance “natural” to women and although athleticism is clearly a major aspect of these sports, the individual stars are known, culturally at least, more for their “feminine” attributes like self-sacrifice, glamour and grace” (Banas, 2002). This stereotyping is long held, and it has been a problem starting at the top. Women have been essentially “trained” to believe that they should act a certain way, and society has helped to propagate this to a large degree. The problems are deep rooted and long standing, according to published studies.

It begins at birth, when men and women are immediately divided and expectations are brought into play. Male traits become those of aggression and competitiveness, while females are expected to perform aesthetically pleasing activities of grace (Schmalz and Kersetter, 2006). In this, one can see that women in sports have had the basic principles of competition stripped away. Everything that supposedly makes sports great includes a competitive fire and a desire to be the best. Women, instead, have been put into a position where their inclusion in sports is completely participatory.

They have been trained not to be athletes in the traditional sense of striving for the best. Instead, they are forced to participate in sports that fit the long-held gender roles reinforced by society. This division is something that encourages and even forces women to accept the physical limitations that society promotes (Birell, 1998). Because of the pressure put onto women by society, they can face serious difficulties breaking free, rendering athletic achievement difficult for many. When tracing the development of gender roles in sport, one must be conscious of the idea of awareness.

For the longest time, children were acting on basic impulses, doing the things that society had trained them to do. This helped to keep aspiring female athletes in their place, and a general “no questions” policy kept the division between genders strong. Things have changed to an extent, as studies indicate that even young children are aware of the type-casting that is taking place. The same Schmalz and Kersetter study touches on this fact, indicating that women as young as eight are aware of society’s pressures in relation to sports (Schmalz and Kersetter, 2006).

This consciousness has a quantifiable impact on participation in different sports, at least according to the study. Since children are aware of their perceived roles very early in life, they often make decisions in order to fit those norms thrown at them by society. In short, it is a cycle propagated by society, but the newfound awareness among children is a change that cannot be taken lightly. This awareness gives some children the choice to break out of their gender roles if they choose to do so.

While the desire to break free in this regard is something that happens wholly on a personal basis, the increased awareness does add a measure of ease. Additionally, one of the things that has long been true about the role of gender in sports is the line between “male” sports and “female” sports. Male sports have been things like football, baseball, and soccer. Female sports have included swimming, gymnastics, and cheerleading. There is a clear gap in what each of these sports brings to the table in terms of power, aggression, and even grace on the other side.

For this reason, boys were expected to come up playing the games of aggression, while girls were expected to play the games of grace. Crossing over the line was difficult, if not impossible for many young children. According to Schmalz and Kersetter, this created a situation where women in sports had two choices. Either they could play the sports handed to them by society’s framework or they could play no sports at all (p. 550). Either of these choices was fine and accepted by society, since girls who did not play sports could take refuge in the traditional domestic stereotypes thrown on them by society.

The differences between male and female sports were so pronounced, at least in the past, that people could not ever think about making the big choice to cross over the line. As things have changed over time, the line has become less distinct, which speaks to the shifting dynamic of gender roles in sports today. Women are better able to choose sports because a completely new category of sports have come about. Instead of there being distinct male and female sports, some sports now occupy a new and innovative “middle ground”.

These sports include soccer, running, bicycling, tennis, and even golf. It is completely acceptable for men to play these sports, and in fact some of the most renowned athletes in the world are winners of these competitions. Still, distinct opportunities for women exist in all of these sports from the elementary level all the way to the professional level. Arguments could be made that basketball has now made its way into that hybrid area, with more collegiate and professional opportunities being available for women there.

These sports are referred to as “gender-neutral” by many in sociological circles, and participation rates for these sports are at an all-time high right now (Schmalz and Kersetter, 2006). This indicates society’s willingness to allow women to take on other traits within the sports world. Instead of promoting a twisted view of “grace” as associated with sports, society now finds its own level of grace and beauty in some of the neutral sports. Perhaps the shift has come in what individuals find to be aesthetically pleasing. Soccer, for instance, can be played with a high degree of fluidity and grace by the women taking the field.

This has helped to create opportunities for women, though things are still not perfect. One of the challenges associated with this sort of analysis is that individuals perceive any progress to mean complete progress. Gender roles are still in play in the sports world across the board, and there are still certain lines that women and men do not cross. Some of that has been smashed with the prominence of men in cheerleading, but few women have been well received coming into traditional men’s sports. This is something that a study by McClung and Blinde spoke to at length.

That study researched women in college athletics, asking a host of different questions. The results indicated that those women felt type-casted much of the time, noting that women in sports were often seen as “butch” (McClung and Blinde, 2002). Therein lies the new problem with gender roles in sports. Though the sports world has stopped actively holding down women and their sport opportunities, a few type of social policing has taken place. Women in sports feel as if they are chastised for their successes and they are stereotyped based upon their body composition.

While being successful in sports might be lauded to a large degree, having a body befitting of a male athlete is still something that draws negative marks from different parts of society. Additionally, women in the McClung and Blinde study indicated that they felt somewhat secondary in their accomplishment. They felt as if their sports triumphs were only a small part of how they were perceived, while male athletes gained adulation for their triumphs (p. 121). This puts many female athletes off, and it speaks volumes about the perception of sports and gender in society.

While women might be allowed to play sports now and there are neutral sports that allow women to show off their athleticism, women are still not defined by their athletic accomplishments. Society rewards men for being accomplished in a variety of athletic fields, but it tends to put the accomplishments of women off to the side. Even when studying television placement and revenue for sports leagues, one can see where the athletic world is male dominated. The Women’s National Basketball Association is relegated to hot summer days, while men’s basketball plays during the traditional seasons.

The college women’s national championship game is played on cable television, while the men’s tournament is broadcast in full both on network television and on the internet. Men’s sports still drive the industry, and women have once again been relegated to a less than dominant role within the sports world. Many female athletes feel as if this is society’s new way of putting them in their place in an athletic sense. No longer are these outright held from certain sport circles or chastised for being good at sports, but society refuses to recognize the significance of women’s athletics in comparison to the male options.

This reflects the fact that though gender roles in sports have made some serious strides over the last couple of decades, there is still a long way to go before any of equality of evident, if that time ever comes. In all, gender roles in sports have taken a shift over the decades, with perception changing and more opportunities coming up. For the longest time, society forced views onto young women, making them feel as if only a small number of sports were appropriate. This forced them away from aggression and competitiveness, putting them into sports more befitting of females, as defined by society.

The rise of gender-neutral sports has been an important step, as it allows women to show off their power and skill in a similar way to men. Still, women have not fully been recognized as an equal part of the sporting world, and women still feel as if their accomplishments are not being recognized by the public at large. The evidence backs this up, as well. Both anecdotally and with empirical data, it is clear that women’s sports do not hold nearly the same importance as men’s sports in today’s society. Still, strides are being made and women are enjoying greater opportunities now than they ever have in the past.

With Title IX forcing colleges to offer equal opportunities to female athletes, more and more women are enjoying scholarships and playing sports at a high level. Women’s leagues are now on television and they do draw attention from the major sports reporting agencies. As women’s sports charge forward in the future, they will only be able to make more serious strides if society’s views on women change as a whole. The male-driven society still places a significant amount of value on the domestic nature of women, thus robbing them of opportunities to succeed in male-powered fields across the board.

This includes sports, but illustrates a much larger problem with gender roles throughout society. Sports, in that way, has been the slowest to change, lagging behind education and business in terms of how women are received and respected for their accomplishments at large. Summary This paper discusses how gender roles have shifted in the sports world over the last few decades. It traces the traditional views of women in sports, noting how women have long been received in various athletic circles.

From there, the essay goes on to discuss how women have been kept in their place, so to speak, by society’s willingness to push stereotypes on them. It notes how the issues of women in sports are not isolated and that they indicate a larger problem within society. The essay traces the transition of gender roles in the sports world, noting that many changes have taken place for women over time. While no opportunities existed only a short time ago, new “neutral” sports have popped up. This has allowed many women to cross over from the only sports they could acceptably play – namely gymnastics, swimming, and cheerleading.

Though women do not enjoy full equality in the sports world, they are gaining ground and more opportunities are evident now than at any other time in history. This is true from the lowest levels of sport all the way up to advanced levels in college and the professional ranks. Women today are not respected like their male counterparts, but they have made progress from the time when female athletes were shoehorned into very narrow opportunities. Works Cited Banas, Jennifer. (2002). Women Athletes in Male Dominated Sports. Bryn Mawr College. McClung, L. and Blinde, E. (2002).

Sensitivity to gender issues: Accounts of women intercollegiate athletes. International Sports Journal, winter, 117-133. Schmalz, D. and Kerstetter, D. (2006). Girlie girls and manly men: Children’s stigma consciousness of gender in sports and physical activities. Journal of Leisure Research, 38(4), 536-557. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Gender and Sport: Mainstreaming Gender in Sports Projects. Zimmerman, J. and Reavill, G. (1998). Raising Our Athletic Daughters: How Sports Can Build Self-Esteem and Save Girls’ Lives. Doubleday: New York.


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