Gender and Sports

Gender refers to the socially constructed differences between women and men, while the term ‘‘sex’’ is a reference to the biological and physical differences between males and females. Gender draws attention to the socially unequal distinction between femininity and masculinity. Femininity is used to describe characteristic behaviors and emotions of females and masculinity refers to the distinctive actions and feelings of the male sex. In studies of gender and sports, the concept of gender is analytically distinguished from that of sex even though the two are often used synonymously in everyday language and thought. Not all the differences between females and males are biological. But historically, ideas about the implications of biological differences between women and men have served to justify the exclusion or limited inclusion of women in sports. Such views reflect an ideology of biological determinism, where it is claimed that men, and not women, are inherently strong, aggressive, and competitive and, therefore, better suited to sports.


Since the 1970s, gender has become an important category of analysis in the sociology of sport. Research has clearly demonstrated that sports are gendered activities as well as social contexts in which boys and men are more actively and enthusiastically encouraged to participate, compared with girls and women. Evidence also shows that more males than females participate in organized competitive sports, and that male dominance characterizes the administration and coaching of sports. Sports, it is theorized, operate as a site for the inculcation, perpetuation, and celebration of a type of (heterosexual) masculine identity based on physical dominance, aggression, and competitiveness. Associated with such masculine imagery, sports serve to legitimize a perceived natural superiority of men and reinforce the inferiority of females who are defined with reference to relative weakness, passivity, and grace – the characteristics of femininity. Therefore, sports are often described as a ‘‘male preserve.’’

Social changes reflecting the condition of women in society have influenced the status of knowledge about the relationships between and within groups of women and men in sports. Starting in the 1970s, a consequence of the feminist movement was to raise public awareness about the need for increased opportunities for girls and women in sports. Since then there has been growing political and public recognition of the importance of health and fitness. Furthermore, emerging knowledge about the health benefits of physical activity provided a foundation for the promotion of physical activity for girls and women. Opportunities for girls and women in sports have improved and participation rates among females have increased. Scholars studying gender and sports indicate that these developments have resulted in ongoing challenges to gender stereotyping, resistance and negotiation of established gender ideology, and the initiation of important legal and political change regarding sex discrimination in sports and society. For example, Title IX of the Education Amendments of the Civil Rights Act (1972) in the US, and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) in Great Britain were intended to counter public discrimination against women. Such legislation has been used to prevent and remove many barriers to female participation in sports.

There is now over 35 years of scholarship that theorizes gender and sport. One of the most sustained attempts at conceptualizing and theorizing about gender in the sociology of sport is found in feminist scholarship. The first attempts to analyze women’s place in sport were made in the 1960s by physical educators. The result was a corpus of largely atheoretical work on ‘‘women in sport’’ founded upon a liberal feminist consciousness about sport as a ‘‘male preserve’’ characterized by gender inequities. Between 1970 and 1980 psychological models were mainly used to explain female attitudes and motivations in sports. In the 1980s, emerging theoretical diversity and sophistication in feminist approaches led to the development of a clear sociology of women in sport. As political and theoretical feminisms have changed, so too has the focus of feminist research.

Depending on the theoretical and methodological position of the researcher, different questions about and accounts of gender and sport prevail. Debates surrounding the gendered character of sporting practices have changed with increasing awareness of feminist theories and a more sophisticated use of these theories. For example, much of the initial work on gender and sport highlighted inequities but did not explicitly deal with how the prevailing organization of sports privileged the physical experiences of boys and men. Subsequent critical analyses revealed that research focused on differences between males and females generally supported traditional claims about the biological inferiority of females and the legitimacy of efforts to control women’s sports participation. Such research, it was argued, did not deal with the underlying structural and cultural sources of gender inequality. More recent scholarship has attempted to resolve the shortcomings of early research and theory by considering difference and diversity between and within groups of women, and by theoretical and methodological approaches that consider women as active agents in the construction and reconstruction of their sporting experiences.

There is no single feminist movement or theory that has informed current scholarly work on gender and sport. Liberal feminist accounts of sport are based on claims that women should have equal rights to those of men in terms of access to resources, opportunities to participate, and decision making positions. Radical feminists are critical of the patriarchal power relations that operate to maintain the dominance of heterosexuality and construct homophobic attitudes and practices in sport. Socialist feminists have examined the connections between gender, social class, and race and ethnicity under conditions of patriarchy, capitalism, and neocolonialism. Significant theoretical influences in understanding gender and sport have also emerged in cultural studies and in work guided by the writings of Norbert Elias, Pierre Bourdieu, and poststructuralist theorists. Contemporary work in the field reflects the move toward critical analyses of the complex relationships between and within groups of women and men in sport. Current scholarship examines the ways in which gender relations are produced, reproduced, challenged, and transformed in and through sporting practices.

Three key themes have driven debates about gender and sport since the 1970s. First, leading scholars in the sociology of sport have highlighted that throughout history, sporting practices inculcated behaviors and values defined as male, manly, and masculine. Second, issues surrounding the body, physicality, and sexuality have been brought to the fore in understanding gender relations in sport. Third, it is emphasized that both women and men reinforce and challenge dominant gender ideology in sport in various ways. In this regard scholars have eschewed ideas about women and men as homogeneous categories, and have recognized and examined difference and diversity in people’s gendered sporting experiences at the level of the subject and in terms of institutional politics and practice. Recent research includes work that examines the production and reproduction of gender in sport in terms of the sporting experiences of women and men from various sociocultural backgrounds.

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Historical Developments and the Gendering of Sport

Sociologists of sport have illustrated that the historical development of modern sports laid the foundations for the gendered character of sporting practices. Over time, sports have been constructed and reconstructed around the assumptions, values, and ideologies of males, maleness, and masculinity. The roots of con temporary sports lie in the Victorian period in Britain, when sports began to be characterized by organized structures and standardized rules. In terms of gender, late nineteenth century British developments in sports largely centered on the beliefs and values of white middle class males. The prestige, status, and superiority afforded to men in society became marked at this time. In institutions such as public schools, universities, churches, and private clubs, sports came to represent a Victorian version of masculinity based on physical superiority, competitiveness, mental acumen, and a sense of fair play. Established ideals of femininity such as passivity, frailty, emotionality, gentleness, and dependence were in stark opposition to the strenuous task of playing sports. The belief that male and female traits were innate, biological, and somehow fixed prevailed. Women’s participation in sports was therefore a subject of debate regarding what type and how much physical activity was appropriate for them. The marginalization of women and the dominance of men in sports is a legacy of Victorian images of female frailty that is also reflected in the making of modern sports in the US.

In both Britain and the US, changes in social life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries impacted on gender relations in sport. British and American society at this time was characterized by social relations that were becoming less violent, there was a decreasing reliance on physical strength in the workplace, and home and educational environments were becoming ones in which young males spent increasing amounts of time with females. Eric Dunning (1999) and Michael Messner (1990) refer to these social transformations as the ‘‘feminization’’ of society. One consequence of these processes was the reconstruction of sporting opportunities and social enclaves (such as the Boy Scouts and the YMCA) for boys and men to reclaim and reassert their masculinity. While opportunities for women in sports also increased in the early part of the twentieth century, participation rates for females remained considerably smaller compared to males. Some sports were acceptable for women so long as they were not as strenuous or competitive as the male version. Women’s sports were still the subject of intense debate reflecting and maintaining the Victorian myth of women’s physical ineptitude.

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Sport, Gender, Power, and Physicality

Many scholars have advanced an understanding about gender and sport by recognizing and examining the connections between physicality, power, and the production of gender. It is emphasized that in sport, physicality is predominantly defined in terms of bodily strength, muscularity, and athletic prowess. Connell (1995) explains such characteristics as a ‘‘culturally idealized’’ form of masculinity. Much has been written about the ways that contemporary sports reinforce a male model of (heterosexual) physical superiority and, at the same time, operate to oppress women through the trivialization and objectification of their physicality and sexuality. Several scholars assert that the acquisition of muscular strength and athletic skill is less empowering for women than it is for men. There is a commonsense assumption that muscularity is unfeminine, and that strong and powerful females are not ‘‘real’’ women. An increasing amount of work illustrates that such beliefs are reflected in the proliferation of media images emphasizing female heterosexuality at the expense of athletic prowess. The sexualization of female athletes through media representation is one way in which images of idealized female physicality are reproduced and perpetuated.

There are other mechanisms of control over female physicality in sport. Some writers explain that aerobics and bodybuilding operate to reproduce established gender ideology by feminizing the corporeal practices, rituals, and techniques in which women are involved, as well as objectifying and sexualizing women’s bodies. Some consider that sexual harassment and vilification of women by male athletes provides evidence that the use of violence, aggression, and force is a defining feature of masculine identity that is constructed and legitimated in sporting contexts. There is also some scholarship that focuses on the way in which sports perpetuate the denigration of lesbians and gay men. It is argued that sports maintain a culture of homophobia in which homosexuality is feared and deemed to be unacceptable. Lesbians and gay men are discouraged from expressing their sexual identities through threatening homophobic sentiments and actions. Sports reinforce a culture of heterosexuality and effectively silence homosexual identities.

A central argument in contemporary work on gender, sport, and physicality is the idea that the empowering experience of sport for heterosexual males is not universal, fixed, or unchallenged. Robert Connell illustrates the inherent contradictions in hegemonic masculinity. Strength, power, skill, and mental and physical toughness are not the only defining characteristics of masculinity. Not all sports privilege the values of aggression and physical domination associated with culturally established ideals of masculinity. It is also the case that the dominant image of masculinity, most often represented in sport, is one that can be limiting and restrictive for some men as well as most women. There are fewer opportunities for boys and men to participate, without prejudice, in sports that are not based on strength, power, and domination. There is work that shows that boys and men who are not good at sport, or who do not participate, have their heterosexual masculinity called into question. The sports experience is a negative and disappointing one for such males.

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Sport, Gender, and Contested Ideology

It is increasingly emphasized in studies of sport and gender that dominant ideals of masculinity and femininity exist at the same time as emergent and residual ones. Such work is concerned with the relational character of gender. Michael Messner explains that in terms of gender, sport is a ‘‘contested terrain.’’ This means that at any moment in history and in specific sporting contexts, there are competing masculinities and femininities. There are many scholars who now recognize that in sport, as well as in other social settings, some women are more powerful and influential than other women and men, and some women are empowered at the expense of other women and men.

Scholars in the sociology of sport have illustrated that many people are empowered by being involved in sport in spite of traditional gender ideology. Examples show how sport is a site where established values about gender have been resisted, negotiated, and sometimes transformed. The assumption that homosexuality does not exist in sport is challenged in research about the many gay men competing in sports at recreational and elite levels. There are events such as the Gay Games that allow athletes to compete in a relatively unprejudiced environment where they have less to fear about derogatory and violent responses to their publicized sexual orientation. Several scholars question the assumption that sport is a site for the oppression of women by exploring the ways in which women gain from their sporting achievements. Such research shows that it is possible for women to experience feelings of independence, confidence, and increased self esteem from their involvement in a variety of sporting practices. Female participation in physical activity can also contribute to broadening and alternative definitions of physicality that are not simply based on traditional ideals about feminine appearance. In the case of professional sports, some women are able to gain consider able financial wealth and worldwide recognition from their sporting achievements.

The extent to which sports are oppressive and liberating for women and men is culturally specific and related to the political and economic conditions in which they live their lives. There is increasing interest in the relationships between sport, gender, race, and ethnicity, and work on this topic emphasizes that questions of femininity and masculinity are inseparable from questions of race and ethnicity. In the main, research on sport, race, and ethnicity has examined issues connected with black sports men. Recent research takes a closer look at the complex relationships between masculinity, blackness, and sport. Critical examinations of the historical development of sport emphasize that sports were constructed in the image of particular ideals about white masculinity. Analyses of the racial significance of sport illustrate that sporting practices can provide black males with (symbolic) opportunities for resistance to racism through the assertion of manly qualities such as athleticism, aggression, and toughness. These writings also illustrate that sport reflects the historically constructed (subordinate) place of black males in (Western) societies. Dominant images of black male athleticism tend to reinforce stereotypes of black men as powerful, aggressive, and hypersexual.

Scholars concerned with the relationship between sport, ethnicity, and femininity emphasize that sportswomen are not a homogeneous group. Increasingly, there is literature that presents a challenge to dominant universalistic conceptions of women in sport that serve to construct white, western, middle class, able-bodied women’s experiences as representative of all sportswomen. Sociologists of sport have argued that the dominant assumption about female sports operates to marginalize or even silence the sporting triumphs and struggles of women who live outside the West and those who represent minority groups of females. A central feature of scholarship in this area is the recognition of difference between and within groups of women in relation to ethnicity, religious affiliation, social class, age, and physical (dis)ability. Jennifer Hargreaves (2000) explains that a sense of difference is characterized by power relations operating simultaneously at the personal and institutional level. In many ways, sport can be empowering for black women, Muslim women, Aboriginal women, lesbians, and disabled women. At the same time, these women are incorporated into the wider social networks of power in which they live out their lives.

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  1. Birrell, S. (1988) Discourses on the Gender/Sport Relationship: From Women in Sport to Gender Relations. Exercise and Sport Sciences Review 16: 459-502.
  2. Coakley, J. (2004) Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies, 8th edn. McGraw-Hill, New York, pp. 202-41.
  3. Connell, R. (1995) Masculinities. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  4. Dunning, E. (1999) Sport Matters: Sociological Studies of Sport, Violence and Civilization. Routledge, London, pp. 219-40.
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  6. Hargreaves, J. (1994) Sporting Females. Routledge, London.
  7. Hargreaves, J. (2000) Heroines of Sport: The Politics of Difference and Diversity. Routledge, London.
  8. Messner, M. (1990) Sport, Men and the Gender Order: Critical Feminist Perspectives. Human Kinetics Publishers, Leeds.
  9. Scraton, S. & Flintoff, A. (2002) Sport Feminism: The Contribution of Feminist Thought to Our Understandings of Gender and Sport. In: Scraton, S. & Flintoff, A. (Eds.), Gender and Sport: A Reader. Routledge, London, pp. 30-46.
  10. Theberge, N. (2002) Gender and Sport. In: Coakley, J. & Dunning, E. (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Studies. Sage, London, pp. 322-33.

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