Girls Empowering Girls: Reducing Stereotypes in Athletics

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Women learn gender stereotypes at a young age which negatively affects their interest and performance in sports. This paper discusses the threat that these negative stereotypes have on women and young girls and the resulting lack of representation it brings. Gender discrimination affects all aspects of women athletics (Chalabaev et al., 2008). Whether concerning pay, treatment, or airtime for athletics, women athletes continue to face discrimination due to consistent perpetuation of negative gender stereotypes (Bas, 2019; Garner, 2018). Discrimination and lack of representation discourage girls at a young age from participating in athletics.

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(Lee & Dusenbery, 2012). This paper creates a plan to help young women and girls in their athletic goals by promoting and encouraging sport participation to combat gender stereotyping and discrimination that they may encounter. Through participation in local events, fundraising, and advertising, this plan is to help young girls in Utah County gain the support and motivation that they need to continue in their athletic ventures.

Keywords: gender stereotype, stereotype threat, women in sports, women’s representation

“She plays like a man!” is a phrase commonly used as a compliment to women athletes. But is it really? Katie Ledecky, an Olympic medalist, was described in a similar way by fellow medalists, Ryan Lochte and Connor Jaeger. They said, respectively of her, “This girl is doing respectable times for guys”, and “Her stroke is like a man’s stroke…I mean that in a positive way. She swims like a man” (Davidson, 2016, para. 4). Women and men are taught at a young age that men are better than women at sports. They are taught if they do well, they are acting not as a woman, but as a man. This creates an attitude in young minds that women cannot succeed as athletes. This discourages young girls from participating in athletic activities.

Through sports, individuals can learn to have confidence in themselves. Because confidence can be gained through sports, it is important that girls are encouraged to participate. This developed confidence also emphasizes that stereotyping within sports is an injustice to young females. When women experience gender stereotypes, it affects their participation and experience, which in turn diminishes their self-confidence. Women should be respected on and off the field despite their gender. As women who grew up in a society where these strong gender roles affected the sports we participated in and the way our participation was perceived by our peers, this is a very important issue to us. By looking into this issue further, we are able to see that we are not the only ones who have been affected by these sports stereotypes, and we will not be the last.

Women are targets of negative stereotyping regarding many things, including their ability to participate in sports and motor activities. Research has found that stereotypes can negatively affect performance, even for those who are professional or collegiate athletes (Gentile, Boca, & Giammusso, 2018; Hively & El-Alayli, 2014; Howard & Borgella, 2018). Some argue that males tend to practice sports more often, are more interested in sports, and perform better at athletic tasks than females, despite the increase of female involvement in recent decades (Chalabaev, Sarrazin, Stone, & Curry, 2008). But, society still has a long way to go before women will be given the same respect in sports as men. Stereotypes about women place expectations on their athletic performance and involvement which affect the number of women participating in sports and their ability to succeed. Inspiring young girls by encouraging athletic participation will perpetuate change and challenge these expectations.

Women Stereotypes and Stereotype Threat

Stereotypes can affect any group, including men, women, and different races. Women are targets of negative stereotyping regarding many things, including their ability to participate in sports and motor activities. Historically, men were the only ones allowed to participate in sports; later, women were allowed restricted access to those sports without physical exertion at the end of the 19th century (Gentile et al., 2018). Currently, sports tend to have a masculine or feminine tag associated with them or can remain gender-neutral (Gentile et al., 2018). Because most sports tend to be ranked as or otherwise considered masculine, many women participate less in those ‘masculine’ sports (Chalabaev et al., 2008).

The gendered labels placed on sports can be damaging to the participation or confidence of many women and can even cause them to compensate for the masculinity of sports participation in general. Musto and McGann (2016) found within a study of collegiate women athletes that 96% of the participants sported long hair and other characteristics associated with feminine appearances (Musto & McGann, 2016). This study found that although women were participating in collegiate sports despite social pressures, they still felt the need to make their appearance more feminine in an effort to avoid conforming to overly masculine stereotypes and expectations of female athletes. This is showcasing the idea that masculinity is the standard when it comes to sports. Women are still having to break down this idea that they have to be masculine to be successful.

In France, only 2% of soccer players are female (Ministry of Youth and Sports, 2004 as cited in Chalabaev, 2008). Even the women who do participate in sports at high levels are targets of sexism and backlash (Garner, 2018). Garner (2018) reported on the questions, accusations, and doubts of qualifications for women’s knowledge of sports and rules that has affected many women’s jobs. Not only are these women outnumbered in a career dominated by men, but they are constantly questioned about it as well. Stereotypes regarding women and their participation in sports is a hindrance on their involvement and physical activity.

As a consequence of negative stereotypes, stereotype threat can affect any group, which involves the fear of confirming a negative stereotype, and can affect women in sports and physical activity (Gentile et al., 2018). Negative stereotypes can affect cognitive, social, and sensorimotor performance outcomes (Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008). Subtle and blatant cues can affect performance in different ways (Hively & El-Alayli, 2014). Hively and El-Alayli (2014) showed that both men and women athletes performed equally when no threat was introduced, but that women performed worse once the threat was presented. A meta-analysis performed by Gentile et al. (2018) showed that women were affected by stereotype threat across 24 studies, including blatant and subtle manipulation, new and well-learned tasks, and a variety of sports or physical tasks. Stereotype threat is not limited to a few sports or situations. Even sports like soccer that have teams and opportunities for both men and women have a stigmatized tag that inhibits the performance of women. The effect is deeper than their physical ability but may have roots in the cognition from social pressures.

Cognition is one main factor behind stereotype threat. Physical tasks, like those common to sports and athletics, tend to involve automatic processes (Gentile et al., 2018), or rather that the brain works on its own without deliberate cognition. Schmader et al., (2008) believes, in fact, that the phenomenon of cognitive overload is the root cause of the threat. Adding a stereotype threat (i.e. insinuating that the present demographic group underperforms another group on average) overrides the automatic processes and hinders typical performance (Gentile et al., 2018). The same may be true for procedural processes that rely on the automatic brain (Gentile et al., 2018). The physical tasks subject to stereotype threat are not limited to already learned tasks but also can include learning new motor skills or tasks (Chalabaev, 2008; Gentile et al., 2018). Even when a person disagrees with the stereotype, the threat remains present and will play a part in the individual’s performance (Hively & El-Alayli, 2014). Women tend to be more consistent at the free throw line: The women who hold the highest percentage has 93% and the highest man is at 90% (Silverberg, 2019). Though women may be able to perform tasks at a high ability automatically, the cognitive overload prevents the natural ability and developed skill to show.

Some stereotypes are not negative in the sense that they title a group as better at something. An example of this is the stereotype that Blacks are naturally better at sports and physical activity. This can lead to a stereotype boost instead of threat (Howard & Borgella, 2018). Howard & Borgella (2018) showed both phenomena to be possible for Black women athletes. In their study of all Black women, those who were primed by their race performed better than those who were primed by age or gender. They also found that the women who were primed with gender underperformed compared to the other groups. These findings show that there may not exist any difference in physical ability or sports skills without the pervasiveness of a stereotype and its threat. Stereotype threat is not limited to women; in fact, studies have looked at men who are told women are better at the task at hand, causing them to underperform (Gentile et al., 2018). Because stereotype threats can exist without insinuating them (Hively & El-Alayli, 2014), the stereotypes may need to be addressed on a higher level or removed altogether.

Women’s Representation in Sports

Although changes have taken place in an attempt to bridge the gap between men and women sports, many women are still stereotyped and pressured when it comes to sports. Lee and Dusenbery (2012) mention in their report reviewing athletic trends how despite the positive changes established towards athletic equality with the creation of Title IX, women are represented far less often when it comes to athletics. This is the case even though many women do or want to participate. The post mentions how despite the Title IX efforts, the majority of women’s team coaches are men (Lee & Dusenbery, 2012).

In addition, in the year of 2009, women’s sports got only 1.6% of airtime, in comparison to the overwhelming representation of men’s sports (Lee & Dusenbery, 2012). The unequal airtime of women’s sports hurt women athletes everywhere and shows little representation of women athletes in the media. This discourages those who might be interested in watching or even participating in women’s sports from doing so by portraying the message that men’s athletics are far more important and valued. These numbers and testimonials show that even though positive changes have been put into place legally with additions such as Title IX, there is still a long way to go culturally when it comes to the support and representation of women’s sports. Within these issues that still occur today, women continue to face negative stereotypes when it comes to athletic activities, which eventually discourages them from overall participation in general.

To cry out for women’s inequality everywhere, the national women’s soccer team issued a lawsuit against US Soccer on the basis of sex discrimination on the day internationally recognized at Women’s Day (Das, 2019). The women reported that the gender discrimination affects not only their income, but also their training, traveling, treatment, and more (Das, 2019). The US Women’s soccer team is a leader in the world, winning three world championships and four Olympic gold medals, but fall short in airtime and financial compensation compared to the men’s soccer team (Das, 2019). The lawsuit has inspired women everywhere to fight for equality all over the world, including Brazil, Spain, Colombia, Argentina, and Norway (Das, 2019). The player Megan Rapinoe said regarding the matter, “We very much believe it is our responsibility, not only for our team and for future U.S. players, but for players around the world — and frankly women all around the world — to feel like they have an ally in standing up for themselves, and fighting for what they believe in, and fighting for what they deserve and for what they feel like they have earned” (Das, 2019, para. 12). Women all over the world remain underrepresented in sports with less benefits included. It is difficult to have female role models in sports, but the revolutionary behavior of the US women’s team, among others, are starting to change things.

Tara Betts, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, submitted the poem, “The Two Simones: Simone Biles, Simone Manuel” to ESPN Women for Black History Month (Betts, 2017). Although Betts is talking about being black and a woman, the ideas Betts has highlighted in her poem is something that all women can relate to. This poem shows the intersectionality of race and gender, and the oppression brought by not fitting the norm. When women participate in sports, they are able to express themselves and find their own sense of freedom. Unfortunately, this freedom is also unequal as women are fighting for equal representation in the sports arena as well. An excerpt of the poem reads:

Miraculous is a woman/ her dedication, her skill,/ the body that she wills/ to slice air/ high above/ heads, land precisely./ Her squared shoulders/ She tumbles in a leotard,/ commands every shift in muscles,/ the master of limbs in her own flip./ I wish, I wish, I could know how it feels to be free (Betts, 2017).

Our hope is to take the words of Betts and make the freedom available to all women and girls in sports.

Plan of Action

We plan on empowering and expanding opportunities for girls and women in Utah County by teaming up with the local Girls on The Run Utah (GOTRU) non-profit organization. This organization helps young girls establish confidence and familiarity with sports that can stay with them through their life. This is useful because we want to focus on young girls having the ability and desire to participate in sports without fear of being excluded or made fun of. This would be a great step for young girls to find friends with similar athletic interests as them and to find the motivation to continue on with their athletics, despite social and cultural pressures put on them.

We will first start by contacting the organization and looking at their needs from the community. GOTRU offers ways that we can get involved, including coaching or helping with actual 5K events. With these events that are put on, there is a 5k in Orem planned to help fund their program. This 5k will be taking place on May 18th. We will help out with the 5k run by fundraising and recruiting volunteers to help participate in the event. The purpose of supporting this event is to promote awareness for GOTRU as well as increasing the awareness of the inequality of women and girls in sports. Another part of our purpose is to raise funds for equipment and opportunity for girls in all parts of Utah County.

Recruiting Efforts

In order to recruit volunteers, we will contact local sports teams, Y-Serve, and high schools within the area. The following school districts are in Utah County: Alpine, Nebo, Provo City, and Freedom Preparatory Academy. Each school district includes girl’s and boy’s sports, including football, volleyball, track and field and archery. First and foremost, all female teams and groups will be contacted through the athletic directors and coaches, who will provide flyers for information about GOTRU, the 5k event, and brief volunteer information (i.e. date and time, contact information). The girls will be able to coordinate with their coaches as to who can volunteer and for how much time. Depending on the availability of the volunteer, the sport, and the school, we will coordinate with the needs of GOTRU to place each one where is best fit. Volunteer positions will include registration of the runners, lining them up, handing out waters at the halfway mark, timing the beginning and end, directing the runners through the course, cheering them along the way, awarding them at the finish line, and distributing waters and snacks. Shifts will be established as needed.

With the advantage of two universities in the county, we extended our volunteers to include more role models for the girls. By contacting the women’s sports teams at Brigham Young University (BYU) of Provo and Utah Valley University (UVU) of Orem, we will recruit women collegiate athletes not only to volunteer at the 5k event but to inspire and motivate the young girls participating in the events. These women athletes can help volunteer by running alongside the girls who are participating in the 5k. This program will be all about girls inspiring and empowering girls in their athletic efforts. With the athletes being the girls’ running buddies, the athletes will be able to have a closer impact. By having women collegiate athletes, the young girls participating can look up to these individuals and stay motivated in their sports ambitions.

These university campuses tend to be service oriented as well. Y-Serve, a student-lead organization at BYU that facilitates service projects and groups, accepts applications for recommended service projects. We will recommend this event as a possible Y-serve project and will help organize this project with Y-Serve to expand service opportunities to BYU students for this event. Along with these efforts of recruiting volunteers for the actual 5k event, we will search elsewhere to find volunteers. By putting up posters around the area, posting on social media, and reaching out to our friends and family, volunteers for the 5k will be found easily and recruited.

Along with recruiting volunteers for the event, we will recruit girls to participate in the actual race. Similar advertisements are to be used in the school districts, but namely to the elementary and junior high schools because GOTRU targets girls in 3rd to 8th grade. Physical education classes are required and happen weekly, so by contacting the leadership of the schools and passing the information to the teachers, the girls of Utah County will learn about the event and signed up, hopefully with their friends, too. We will supply advertising through social media and posters for the schools to aid in spreading the word. Social media posts on the platforms Facebook and Instagram were promoted to certain demographics and browsing history. The posts will also be linked to the pages and/or website of GOTRU for full information. Funds for the posters and necessary purchases alongside will be collected from a part of the fundraising. We hope to recruit runners for the 5k to help GOTRU with their goals.

Fundraising Efforts

The posters and recruiting efforts cannot pay for themselves, so fundraising is another essential part of our plan to assist GOTRU with the 5k event this spring. Utah, and especially Utah County, is frequently highly rated for businesses and low living expenses. We will use this advantage to find sponsors for designing and printing t-shirts, covering the cost of printing posters and flyers, etc. NovaInk is a locally owned screen-printing business that offers both screen printing and banner printing, services we both need for the event. Branching outside sponsors, finding partners, including places like Vivint, where local companies can easily support their community will be reciprocally beneficial. In exchange, Vivint’s logo will be on materials such as flyers and t-shirts. We also will approach local sport retail stores to participate. Along with these efforts, a Go Fund Me account will be created to reach out to parents, volunteers, and participants for donations and to share with their friends. We plan to connect this link to our Facebook page and Instagram page.

Print-Mark is another local business; their printing services will be an asset. Such businesses have local prestige and would benefit from the advertisement of their logo. We will get volunteers from y-serve to seek out financial support from people in the community, such as students on college campuses as well as local businesses. We will accept Venmo as a form of funding because people will be more willing to donate due to the convenience.

We will create a raffle to incentivize the young girls to join in this event. The school will receive the same amount of raffle tickets as the number of girls that sign up for the event. The winner of the raffle will win 500 dollars for their school, from fundraising and registration, to put towards new sporting equipment, especially for girls. The remainder of the money earned from the raffle will help with fundraising, and the exposure from the raffle will help our recruiting efforts of girls participating in the event. These girls will pay the entrance fee as well as try to get their friends to join. This will create an exciting buzz around the event as young girls try to get their friends to come and join the fun.

Overall, these efforts will increase the awareness of girls and their participation in sports and athletics. The plan of action is set up in a way that naturalizes women and girls in sports in hopes to eliminate the stereotype that exists, letting women and men participate freely in sports without discrimination or stigma. Through community outreach and the support of powerful women, these young girls will feel supported.


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Girls Empowering Girls: Reducing Stereotypes in Athletics. (2021, Feb 24). Retrieved from