Gender has a clear and powerful influence in society, and a particularly powerful and persistent influence in sport and exercise. Indeed, the sport world seems to exaggerate and highlight gender. Sport and physical activities remain largely sex segregated and male dominated. Gender is so embedded that trying to be nonsexist and treating everyone the same is difficult. Moreover, trying to treat everyone the same may well do a disservice to participants.
Gender refers to psychological, social, and cultural experiences and characteristics associated with being male or female. The terms sex and gender often are used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Sex refers to biological aspects of being male or female. Gender, often mistakenly assumed to be biologically based, is socially constructed, which means that characteristics associated with men and women are not innate biological distinctions but develop through social interactions. Moreover, gender is not a dichotomous category. People vary greatly in the extent to which they hold and convey gendered thoughts, female and feminine (associated with emotionalism, weakness, nurturance, gracefulness, etc.). When people do not fall neatly into these two categories, sexual orientation is often questioned. That is, a woman whose gender expression reflects masculine characteristics is assumed to be lesbian, and a man whose gender expression reflects feminine characteristics is assumed gay, which further conflates sex, gender, and sexuality. Again, gender is not biological sex, or sexual orientation, but socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes. Simple, dichotomous gender categories cannot explain gender.
When considering gender, it is important to recognize that gender involves power relations. Socially constructed gender roles and expectations lead to inequities and disparities, which reflect power relations. The dominant group has power or privilege, and nondominant groups experience oppression or discrimination. In gender relations, men have power in society and in sport.
It is also important to note that gender is only one of many sociocultural identities. Everyone possesses many other social identities, such as nationality, class, race and ethnicity, and those multiple identities intersect. The mix of multiple, feelings, and behaviors. Gender expression refers to the way people convey their gender through mannerisms, behaviors, or expressions.
Gender often is conflated with sex, and considered a naturally determined, unchangeable gender binary with two opposing categories. That is, male and masculine (associated with strength, independence, competitiveness, etc.) are the opposite of intersecting identities and power relations varies with time and context. Gender affects men as well as women, and gender interacts with other cultural identities. Sport is not only considered male but also considered white, young, middle-class, heterosexual male. A more useful sport and exercise psychology must consider the intersections of gender, race, class, and other power relations.
Gender in Sport and Exercise
Gender is deeply embedded in sport and exercise, not only reflecting the gendered cultural boundaries of society, but also emphasizing physical and biological processes. Sports have separate categories for men and women because of the assumption that men are naturally (biologically) better than women, which links to gender disparities and power relations.
Although women’s and girls’ participation in sport and exercise has exploded in the last generation, the numbers of female and male participants are not equal. More important, gender influences thoughts, feelings, and behaviors within physical activity settings. Citius, Altius, Fortius—the Olympic motto—translates as “swifter, higher, stronger,” which underscores that sport is competitive and hierarchical (masculine characteristics) as well as physical. Gender disparities reflect power relations. Before 1972 when Title IX was passed, over 90% of U.S. women’s athletic teams were coached by women. Today, even though more girls and women participate, less than 50% of their coaches are women.
Sex segregation is not as obvious in exercise, but gender influence is clear. Women and men may exercise in the same fitness center, but the aerobics and yoga classes are predominantly women’s spaces, whereas men dominate the free weights area. Public health reports indicate that physical activity is limited by gender, as well as by race, class, and physical attributes. Men engage in more physical activity than women across all age groups and all other categories.
Gender stereotypes are connected to gender disparities. Over 50 years ago, Eleanor Metheny identified gender stereotypes, concluding that it is not socially appropriate for women to engage in contests that involve bodily contact, bodily force, or long distances. Gender stereotypes persist, and media coverage reflects gender bias. Female athletes receive much less coverage, with the emphasis on athletic accomplishments for men, and on femininity and physical attractiveness for women. Men are expected to be bigger, stronger, and faster. Boys who are not athletic often are teased, as with the common insult, “You throw like a girl.”
Sport studies scholars have described sport as a powerful force that socializes boys and men into a restricted masculine identity. We expect to see men dominate women, and we are uncomfortable with bigger, stronger women who take active, dominant roles expected of athletes. Gender stereotypes may restrict men in sport even more than women. Men who deviate from the masculine norm within the athletic culture often face ridicule, harassment, or physical violence.
Stereotypes are a concern because people act on them, exaggerating minimal gender differences and restricting opportunities. Both girls and boys can participate in figure skating or ice hockey. Yet children see female figure skaters and male ice hockey players as role models; peers gravitate to sex-segregated activities; and parents, teachers, and coaches support gender-appropriate activities.
The gendered context of sport and exercise has changed, particularly for women and girls, but gender stereotypes and disparities persist. Sport and exercise are clearly linked with masculine values and behaviors. Those gender stereotypes restrict opportunities and behaviors for both men and women, and may encourage unhealthy behaviors, such as overtraining or unhealthy eating behaviors. The limited gender research focuses on women, which highlights neglected issues, but sport and exercise psychology scholars have far to go to understand gender in physical activity settings.
- Acosta, V. R., & Carpenter, L. J. (2012). Women in intercollegiate sport: A longitudinal, national study thirty-five year update 1977–2012. Available from http://www.acostacarpenter.org
- Gill, D. L. (2007). Gender and cultural diversity. In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp. 823–844). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Messner, M. A. (1992). Power at play: Sports and the problem of masculinity. Boston: Beacon Press.