Gender in Sport

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.

Understanding Gender

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.


  1. Acosta, V. R., & Carpenter, L. J. (2012). Women in intercollegiate sport: A longitudinal, national study thirty-five year update 1977–2012. Available from
  2. 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.
  3. Messner, M. A. (1992). Power at play: Sports and the problem of masculinity. Boston: Beacon Press.


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