“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” — Title IX
Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark civil rights law that opened the door for gender equity in sports in schools and universities receiving federal funding. While addressing broader women’s issues, Title IX also provided the legal muscle to give girls and women equal access to play.
Research shows that girls who play have better physical and mental health, do better academically, graduate high school and college at higher rates and have fewer risk-taking behaviors than their non-participating peers. Furthermore, girls who play go on to earn 7% higher incomes than non-participating peers, and more than 90% of women executives across 400 global companies played sports.
All children deserve the right to play and access to sports. Yet too many girls remain on the sidelines, especially girls of color from under-resourced communities. The National Women’s Law Center Report on Title IX at 50 reports that in high school girls in general have less opportunity to play sports than boys, and this disparity is much greater for low-income girls of color.
The Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative (BAWSI, pronounced “bossy”), recently commissioned an original youth-led study by local high school girls, completed in February 2022. Youth researchers from Overfelt High School asked, “What are the barriers to sport participation for middle school and high school girls in East San Jose and what are its impacts?”
Their findings highlight local barriers that parallel those found in national studies assessing the current state of Title IX sports equity. The youth researchers cite systemic, interpersonal and physical barriers that include sexism/patriarchy, sizeism, affordability, transportation, limited choices, lack of information, emotional safety, confidence and athletic ability. Girls do want to play, yet the system is not set up for their inclusion.
Many administrators have told us, “We offer sports to girls, but they don’t join.” This is true, but 16 years of girls sports programming has taught us that getting girls involved in sports requires a different toolkit. Female coaches, girls-only spaces (versus co-ed), early access in elementary school and emphasis on fun and belonging over competition — these are some of the proven methods to pique a girl’s interest and get her to say yes to sports. This work does not happen overnight. It takes a long-term commitment to change the numbers. The numbers are important because behind each new participant there is a face, a future and an emerging leader.
As we celebrate Title IX’s 50th anniversary and all the progress to date, we must remain vigilant. Yes, we’ve come a long way, but there is still so much work to do. How can we help?
• Know our numbers: Two state laws mandate transparent reporting of participation by gender in schools and parks and recreation departments — AB 2404 and SB 1349. Know the numbers in our schools and town.
• Widen our circle of concern: The next time we are sitting at a youth sports event, ask, “Who is missing here, and what can we do to address the disparity?”
• Provide funding specifically for girls’ sports: This might be a letter or phone call to city, state and federal elected officials to lobby for public funding, or your own personal donation to girl-serving sports organizations, or even both.
Dana Weintraub and Jennifer Smith are co-CEO’s Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative.