For the Catalyst Conference, I decided to focus on the differences in sports options at the all-girls school I attend, Greenwich Academy, and our brother school, Brunswick. Because we walk back and forth between the two campuses and take classes together, we have the experience of going to a co-ed school even though we’re technically two separate student bodies. However, this means that our administrations and athletics departments are also separate.
The options for sports at Brunswick are geared towards contact team sports, while athletics at GA tend to be less confrontational. There’s also a large difference in sports requirements that makes athletics much more intensive at Brunswick. For example, Wick students are required to participate in sports year-round for all four years, but GA students are allowed to take PE classes or dance instead of team sports. The girls are also allowed to take a season off when they become upperclassmen, whereas the Brunswick students still have to take at least one season of competitive sports, while two seasons can be intramurals.
In my project, I will be researching what causes these differences and how they impact the student body by conducting interviews with students and the GA athletics director. In doing so, I hope to find out whether or not students feel that the differences in athletic options reflects gender essentialist beliefs on the part of the administration. I will also explore how people are socialized to behave certain ways, and how that might cause them to develop interests based solely on the opportunities available to them because of their gender.
Here are some of the concepts I’m going to be exploring in this project:
Gender essentialism: the belief that there are fundamental differences between the sexes, whether those differences are biological, behavioral, or a matter of beliefs
Gender stereotyping: one-sided and often exaggerated portrayals of men and women that are commonly accepted as true
Socialization: process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to their social position
For this project, I decided to speak to some people in my community who have experience with athletics at Brunswick and GA:
Ms. Brousseau: the director of GA’s athletics department, co-advisor of the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance), all around great person
Mani: plays field-hockey year round and has taken core classes, pilates and running club
Elizabeth: has played field hockey and tennis, rows crew, and has taken pilates
Maggie: has played field hockey, ice hockey, and lacrosse
Daniel: has played football and lacrosse, swam, wrestled, and run track
In my interviews, I asked students from both Brunswick and GA questions about their personal experiences with sports at both schools. I wanted to get a sense of whether or not they saw gender essentialism in either school’s athletics program.
This is a video of some of the most relevant and compelling points that came up:
As I interviewed students and GA’s athletic director, I was able to draw several conclusions regarding how gender plays into athletics at GA and Brunswick. The first was that in general, Brunswick prioritize sports more than GA does. This idea came from both GA and Brunswick students I spoke to, who all agreed that sports is a big part of Wick culture and being a Wick student. Not only is this perpetuated by the students themselves, but also by the sports requirement at each respective school. GA’s requirements states that you can take three seasons of either competitive sports or PE classes for three seasons, and when you’re an upperclassman you can take one season off each year. At Wick, on the other hand, the only options are competitive or intramural sports, and you have to take three seasons of competitive sports as a freshman, with the requirement lessening to at least one season of competitive sports and two seasons of intramurals as a senior. As one of the students I spoke to said, the requirements seem to say “sports should be a priority if you’re a boy, and not necessarily if you’re a girl.”
This conclusion corroborates the research I did from an an article published by The Sport Journal, which states that because a stronger importance is placed on boys participating in sports, which results in more male than female adolescents taking a serious interest in sports. As one of the students I spoke to said, one of her teachers’ son was being taught football in the classroom, demonstrating how boys are taught to have an interest in sports from a young age. This creates an environment in which boys who are less interested in sports may teach themselves to be invested, because as Best Practices for Youth Sport says: “Boys who are not physically skilled or good athletes experience ridicule and embarrassment, based on the rigid male stereotype that includes strength, muscularity, athleticism, and lack of empathy for other participants… The ridicule… may cause them to struggle with self-esteem and social relationships.”
My second conclusion was that although the team sports offered at GA and Brunswick are very similar, the differences they do have are very telling. Brunswick offers more physically aggressive contact sports than GA does, such as football and wrestling. Additionally, as several interviewees noted, the contact sports that they do have in common (i.e. hockey, lacrosse, soccer) have very different rules for boys and girls. Daniel, one of the Wick students I talked to, noted that the rules for girls’ soccer make it much less aggressive, so much that it’s almost like a different game entirely. This goes to show that gender essentialism plays a role in determining how boys and girls experience sports, since the rules of the game are so different. As Best Practice for Youth Sport says, adolescents are often pressured into “gender-appropriate sports,” which in itself proves that certain sports are stereotyped according to gender. Our athletics director, Ms. Brousseau, talked about how the sports options offered at GA might tend toward “feminine” sports, but since all schools have to have similar programs so that their teams can compete with each other, this speaks more to a national problem than anything else. As she said, “if there’s a last bastion of where gender stereotypes will survive… it’s in sport.”
As Daniel also noted, the most popular sports with the largest fan bases are the three most physical contact sports Brunswick offers: football, hockey, and lacrosse. According to an article published by the University of South Alabama, these sports fit all the criteria for sports that are defined as “masculine”: danger/risk/violence, team spirit, speed, strength and endurance, and masculinity. In an all-male environment where athletics are emphasized, it makes sense that Wick students would gravitate towards the sports that are the male-dominated and stereotypically masculine. These traits fit most of the athletics offered at Brunswick, once again demonstrating the impact gender has on sports. The students who play these sports tend to be confident and popular, to the point where they are prioritized in the classroom. The headmaster of Brunswick himself teaches a special history class composed primarily of student athletes who might otherwise struggle in a regular history course. The competitive, almost hostile atmosphere at Wick sports games one of my GA interviewees mentioned did not seem to be a problem for many of the boys I talked to, since that’s an aspect of masculinity they were raised with and are used to. However, it would be incorrect to normalize that, since male athletes are people just like anyone else and it seems cruel to tear down On the other hand, “feminine” sports are characterized as: graceful, nonaggressive, providing beauty/aesthetic pleasure. This explains why certain sports are stereotyped as being either masculine or feminine, which then impacts the availability of certain sports to either gender. As is demonstrated in the above graphic, girls have less of a presence in athletics, and they tend to gravitate towards sports that fit the criteria of “femininity.”
Overall, students seem to be satisfied with the sports programs at their respective schools. However, analyzing their responses to even innocuous questions was very telling. Wick students seem to be mostly satisfied with the intensive sports requirements, but this feeling is not universal since sports are time consuming, especially because many of them play sports all three seasons. Furthermore, it could very well be a result of the boys being socialized to enjoy athletics from a young age, especially since most of them grew up in an all-male environment. GA students also seem to be overall happy with their athletics, but some of them noted that they know people who wish there were more athletics offered and pointed out the gender essentialist influence on the sports options. Additionally, they were able to offer interesting commentary how Wick prioritizes athletics and perpetuates a culture of hyper-masculinity.
Ultimately, through my project, I was able to discover how gender socialization impacts student athletes. Although the list or people I spoke to was by no means exhaustive, I think this project gives insight into the culture surrounding sports at Brunswick and GA. What you should take away from this is that we all should be aware of how sports can limit students’ opportunities solely on the basis of gender and perpetuate a culture of toxic masculinity. These aren’t issues with any easy fix, but by being aware and challenging misconceptions where you see them, we can all affect change in our respective communities.
Call to Action
After viewing this project, I encourage you to take action and try to make the changes you hope to see in your community. If you want to start a new team for a sport that wasn’t previously offered to your gender, try gathering all the people who agree with you and petition your school to start a new team, or to allow you to join the existing team. Finally, do you see gender essentialism in your community’s athletics? If so, where? How can you make a change? Feel free to discuss in the comments below!
- Baker, Claudette I., Fortin, Melissa, & Tinsley, Derrick V. “The Effect of Gender Opportunity in Sports on the Priorities and Aspirations of Young Athletes.” The Sport Journal, http://thesportjournal.org/article/the-effect-of-gender-opportunity-in-sports-on-the-priorities-and-aspirations-of-young-athletes/.
- Vealey, Robin, and Chase, Melissa. Best Practice for Youth Sport. Human Kinetics, 2016, http://www.humankinetics.com/excerpts/excerpts/reasons-for-gender-differences-in-youth-sport
- Koivula, Nathalie. “Perceived Characteristics of Sports Categorized as Gender-Neutral, Feminine, and Masculine.” Journal of Sport Behavior, 24, no. 4, Dec 1, 2001, http://www.biomedsearch.com/article/Perceived-characteristics-sports-categorized-as/80565123.html
- Sanders, Alice. “Is Gender Segregation in Sports Necessary?” How We Get to Next, https://howwegettonext.com/is-gender-segregation-in-sports-necessary-dc188150f242. Accessed March 14, 2018.
- “Diversity Demographics of American Youth Sports.” Ohio University Online Graduate Degree Programs, Ohio University, February 2, 2016, https://onlinemasters.ohio.edu/diversity-demographics-of-american-youth-sports/
- “Percentage of Students who Say Sports are a Big Part of who They Are.” ESPN, Kelley, Bruce,. Carchia, Carl, June 11, 2013, http://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/9469252/hidden-demographics-youth-sports-espn-magazine
- “Percentage of Adolescents who Play each Sport.” ESPN, Kelley, Bruce,. Carchia, Carl, June 11, 2013, http://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/9469252/hidden-demographics-youth-sports-espn-magazine