Girls and sport

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Photo: Getty

"Boys are natural born risk takers, whereas girls are less competitive and more likely to be cautious".

It’s the standard line trotted out whenever we talk about gender differences and sport. And no doubt people can back up the claim by reference to any number of observations from their daily life.

But why might this be the case? Where does girls’ "innate" cautiousness come from? Right about now, some readers are going to launch into a supposedly scientific explanation that begins in the Savannah and involves men outwitting Sabre tooth tigers while women sit at home and go online shopping. Or something like that.

But there’s a simpler explanation: girls are taught to be cautious and rewarded for avoiding risk-taking behaviour.

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On a recent Saturday morning at a sports class I saw a small example of how this learning happens. My daughter was climbing a rock wall — with harness and everything — alongside a boy around the same age. The instructor helped both my daughter and the little boy up to the first toe-holds.

But that’s when things started to change. The little boy was encouraged to climb higher and higher. He was given help co-ordinating his hands and feet. At one point, the instructor took to the wall herself, climbing up to push him ever higher.

Meanwhile, my daughter perched there waiting. While she was assisted a little, much of this was simply holding her up, rather than actively encouraging her to seek out find toe-holds.

In total, the whole episode took just over three minutes. Of those three minutes, my daughter was being helped for just over one minute. And during some of this time, the assistance took the form of simply placing a reassuring hand on her back. The boy was given double that time, and was consistently challenged to scale ever higher.

I’m not suggesting that the instructor was deliberately giving the little boy more attention than my daughter. Nor do I think she was consciously encouraging the boy to extend himself while she primarily concerned herself with keeping my daughter safe. But, conscious or not, the outcome was that the boy came away believing he was capable of climbing the rock wall and deserving of attention and my daughter did not.  

Now, it may be that I’m one of those most vile of lifeforms: the overbearing middle class father who constantly whines about how his little girl didn’t get a fair go. Perhaps. But there is a fair swathe of research that suggests that there’s a gender bias when it comes to instruction, one that extends well beyond my daughter and her sports class.

And this isn’t confined to primary or secondary school, but begins at pre-school. A 2005 study of 20 Swedish pre-school teachers — 10 female and 10 male —published in the Early Childhood Education Journal, for example, found that play was highly gendered.

"Girls participate to a lesser extent in physical activities and when they do, they are often interrupted," wrote the researchers.

Often this wasn’t deliberate, but was, unsurprisingly, a matter of the teachers repeating the kinds of play that they had engaged in as children.

"It is apparent that male preschool teachers’ own experiences of different sports activities made a lasting impression on their work in preschool. Today, when they work in preschool they try to support children’s needs in physical play", noted the researchers.

"Female preschool teachers tend to prioritise calm play, which they also, for the most part, have experienced in their own childhood. Female preschool teachers emphasise the importance of social development in play while male preschool teachers accentuate the  significance of physical development."

And it’s not just physical development that is affected by gender. Other research suggests that girls are often not encouraged — or given the opportunity — to extend themselves intellectually.

In her 1994 book Schoolgirls, which was based on a year with eighth graders at two Californian schools, for example, Peggy Orenstein noted "that boys are referred for testing for gifted programs twice as often as girls".

Orenstein notes that this may be because giftedness is regarded as rare in boys and is therefore more often noticed. Since girls’ intellectual giftedness conforms to gender stereotypes, their abilities are regarded as normal, and therefore not seen as requiring the kinds of special attention of a giftedness program.

Happily, when my daughter had a second go on the climbing wall, she was paired with another little girl. And what do you know? Both received about equal attention.

If we want our daughters to be brave, courageous, physically active, and feel equally deserving of attention, then we need to be vigilant in challenging gender stereotypes. Because even with the best intentions, if we are not consciously rejecting outdated gender roles then by default will continue to do what we’ve always done and confine our girls to the bottom rungs of life’s rock wall.

Christopher Scanlon is a Melbourne-based writer and a co-founder of http://www.upstart.net.au, the website for emerging journalists.

20 comments

  • What a cliched article. I have 3 children. 2 boys and a girl. My daughter is by far them most sporting child of the three of them. I encourage them all equally but one son has an unparalleled love of books and would rather read whilst the other is able to have a go but lacks any natural talent. I am happy that he has a go.

    Commenter
    Bec
    Date and time
    May 01, 2013, 9:03AM
    • So true. I have been playing competitive soccer since I was 8. Until the age of 17 I continued to play with the boy's teams, often with people asking me why I didn't play with the girls team. Well, I actually played both. I am now 20, and for the past 3 years have played soccer for a women's club. Recently I have been attending training sessions with another club also, where I train with 3 boys (aged 14/15) who asked me last week "How old are you?" and when I answered "I'm 20" one replied with "And you still play soccer?" Of course I do, I love the sport! Gender roles regarding sports need to change. I know many girls' competitions are now available in a range of sports (which is wonderful) but girls should still be able to play with the boys and should continue playing sport for as long as they wish!!

      Commenter
      Liv
      Date and time
      May 01, 2013, 10:59AM
      • Geez, if you want your daughter to get more attention playing sport, make her play female sports. Rock climbing at that level, really isn't a sport.

        Take her to hockey. They'll teach her to run straight at the ball or swing her stick into the other player. Man, have I have some fabulously bruises and breaks from hockey.

        I for one, played far far to much competitive sport during childhood. I'm rather competitive now, and I was one of the most "gifted" at school too. Maybe you should just suck it up and do less "girly" and "safe" things with your daughter. I'm sure she'd have a great time if you ran through the mud all day.

        Commenter
        Ellie
        Date and time
        May 01, 2013, 11:53AM
        • Because a teacher is justified in essentially ignoring any girl who dares play a sport not on the Approved for Girls list? Where can Christopher apply to get rock climbing added to the official list?

          Commenter
          /anne...
          Location
          tecoma
          Date and time
          May 01, 2013, 5:20PM
      • You need to teach your daughter to watch and listen, so in life she can pick things up on the go and won't have to rely on being spoon fed or helped so much. The comments by the person directed to the boy, she could have acted upon as guidance.

        Commenter
        GreenlanternNT
        Location
        N.T.
        Date and time
        May 01, 2013, 11:56AM
        • "You need to teach your daughter to watch and listen, so in life she can pick things up on the go and won't have to rely on being spoon fed or helped so much."

          Obviously, only boys are allowed to be spoon fed and helped. Girls should just be grateful that we're allowed to be in the same room to 'pick things up' while the boys are being taught properly.

          Commenter
          /anne...
          Location
          tecoma
          Date and time
          May 01, 2013, 5:25PM
      • Let's please teach boys to de-prioritise sport.

        Seriously, I'm sick of it, professional sport is everywhere in Australia's media outlets, and it isn't normal or healthy.

        Commenter
        Bejo
        Date and time
        May 01, 2013, 12:52PM
        • I always find it amusing that sports results from games between two Australian areas make prime time news. Only mens sport mind due. And apparently its fascinating that Kurtly Beale or whoever it is this week thats facing some sort of tribunal has a couple of games ban. Yawn. Hello, whats Kim Jong Un up to? Any underground movement of rocket heads??? In the last news broadcast I saw they called him Kim Jong Il. Pathetic. Sports participation is highest in soccer and AFL. So can we get rid of league from TV now please.

          Commenter
          Rachael
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          May 01, 2013, 9:49PM
      • I have often wondered about the impact school uniforms play on this, with girls required to wear dresses and skirts and often long socks, tights and leather shoes with hard soles whilst boys are able to wear shorts and shirts and can wear black runners that look far more comfortable to be physical in. What would you rather kick a ball in? I know this doesn't hold true for very small children but upper primary and secondary school female students aren't often seen to be running around on the oval at break time.

        Commenter
        wonderer
        Date and time
        May 01, 2013, 1:20PM
        • Christopher, you're not 'one of those overbearing, middle-class fathers'. In fact, I wish there were more fathers like you calling out gender bias.

          Sexism in sport is rife. Just one recent, personal example: knowing that P.E. isn't my 14 y.o. daughter's favourite subject, I asked her Year 8 Sport teacher how she was going. His response: 'Yeah, great. I don't expect too much - I'm happy for THE GIRLS to just participate.'

          I could accept that he may have said that about her personally (which is still problematic!), but to have that attitude toward all the females of his student population?! He's only young, too. Maybe mid-twenties. Not that older-age is an excuse for sexist comments, but I would have thought (hoped) that younger teachers would be more evolved. Unfortunately not, it seems.

          Commenter
          Catherine M
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          May 01, 2013, 1:57PM

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