Review of Gender Issues in Male Dominated Sports

Review of Gender Issues in Male Dominated Sports


Men have dominated our sports arenas since the first games at Olympia in 776 BC.  Just as it was in Olympia, sports of today are highly publicized and celebrated battles.  Today’s athletes wage these battles on football fields, baseball diamonds, basketball courts, race tracks, and ice rinks.  These full contact, high energy sports emphasize masculinity and therefore have made it difficult for female participation.  It is often believed that these battles are no place for a woman.  This mind set has prompted many scientists and psychologists to study athletes to determine if there are gender related differences in today’s sports. 


In the early nineteenth century renowned philosopher Buytendijk stated, “Football as a game is essentially a demonstration of masculinity as we understand it from our traditional view of things and as produced in part by our physical constitution (through hormonal irritation).  No one has ever been successful in getting women to play football.”  This statement was based on the theory of the polarity of gender attributes. (Pfister, 2010)  Luckily, society has come a long way since those early nineteenth century assumptions.  It is statements such as this that have prompted many different types of research regarding gender differences in male dominated or high performance sports.  Sport psychology research on gender is closely related to gender research in psychology which has progressed from sex differences, personalities among the sexes to social roles.  This factor has put the sport psychology research ahead of the game in terms of its gender related research. (Gill, 2005)  This paper will review different types of research conducted on the topic in order to determine if gender issues do in fact exist in sports and how they may affect the sport as a whole.


There have been quite a few types of research conducted on these suspected gender issues.  Sandra Bem’s 1978 research on the fact that both sexes can have masculine, feminine or androgynous personalities led the way for most sport psychology gender research.  This research provided us with evidence that women athletes possess more masculine personality characteristics than do women who are not athletes.  Many critics state that it is competitiveness and not these masculine characteristics that direct the behavior of female athletes.  Because of this criticism, most psychologists of today have moved beyond the gender personality approach to social processes. (Gill, 2005)   The concept that experience and opportunity have a greater effect on competiveness than gender is easy to understand.  Many female athletes are more competitive than the men on their team.  It really is an individual thing and one that is based more on the experience and therefore confidence of that person.  Confidence builds competitiveness.  If athletes are not confident in their abilities, especially a female athlete in a male dominated sport than their performance may be hindered and their competitive nature may be oppressed as a result. 

Research conducted in 1993, testing competitiveness, win, and goal orientations gave us a good look at gender differences.  This study was conducted on high school, college, and intercollegiate men and women, both athletes and non-athletes.  Overall the gender differences were greatest on competitive, win-oriented sport competition where the males were higher than the females.  Additionally, this study looked at gender differences regarding athletes and non-athletes.  In this category women athletes tested higher in competitiveness than male non-athletes, and tested similar to male athletes.  This tells us that gender differences were greater for non-athletes.  (Gill, 2005)  This study is very broad.  The difference between athletes and non-athletes is as similar as the difference between steak and chicken.  By stating that women athletes are more competitive than male non-athletes down plays female athletes as a whole.  Often times people who do not play sports are not competitive in nature to begin with, which could explain why they are not interested in competitive sports.  To compare that person to a highly competitive athlete of another gender would produce an inaccurate result for this study.  It would be more appropriate to study athletes of different gender who compete in the same or similar sport.

Professor Claudia Kugelmann, a sport pedagogic and didactics, gave a lecture called “Crossing Boarders – High Performance Sport and Gender” at Humboldt University, Germany on 18 May 2009.  During this lecture she made powerful statements regarding female athletes.  She is quoted as saying “High performance is a typical male attribute in Western society and that is why high performance sport is a place where men naturally belong – in contrast to women.”  She further stated that “In our society women still have to be feminine and charming.  If they are in high performance sport, they have to accent their femininity even more; they have to ‘prove’ it.”  Kugelmann further commented on the development of females in high performance sports by saying “When women started to become top athletes, they were at first pushed into the so called feminine sports.  Today, top female athletes are active in all kinds of sport and they have almost come to the same level of performance as their male colleague.” (Reporter, 2009)  Today, more and more women are taking part in sports that for many years were considered taboo for them.  Female athletes of today take part in biathlon, water polo, marathons, iron man competitions, soccer and cycling, all of which were strictly men’s sports until the 1970’s.  (Pfister, 2010) 

A perfect example of one of those taboo sports in ice hockey.  Ice hockey is undeniably a very tough sport.  In North America some consider it to be a “flag carrier” for masculinity as it takes many skills deemed masculine to be a top athlete in the sport.  These skills include explosive strength, aggressiveness, and rough body contact.  In Canada women’s ice hockey is thought to be superior to men’s ice hockey.  It is promoted that the women play with more speed and finesse and less violence.  However, female ice hockey players describe their love for the game for almost the same reasons as male ice hockey players.  They love to exert their physical power to the limit, as well as the physical contact of the game.  Female hockey players take it one step further when they state that they feel refreshed that they can enjoy the physical aspect of the game which is accepted more widely on the ice than it is in society.  They feel they can behave more freely. (Gilenstam, Karp, & Henriksson-Larsen, 2007)

Kugelmann bases much of her theories on her study “A close look on girls’ soccer”.  In this study she determined that girls that have a talent for a specific sport often struggle with the impressions male coaches have that they are less performance-oriented than boys.  She found the cause of this to be due to the difference in the way boys and girls express their ambitions. (Reporter, 2009)  This could better explain the results of the 1993 study done on competitiveness of male and female, athletes and non-athletes.  The fact that boys and girls/men and women, express their ambitions differently would bring a whole new light to the results of that study.  In a 2000 study conducted on 365 student’s grades K-12 takes this a step further by attempting to understand how our youth of today view certain sports as gender specific.  This study conducted by Brenda A. Rimer and Michelle E. Visio sought to test Metheny’s Classification.  Over forty years ago Methany proposed a classification system that characterized certain sports as socially acceptable for female participation.  These sports were characterized based on what was socially acceptable for female behavior.  Any sort of physical contact or even “face-to-face opposition” was considered unacceptable.  The children were asked to fill out demographic questionnaires to determine the findings.  The results varied by age but showed that even today certain sports continue to be viewed as gender specific. (Riemer & Visio, 2002) This study is important to tie into the 1993 study and Kugelmann’s study because if taken into consideration on a future study we may be able to determine the root cause of the difference in ambitions between boys and girls/men and women.  If our youth still view certain sports as gender specific it is because they are getting it from today’s society.  If we are able to determine the root cause change may be possible.

Kugelmann’s powerful statements hit the nail on the head in regards to female athlete’s participation in high performance sports that are male dominated.  Women in society are viewed as mothers, daughters, and sisters and are to be protected.  Societal views of women in the military are very similar to this topic.  Women in the military are usually not allowed on the front lines of combat.  However during the course of the War on Terror many women gave their lives in the performance of their duties.  It is more difficult to draw a line that can be considered the front line in today’s combat theatres.  Society has had to change their views on women in combat and if pressed, high performance sports may not be far behind.   Female athletes of today are Mixed Martial Artists, Olympic snowboarders, and, Sumo wrestlers, to name a few.   Even with female athletes participating in these high performance sports today, our youth still have beliefs that there are gender specific sports as shown above in Riemer and Visio’s study. 

As we move past the K-12 age and into the collegiate level further research has shown women have different views, perhaps due to the fact that they are active members in society.  In 2002 Lisa R. McClung and Elaine M. Blinde identified that participation in intercollegiate sports may facilitate or impede female athlete’s sensitivity to gender issues in society.  They conducted a study to determine to what extent female athletes identify with and define gender issues and to uncover factors that may impact those sensitivity levels.  Twenty females were randomly selected from a list of athletes in a large Midwestern University and consented to participate in the study.  Data was collected by interviewing each participant to determine their perceptions and experiences of women athletes.  The results showed the athletes felt there was gender discrimination in sports but were unable to relate that to their everyday lives outside of the sport. (McClung & Blinde, 2002) Although they were active members of society they were not working members yet as they were still in college.  This made it difficult for them to relate the gender discrimination to their everyday lives, as college and their sports were likely all consuming at this point in time in their lives.  Additionally, they felt that female athletics took a back seat to male athletics and they were very adamant about not being labeled as a feminist. (McClung & Blinde, 2002)  They felt that women should be allowed to play in whatever sport they chose, as long as they had the skills to compete; whether on a co-ed team or strictly a male team.  It is important to note that simply allowing women to take part in these typically male dominated sports does not mean that the gender differences are eliminated.  On the contrary, in many sports this may lead to new and more subtle forms of gender issues.   (Pfister, 2010)

The results of McClung and Blinde’s study are closely related to Professor Claudia Kugelmann’s thoughts on female athletes having to accentuate their femininity even more and ‘prove’ themselves, not only as athletes but as a woman.  Almost all of the athletes in the study commented on the stereotypes that go along with being female athletes.  They are called, “lesbian”, “butch”, “tomboy” or “masculine”. (McClung & Blinde, 2002)  In order to prevent being labeled with one of those stereotypes, these athletes strove to be the best at their sport and to also maintain their femininity.  Sports such as boxing and body building are perfect examples of sports that are traditionally associated with masculinity and defined as male sports.  Female athletes in these sports have to present themselves as women although their muscular bodies signal masculinity.  In fact, it is stated in the book ‘Built to Win’ that a demonstration of femininity and eroticism increases woman athletes ‘market value’ or even makes her marketable in the first place.  The media love to assist in this aspect. 


It has been shown through the research studies that both adults and children of both genders see that there are gender inequalities in today’s sports.  Some innate beliefs prove particularly hard to break.  It is a wonderful thought to think that one day there will be equality for all, but the reality is that our society is not now and may never be willing to give up the sanctity of our women.  Although we have discussed many viewpoints on their being gender inequalities in sports today, it is important to note that there is only a small number of women who take an interest in and actually choose to play in these male dominated sports.  Our society today focuses more on having that ‘perfect body’, which has been a driving force for women to compete in tougher, typically male dominated sports. (Pfister, 2010)  Often times there are easy ways to break into one of these sports if it is desired.  Young girls are just as welcome to play on youth ice hockey teams and Pop Warner football teams as young boys are.  The teams are most often co-ed, giving both girls and boys the same opportunities to learn, play and develop a love for the sport.  It is natural that as young girls grow into young women their interests change as their bodies develop and become more feminine.  Those girls that truly develop a love for a sport will continue with that sport and will then face the gender inequalities that we have found to exist.  Knowing this ahead of time will help prepare them for the stress and pressure associated with stepping into that sport.  Then perhaps women of the same skill level as men in the same sport that are mentally and physically capable of competing may experience equality in the sport. 

Works Cited

Gilenstam, K., Karp, S., & Henriksson-Larsen, K. (2007). Gender in ice hockey: women in a male territory. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports , 235-249.

Gill, D. L. (2005, June 03). Psychology of Gender Differences. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport, Vol 3 .

McClung, L. R., & Blinde, E. M. (2002). Sensitivity to Gender Issues: Accounts of Women Intercollegiate Athletes. International Sports Journal , 117-133.

Pfister, G. (2010). Women in sport - gender relations and future perspectives. Sport in Society , 234-248.

Reporter, U. N. (2009, May 18). Gender Differences in High Performance Sport. Retrieved July 29, 2010, from International Council of Sports Science and Physical Education:

Riemer, B. A., & Visio, M. E. (2002). Gender Typing of Sports: An Investigation of Metheny's Classification. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport , 193-204.