Title IX changed the face of sports. By preventing discrimination in any federally funded activity, the law requires that men and women enjoy equal opportunities in all varsity sports, prompting an exponential increase in female participation of all ages in all sports since the law’s implementation in 1972. Forty-four years later, this fight still continues. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, female collegiate athletes receive $183 million fewer than men with National Collegiate Athletic Association scholarships. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women’s sports, as discrimination goes far beyond the sphere of federally funded athletics.
I personally have faced disadvantages as a female athlete. Although I do not play a varsity-level sport, I still experience a gender-based bias, especially in my sport of choice: boxing. In a sport primarily dominated by men, it is difficult to find female fighters. Granted, the media does not focus on the women’s division nearly as much as it does on the men’s, which is true of the coverage of almost every sport. But, it is also undeniably true that there are far fewer women in boxing than in many other sports. When I went to the collegiate nationals, there were at least twice as many men on the roster as there were women. Even just on Georgetown’s team, I have been the only girl at a boxing competition on more than one occasion. Additionally, it is difficult to find match ups because there oftentimes are simply not enough girls competing.
My boxing career only represents a single experience, and there are countless numbers of female athletes who have struggled to compete in sports previously dominated by men. This past year, professional soccer player Abby Wambach became the world’s top goal-scorer — male or female — in international soccer matches. Many took to the Internet to voice complaints about how she did not face the same level of competition as men did, devaluing her accomplishment as less impressive.
In July 2015, Ronda Rousey beat out Floyd Mayweather to win the Best Fighter Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award, and people again said she did not earn it because the competition was not as fierce. There may be fewer women in boxing or mixed martial arts than there are men, but they must also overcome countless obstacles to achieve excellence in their sport.
I have also noticed a startling trend of stereotyping and putting a disproportionate amount of pressure on top-level female athletes. In January, Wambach was featured in a Super Bowl commercial for the Mini Cooper, in which she stated some of the many names people have called her: butch, lesbian, dyke and bitch. Two weeks ago on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Rousey admitted she had suicidal thoughts immediately after her highly publicized loss to Holly Holm. Whether this reaction was rooted in a set of deeper factors, or simply stemmed from the pressure she faces as a visible female athlete, such a reaction is concerning.
But the important question remains: Why are there so few women in these extremely physical, male-dominated sports? As a recent New York Times article by Caroline Paul suggested, perhaps it can be credited to the ways that different genders are conditioned to react to fear. The author, a female firefighter, has often been asked if she gets scared while on the job. Not only is such a question offensive — her male counterparts were hardly ever asked that question — it also spoke to the different ways boys and girls are raised and expected to behave. She cited several statistics reporting that parents often discourage girls from pursuing adventurous activities, or instruct girls to “be careful,” while allowing boys the opportunity to take more risks. This fear conditioning starts early, and it may largely contribute to the scarcity of women fighting and competing in tough sports like boxing and MMA. Women such as Wambach and Rousey overcame these disproportionate, culturally ingrained fears to pursue and succeed in challenging sports, yet they are ridiculed in their accomplishments for supposedly having it easier.
Wambach and Rousey are just two of the many female athletes fighting for equality, but there need to be more. We cannot let fear, conditioning and criticism stand in the way of girls pursuing male-dominated sports. We need to encourage them to compete, to not be discouraged by ridicule or fear. We need to challenge them to overcome the cultural norms dictating which sports they should and should not play. We need to make them be fighters, in every sense of the word.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.