Serena Williams letter: are female athletes achieving parity?

Although female participation in sports at all levels is still less than that in boy's and men's sports, observers say that things are improving for young girls. 

Richard Drew/AP/File
In this July photo, Tai Sheppard, 11, Brooke Sheppard, 8, and Rainn Sheppard, 10, left to right, run warm-up laps at Boys and Girls High School, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Their track and field prowess has brought three young Brooklyn sisters medals, television appearances and money, even a Sports Illustrated magazine cover. But as Christmas approaches, Tai, Rainn and Brooke Sheppard and their mother are hoping for a little more holiday magic to get them out of the homeless shelter they're still living in.

In an opinion piece published in Porter Magazine’s "Incredible Women of 2016" issue, international tennis star Serena Williams addressed what it means to be a woman in the sports world, calling for equity between men and women in the game.

Being a professional female athlete, Ms. Williams wrote, often means that your first identity is as a woman, rather than as an athlete, something that can be frustrating for the many talented young women who compete around the world. And when the world sees you as a woman first, she says, oftentimes the athlete is neglected.

Yet it is women like Williams who observers say are helping to break down barriers for girls in sports, opening the door for generations of new young athletes to rise up the ranks into a more equal world. Nonprofits and professional organizations alike are taking on the challenges of unequal pay and resources, providing young female athletes with the confidence to shine.

"We don’t just show up with soccer balls," says Mary Banker, the associate director of Expansion and Development at Chicago based non-profit Girls in the Game. "We’re changing the conversation and the culture. This is so much bigger than Girls in the Game. We’re contributing to something bigger, and if we all make these steps, we will certainly get there someday."

Girls in the Game is just one of dozens of nonprofits that seek to serve the whole woman, not only teaching girls how to play the game, but also how to live well. The nonprofit has currently introduced approximately 40,000 young women between the ages of seven and 18 to new sports and fitness techniques, as well as leadership skills and nutrition.

"We use sports as a catalyst for youth development," Ms. Banker tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

Girls have made major strides in youth sport participation since Title IX, a federal law that outlaws sex-based discrimination in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding, was passed in 1972. Today, 70 percent of girls under the age of 18 play sports, as do 16 percent of adult women.

Nevertheless, despite rising participation, fewer girls and women play sports than boys and men, with 76 percent of boys and 35 percent of men participating in sports nationwide, according to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Purdue University associate professor of American Studies Cheryl Cooky tells the Monitor that lower female participation rates are the result of several factors, among them cultural assumptions about sports as a "man’s game," and stigmas surrounding female involvement in sports.

Women’s sports programs often do not have the same resources as men’s programs, Dr. Cooky says.

"While Title IX is often cited as a catalyst for getting women involved in sports, it is not equipped to provide women with the right resources to really support programs."

And even professional female athletes suffer, with declining screen time and media coverage for women’s athletics. Sometimes, professional female athletes, such as those in the Women’s National Hockey League, must have another full time job in order to support themselves. Salaries for female professional hockey players range from $10,000 to $25,000.

This year, the US Soccer Women’s National Team made headlines for their efforts to achieve pay parity with the Men's National Team, most recently appearing on a segment of CBS's "60 Minutes." Because of pay structuring, the women's team players earn significantly less than their male counterparts, despite better win-lose records.

Yet despite dispiriting pay statistics, Cooky says women’s advocacy efforts by high-profile athletes such as Williams and members of the women's national soccer team make a big difference. So do efforts by nonprofits and other organizations that seek to achieve greater female involvement in sports.

Girls in the Game is one prominent Chicago based organization, but there are many others like it.

The Women’s Sports Foundation provides community grants to better the quality of youth female sports and advocates for female athletes at all levels, conducting research and running conferences on the state of female participation.

Other organizations, such as Girls on the Run and Girls, Inc., also seek to give girls greater exposure to athletic pursuits.

The programs are having a tangible effect. While Girls in the Game says that one third of girls nationwide fail to get a recommended 60 minutes of exercise per day, the girls who do participate in sports make gains in their self-confidence and their leadership abilities.

Banker tells the Monitor that ESPNW statistics show that 84 percent of women in corporate executive positions are former athletes.

That progress is incremental, she says, should not be discouraging.

"We’re going to have to climb some mountains, and some we’re going to have to walk right through," Banker says. "But it is important for us to take those steps, one day at a time, because it is important to respect equal talent, and respect girls’ abilities, and one day, we will get there."

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