Many parents still believe boys are better, more competitive at sports than girls

Female Olympian handballers fined for playing in shorts instead of bikini bottoms. A female Paralympian told by a championship official that her shorts were “too short and inappropriate.” Olympic women gymnasts, tired of feeling sexualized, opted for full-length unitards instead of bikini-cut leotards.

“Women athletes’ attire is constantly scrutinized,” said Philip Veliz of the University of Michigan School of Nursing. “No one has ever said that a baseball or football player’s pants are too tight.”

Research from Veliz and colleagues found that gender stereotypes and double standards, where female athletes are treated differently or aren’t taken as seriously as male counterparts, persist even among parents.

While the study did not specifically look at the sexualization of girls in sports, Veliz said these stereotypes can lead to the type of sexualization of female athletes seen in the Olympic uniform controversy, where the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined for refusing to play in skimpy, mandated bikini outfits.

The study found that gender stereotypes and the dearth of female coaches as role models are among the biggest reasons that girls quit or don’t participate in sports, Veliz said.

“The average age that kids enter sports is 6, which requires heavy parental involvement,” Veliz said. “If you believe that boys are better than girls, you may be taking girls to a different activity or not doing sports at all.”

Girls (43%) are more likely to have never played sports than boys (35%) and less likely to be currently playing sports—36% of girls compared to nearly 46% of boys. Overall, about 40% of youth surveyed said they currently play sports.

“Sport is the most popular extracurricular activity in the United States for both boys and girls. Yet, we see this gender gap in participation persist, and parents may be driving some of this,” said Veliz, a research assistant professor at the School of Nursing and Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and associate director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center.

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