Disparities in Female Access to Sports

Cheering crowds and matching uniforms, Friday night lights and rain drenched fields, cleats and knee pads, balls and rackets: these are all stereotypical elements of sports that some women will not experience. The gender gap in sports, although shrinking, continues to endure due to a variety of causes, including religion, laws, and the sexualization of women. This gap is vexing considering the extensive benefits sports engender, including physical health, mental health, and increased self-esteem.

Barriers to Access

Religion: In 2015, Time Magazine highlighted obstacles faced by female soccer players, attesting that, “In Middle Eastern countries including Yemen, Oman, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, nascent women’s national teams confront religious challenges to their participation. Clerics in Saudi Arabia have said that female sports constitute ‘steps of the devil’ toward immortality. Egyptian women report that family members are often the ones to keep girls off the field, telling them that soccer is haram, forbidden in Islam… Indian women were recently forced off the field after a Muslim cleric issued a fatwa against men watching girls play in skirts.”[1]

Laws: Access to sports for women in Saudi Arabia, for example, is subject to legal restrictions and certain athletic activities are banned for women. For example, females are only allowed to attend women-only gyms and cannot play volleyball[2]. Still, some changes are being made. This year, the country finally launched a female soccer league.[3] Additionally, women are “permitted to go swimming, running or bodybuilding – as long as there are no men present.”[4]

Sexualization: This is perhaps the worst barrier, in my opinion, for women’s access to sports. Women may be harassed or treated inappropriately. For example, “In Brazil, where only about 1% of soccer players are women, team owners have tried to sexualize female footballers, issuing skimpy uniforms as a tactic to attract crowds.”[5]

A related issue is sexual assault and abuse of female athletes. According to the BBC, “In post-Taliban Afghanistan, the women’s football team was hailed globally as a symbol of the new freedoms enjoyed by the country’s women. But now one of Afghanistan’s top sports officials has admitted that female footballers…have been sexually abused. And it’s not only football – he admitted the problem extends to other sports too.”[6]

Benefits of Sports Participation

These barriers for female athletes are lamentable and frustrating considering the significant advantages gained from playing sports. Three proven benefits include physical health, mental health, and self-esteem.

Physical Health: Studies have proven that participation in sports has positive impacts on physical health. One study claimed that sports “bring health benefits…such as psychosocial development of both young and old, personal development,…and less consumption of alcohol. Finally, those who play sports have a higher level of physical activity later in life, and through sport, knowledge of nutrition, exercise, and health can be developed.”[7]

Mental Health: Those who have dealt with issues surrounding mental health know that the treatment may involve more than just prescriptions. Some may benefit from a holistic approach that includes exercise, and physical activity has been proven to act as an antidepressant. One study found that “physical activity and exercise used as a primary, or secondary, processing method have significant positive effects in preventing or alleviating depressive symptoms and have an antidepressant effect in people with neurological diseases. Training and exercise improve the quality of life and coping with stress and strengthen self-esteem and social skills. Training and exercise also lessen anxiety in people who are diagnosed with an anxiety- or stress-related disease.”[8]

Self-Esteem: Lastly, sports have the potential to increase self-esteem. A study conducted at a university in the United States researched the effect of adolescent sport participation on perceived self-esteem in college-aged adults. The study found that undergraduate students who had sports experience prior to college enjoyed higher levels of self-reported self-esteem.[9]

Evidence convinces us of the impact of sports on physical health, mental health, and self-esteem. Furthermore, there are other benefits that are less studied but still known. The University of Missouri Health Care System encourages youth to participate in team sports because such activities help athletes perform better academically, and teach teamwork and problem solving skills.[10]

While sports are not the only way to promote these benefits in women, we should work to disrupt the barriers preventing women from choosing sports as one of their avenues for growth. Several organizations are working to improve female access to sports, including Play Like a Girl, Women’s Sports Foundation, Women Win, Fast and Female, and Women Sport International. In all corners of the world, women should be allowed to compete, encouraged to participate, and supported in their play.

-M.L.B.


[1] Asquith, X. A. and C., & Reporting, F. P. for I. (2015, July 8). World Cup: Soccer Is Still Out of Reach for Half the World’s Women. https://time.com/3949377/world-cup-women-global-equality/.

[2] Boyle, D. (2017, February 13). Saudi Arabia to Finally Allow Female-only Gyms. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4219936/Saudi-Arabia-finally-allow-female-gyms.html.

[3] BBC. (2020, February 25). Saudi Arabia launches women’s football league. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-51635107.

[4] Boyle, D. (2017, February 13). Saudi Arabia to Finally Allow Female-only Gyms. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4219936/Saudi-Arabia-finally-allow-female-gyms.html.

[5] Asquith, X. A. and C., & Reporting, F. P. for I. (2015, July 8). World Cup: Soccer Is Still Out of Reach for Half the World’s Women. https://time.com/3949377/world-cup-women-global-equality/.

[6] McGivering, J. (2018, December 4). Afghan women’s football dream turns into nightmare. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-46429872.

[7] Malm, C., Jakobsson, J., & Isaksson, A. (2019). Physical Activity and Sports-Real Health Benefits: A Review with Insight into the Public Health of Sweden. Sports (Basel, Switzerland)7(5), 127. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7050127

[8] Malm, C., Jakobsson, J., & Isaksson, A. (2019). Physical Activity and Sports-Real Health Benefits: A Review with Insight into the Public Health of Sweden. Sports (Basel, Switzerland)7(5), 127. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7050127

[9] Collins, D. N. M., Cromartie, D. F., Butler, D. S., & Bae, D. J. (2018). Effects of Early Sport Participation on Self-esteem and Happiness. The Sport Journal. https://thesportjournal.org/article/effects-of-early-sport-participation-on-self-esteem-and-happiness/#post/0.

[10] Benefits of Sports for Adolescents. Missouri University Health Care. https://www.muhealth.org/conditions-treatments/pediatrics/adolescent-medicine/benefits-of-sports.

Image Sources:

Girl with Soccer Ball: <a href=’https://www. freepik.com/photos/background’>Background photo created by freepik – http://www.freepik.com</a&gt;

One thought on “Disparities in Female Access to Sports

  1. V Hudson says:

    That’s great! Research also shows that women who have participated in team sports are more likely to see themselves running for office in the future!

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