Washington Area Women's Foundation

Girls' lack of access to sports often signals even greater disparities.

The other day, Phyllis mentioned a New York Times article to me on how girls in New York weren’t able to participate in sports because they had to stay home to baby sit and do other chores within the family.

I looked it up immediately, because it seemed so impossible to me.  It sounded too much like the same dynamics at work that prevented girls from finishing school in Africa, which I’ve posted about before.

And yet there it was in the New York Times, the exact same dynamics at work preventing girls from accessing sports, which can and do play a critical role in the development of self-esteem, healthy habits, physical strength, friendships, and academic success.

The article explains, "Soledad’s after-school routine is different from that of her cousin Karl Pierre…who plays basketball nearly every day after school and says he dreams of earning a college basketball scholarship. Karl lives in an apartment with Soledad, her father, their grandmother and other relatives. But boys in the family are not asked to baby-sit.  ‘It’s not fair,’ said Soledad, who also hopes to play college basketball. But if she were to complain, she said, ‘They’d just make me stay home for a week.’"

In addition to the unequal chore divide, girls’ parents also tend to resist their participation in sports due to concerns about safety.

The article states, "Tiffany’s father had reason to be suspicious, Mr. Mariner said later, because she had previously used basketball as a cover when she wanted to leave the house. Mr. Binning said he relented that day because ‘the coach showed me she’s in good hands.’  Parents rarely question their sons’ whereabouts, Mr. Mariner said.  ‘I could take my boys to another state, and I wouldn’t get these calls,’ he said. ‘They’d probably say, ‘Oh, you’re back so soon?’”

As a teacher in West Africa, I used to hear these arguments all the time, only about how these were barriers to parents sending their girls to school.  "We need her at home to get water," they would say, or, "The school is too far, it’s not safe for her to walk."

Just like the girls in this article, the girls I taught in Benin didn’t have the ability to contradict or combat these challenges. 

And no one seemed very interested in considering making the route to school safer or having their sons share the duties of fetching water.

So their daughters stayed at home.  They dropped out of school.  They watched their brothers go on to complete school and compete in soccer games, when they could get away from their chores long enough to do that.

When I am reminded that these trends also exist here, I grow concerned that what we’re seeing in sports could soon be–or is already–reflected in the arts, in access to clubs and extra curricular activities, then in access to study time and, eventually, academic success.

In our work here at The Women’s Foundation, we see the impact of this as well, which is why we’re funding programs that provide access for girls to tennis and other sports and arts opportunities. 

For me, a true understanding of the importance of access to sports came when I was speaking with Sister Mary Bourdon, the head of one of our Grantee Partners, the Washington Middle School for Girls (WMSG). 

Like the schools described in the New York Times article, WMSG can’t afford fully funded sports teams for the girls.  They provide what they can, but it’s sporadic and not nearly at the level of what suburban schools provide.

As a woman who grew up in public schools where girls’ sports were funded and available (though I still regret that there was no girls’ soccer team once I hit high school), the impact of this had never fully hit home for me until Sister Mary explained that when her girls move on to high school, it’s challenging for them to relate to or build friendships with the girls they meet in their new high schools because they don’t have the athletic skills to be on the teams where so many of those bonds and friendships are formed.

And their peers have been playing these sports for years.

A few weeks later, I had the pleasure of meeting with Joey, a student at WMSG, who would speak at our Leadership Luncheon that year.  When I asked her what she’d do if her school had enough funds, one of her top priorities was sports.

"Some sports teams, " Joey told me, "Especially a track team!  I would love that because I love to run. I even run faster than all the boys in my neighborhood!"

As many are taking stock of the progress made from and the challenges still to come with Title IX, Joey’s words still ring in my ears as the most compelling case to make sure that girls have equal access to sports as boys.

Because given equal ground, girls can outrun, or at least run with, all the boys!

Lisa Kays is The Women’s Foundation’s Director of Communications.

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  • Josh Nelson

    Wow, sounds like the 1950s to me.

    Thanks for highlighting this, Lisa.

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