Is school sport still too ‘gendered’?

After gender specific sport has plagued our PE lessons for decades, change is starting to take place for the better.

Beth Fenner

After gender specific sport has plagued our PE lessons for decades, change is starting to take place for the better.

Gender is commonly accepted as a fluid concept. But why is PE and sport still so rigid?

Gender, a term that has been catapulted into the forefront of society over the past year, continues to create debates amongst the sporting world. Despite the acceptance of gender as a fluid concept and campaigns from Hollywood to the BBC advocating for the equal treatment of women, sport still remains one of the last preserves of masculine ideals. But are these issues deep-rooted within school sport or are they starting to change?

It is common knowledge that men are still more likely to participate in sport later in life with 40.5% of men taking part in sport at least once a week compared to 31.9% of women, often as a direct impact of an individual’s school sport experience[1]. Evidence still shows that boys are more likely to be offered sports such as baseball and rugby and girls cheerleading, netball and hockey in PE lessons[2]. This institutional segregation of boys and girls into sports deemed ‘gender appropriate’ from a young age influences young people’s decisions to participate in certain sports beyond school. Yet, this seems to be changing for the younger generation who have been bought up in a more accepting society.

There’s been a surge of interest in women’s sport in recent years. In 2016, the women’s GB Hockey side claimed a Gold medal at the Rio Olympics. Last year saw a World Cup win for England’s women’s cricketers (and three of the ‘Five Cricketers of the Year’ in the age-old Wisden Almanack being women), and a runners up for the England Rugby Union side in the women’s World Cup. And 2018 has already seen glory for England’s netballers, who claimed Gold at the Commonwealth Games against all the odds. Media coverage has never been more extensive. However, the question is whether this is being replicated at grassroots level. Tom Simmons, a primary school PE coach from Rotherham, said: “At primary school age I don’t think there are many gender differences at all to be honest. In my experience boys and girls at primary school age get fully involved in PE lessons and any sports no matter what the content. Staff within primary schools tend to do a good job in regards to encouraging both boys and girls to participate in all sports and creating an environment where there is no stigma attached to what people participate in. Both boys and girls participate in the same PE lessons as equals within a primary school environment”. Safi Ahmed, a primary school teacher from the Dales agrees: “I don’t think schools push children into stereotypical gendered sports. We follow a rising stars program which allows all children to participate in a range of sports from multi skills and tag rugby to gymnastics and dance. I think it is beneficial to have mixed PE lessons during school and all our after school clubs are also mixed.”


It therefore seems that at least some schools are changing for the better. The question is whether this transfers to secondary schools. Gillian Twaite, who has a daughter in year 7 at a school in Birmingham, said: “At my daughter’s secondary school both boys and girls do all sports on a rotation together and she has got the chance to experience basketball, gymnastics and cross country. At primary school she got invited to a gifted and talented girls cricket training session and a mixed sports camp where they did a range of sports, again both boys and girls together”. The fact that girls and boys are now being encouraged to participate together in educational institutions at a young age is crucial to ensuring both sexes learn to appreciate and respect one another as equals not just in sporting situations but within daily life.

There is no doubt that Women’s sport is now well and truly in the limelight and this can only be beneficial in terms of participation levels for girls at school, but there is still one major factor that deters girls from pursuing sport further; the social stigma that surrounds them, especially from male counterparts[3]. A recent Channel 4 documentary No more boys and girls: Can our kids go gender free? exemplifies how children as young as 7 already hold the beliefs that girls are weaker than boys, especially in a sporting situation, with the girls under-estimating and the boys over-estimating their abilities. Gillian Twaite explained: “One of the issues I believe there to be is that girls make other girls feel like they should just sit around and chat. What shocked me is that children as young as 9 would make comments suggesting that if you were a girl rushing around the playground you were ‘weird’. My daughter gets really frustrated with this. There’s generally even more pressure at secondary school for pre-pubescent girls to ‘sit and talk’. I believe that this could have an impact on the types of sports girls choose to participate in and whether they wish to participate at all.” In addition, her daughter attended the football club at her primary school, where they ran a number of mixed football clubs and even had coaches from Aston Villa. However, one particular Year 6 session only had boys signed up making her daughter the only girl. This deterred her from continuing as her boy mates wouldn’t be natural with her in case they got teased.

It is clear that despite the developments within schools, the increase of opportunities for both boys and girls and the change of attitude in the recent years towards mixed PE lessons, the role of the media still has an overarching influence on participation levels in the later years of school life. Tom Simmons stated: “Personally I believe that the image the media (social media, magazines, what they see on the internet) creates has a huge impact on gendered participation. Having said that, children don’t take much interest in social media until year 6 or the start of secondary school years when the idea of self-image becomes really important to young boys and girls and how they come across to others such as friends and the opposite sex”. Dave Emmerson, who is head of PE at his primary school in Wensleydale, also says: ““I think external clubs and media influences for primary school aged children push boys and girls into stereotypically gendered sport more than schools do. In our school, we have mixed PE lessons, but I know that others don’t. I personally think it’s more beneficial to have them together”. It seems that primary schools are embracing the culture of mixed lessons but this may not transcend into secondary schools, despite the dropout of girls being most prominent at this stage of education. With so many mixed sports seen in events like the Olympics such as badminton and tennis and up and coming sports such as korfball, it is disheartening to not see this replicated at school. The media clearly holds a prestigious place within our young generation’s lives and with males still being put on a sporting pedestal above females in society, there is no wonder that there is so much pressure on young people to adhere to gender behaviours that are deemed ‘appropriate’.

What can be learnt from this is that without the stark separation of boys and girls at school into gender specific sports or single sex lessons, it will instil the belief within our young generation that both sexes have the ability to pursue any sport equally. Challenging ingrained social stigmas and perceptions is the most powerful way of ensuring eventual equality for all. Primary and especially secondary schools need to be leading advocates in inspiring both boys and girls through sport in order to confront the gender order that our media outlets have sadly established. However it is apparent our education systems are starting to make positive changes to create sporting opportunities with no gender boundaries.

Beth Fenner

[1] Sport England (2017) Active Lives Adult Survey: May 16/17 Report

2Quick, S., Simon, A., and Thornton, A (2010). PE and sport survey 2009/10

3Women’s Sports Foundation (2018) Factors Influencing Girl’s Participation In Sports


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