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gender equity female programs

Janet M. Holdsworth

Janet M. Holdsworth


Participation in interscholastic athletics programs provides students from diverse backgrounds opportunities to cooperate with and compete against their peers through sport. Participation in school sports may lead to the following benefits to students: improved physical health and fitness, higher self-esteem, a stronger sense of community and purpose, consistent time spent with an adult mentor, and increased academic performance in the classroom. Given the possible benefits associated with school sport participation, both boys and girls should have equitable opportunities to participate in and benefit from sports. Historically, boys have participated in interscholastic athletics programs in greater numbers than their female peers; at the turn of the twenty-first century, however, girls are participating in larger numbers than ever before.

In 1971 approximately 300,000 girls (compared to 3.5 million boys) participated in interscholastic sports programs. By 1999, an estimated 2.5 million girls (compared to about 4 million boys) participated in youth and high school sports. And overall, society is more accepting of this increased rate of girls' participation in school-sponsored sports. The increase in female participation in athletics at all levels across the United States is attributed mainly to the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Since its passage in 1972, Title IX has been the main catalyst behind secondary school and college athletics programs creating more athletic opportunities for females. Title IX requires institutions receiving federal funding to provide equitable resources and opportunities for women in a nondiscriminatory way. The legislation states that "no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has been responsible for the oversight of Title IX since 1980.

OCR created a three-prong test that is used to assess gender equity compliance in school athletic departments. Schools must meet the criteria of at least one prong to be in compliance with Title IX. To satisfy the first prong of the gender equity test, a school must show that the athletic participation rates by gender are within 5 percent of the enrollment rate for that gender. Schools may also be in compliance if they satisfy the second prong–providing evidence that the school has a history and current practice of program expansion for girls. To meet the requirements of the third prong, the school must demonstrate that it offers an athletic opportunity for girls if there is a sufficient interest and ability in a particular sport. Although schools need to meet only one prong of this three-prong test, most interscholastic athletics programs still have not achieved equity in the three major areas of Title IX that pertain to high school sports: athletic financial assistance, accommodation of student interests and abilities, and other program areas.

Schools do not necessarily need to provide equal funding for boys' and girls' sports. School sports programs are in compliance with Title IX if the quality of the girls' program is equal to that of the boys' program. The funding may not be equitable because of large programs (such as football), but if the total funding for overall programs are equal, then the school is more than likely in compliance. Other program areas that must be equitable by gender include: equipment and supplies, scheduling of practices and contests, travel, access to quality coaches with equitable pay, locker rooms and facilities, access to training facilities and medical services, publicity, and sporting opportunities.

Achieving sports equity in secondary schools is a significant factor in increasing opportunities for girls in sports and in helping to change perceptions about athletes based on traditional gender stereotypes. Gender equity in interscholastic sports translates into students having similar opportunities for participation in a variety of sports and seasons regardless of their gender. Equitable opportunities to benefit from participation in interscholastic sports should exist for all students. Although the number of girls participating in school sports has increased since the passage of Title IX, inequities still exist. Schools need to work with their athletics administrators and designated Title IX officers to ensure compliance is achieved.


LICHTMAN, BRENDA. 1997. "Playing Fair: What School Leaders Need to Know about Title IX and Gender Discrimination in Athletic Programs." American School Board Journal 184:27–30.

PRIEST, LAURIE, and SUMMERFIELD, LIANE M. 1995. "Promoting Gender Equity in Middle Level and Secondary School Sports Programs." NASSP Bulletin 79:52–56.

SOMMERFELD, MEG. 1998. "Parity on the Playing Field." School Administrator 55:32–36.

WHITE, KERRY A. 1999. "Girls' Sports: 'The Best of Times, the Worst of Times."' Education Week 19 (7):16–17.


WOMEN'S SPORTS FOUNDATION. 2002. "Playing Fair: A Guide to Title IX in High School and College Sports." <>.


Ever since 1852, when Harvard defeated Yale in a regatta, intercollegiate athletics have played an increasingly significant role on American college and university campuses and in their communities. The boat race, set in New Hampshire, marked the first intercollegiate athletic event in the United States, and athletics rapidly became an important, and often controversial, part of collegiate life. The surge of enthusiasm around intercollegiate athletics–both on campus and in the surrounding community–mirrored the infectious competitive spirit of the developing American culture and society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since that first intercollegiate athletic event, undergraduate students competing in this unofficial extra curriculum have been transformed into the highly trained, specialized student athletes participating in the nationally visible (and televised) athletic events of the twenty-first century.

After 1900, intercollegiate athletic programs grew expansively on campuses across the United States in terms of the quantity and type of sports offered to undergraduate students, the number of male participants, and the size of operating budgets. Athletic competition for female undergraduates saw limited development, however, with the exception of sports-related activities and contests organized by physical educators, such as intramural and related events. Historically, female athletes faced exclusion in sports, as access to scholarships and facilities, and to playing, coaching, and administrative opportunities, were limited.

From the late nineteenth century until the midtwentieth century, athletic activities offered to female undergraduates (e.g., basketball, field hockey, softball, and tennis) were meant to provide health benefits, not promote competition or any other seemingly negative and unfeminine characteristic in young women. This general protection and attempted preservation of collegiate women's feminine characteristics on campus paralleled the general perception of society at this time in history. The passage of Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments to the 1964 Civil Rights Act marked the beginning of a shift from this restrictive climate toward an environment of more opportunities for females in athletics and of a growing awareness on campus and in society that female athletes can compete in the athletic arena in ways comparable to their male peers.

Gender Equity Legislation

Since its passage in 1972, Title IX has fueled the growth in college athletic programs and opportunities for female student athletes. Title IX requires institutions receiving federal funding to provide equitable resources and opportunities for women in a nondiscriminatory way. The legislation states that "no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." After the legislation was passed, colleges and universities were granted until 1978 to make the necessary changes to programs and procedures in order to be in full compliance with the law.

Subsequent legislation passed by Congress has provided further assurance that institutions will be held accountable for complying with Title IX and its principles. For example, the 1987 Civil Rights Restoration Act specifically requires athletic departments to comply with Title IX. Also, the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act of 1996 mandates the reporting of intercollegiate athletic participation rates and also requires institutions to report on departmental spending on athletic programs, by gender.

The enforcement of Title IX and gender equity in intercollegiate athletics is the responsibility of the federal government. Specifically, it is the responsibility of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education to enforce this law. In 1979, the OCR created and released the Intercollegiate Athletics Policy Interpretation, offering regulatory requirements related to Title IX compliance to assist institutions and athletic administrators in achieving gender equity. The OCR's interpretation of the policy broke down the legislation's application into the following three major categories: (1) athletic offerings; (2) athletic scholarships; and (3) other program areas, including (but not limited to) equipment, facility use, coaching, tutoring services, and publicity.

Gender Equity "Test"

The institutional task of complying with Title IX legislation is challenging, given the language of the law and its policy interpretations. As institutional practices were, and continue to be, questioned, the courts became involved in ascertaining whether or not the athletic interests and abilities of females are accommodated effectively. In order to determine whether or not an athletic department is in compliance, the OCR created a three-prong test for Title IX. An institution's athletic department is found in compliance with achieving gender equity if at least one criterion is met.

The first prong in the OCR's gender equity compliance test is whether or not the intercollegiate athletic participation opportunities for male and female undergraduates are offered in numbers substantially proportionate to their enrollment numbers at the institution in question. The second prong includes an assessment of whether or not the institution is able to show a continuing practice of program expansion for members of the historically underrepresented sex, based on student interest and abilities. The third prong consists of whether or not an institution can establish that the needs and interests of the underrepresented group are satisfied and accommodated by the existing athletic program. Typically, the OCR and courts will examine this third criterion only when it is clear that an institution's athletic department meets neither of the first two criteria.

Opportunities, Challenges, and Debates

Title IX created, and continues to create, positive opportunities for females in intercollegiate athletics; however, real challenges sparking debate about gender equity in sports continue to exist. Despite a growth in undergraduate enrollment and participation and opportunities for females in intercollegiate athletics since the enactment of Title IX, data collected and reports released in the late 1990s suggest that inequities still exist across competition levels, with some divisional and sport differences emerging. These athletic-related inequities include fewer participation opportunities, unequal facilities and services, lagging coaches' salaries, and smaller proportions of operating and recruiting budgets.

According to the General Accounting Office's 2001 report, approximately 400,000 student athletes participated in intercollegiate athletics at four-year colleges and universities during the 1998–1999 school year, with approximately 160,000 being female athletes. While this represented a significant increase from the 90,000 female student athletes who participated in 1981–1982, published gender-equity statistics continue to highlight the underrepresentation of female student athletes, specifically in Division I universities (the institutions offering the majority of athletic scholarships), compared to the proportion of females in the undergraduate student population at these institutions. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), females made up the majority of the total undergraduate enrollment in Division I institutions in 1997–1998, while only 37 percent of the student athletes were female. The majority of female student athletes are situated in the colleges and universities that are classified as Division II-and Division III-level institutions. By 2000, approximately 41 percent of athletes competing at the Division III level were female, compared to 38 percent and 32 percent at the Division II and Division I levels, respectively. As debates over the significance of the gains made for women's athletic programs continue to occur, the fact remains that female student athletes are underrepresented in all divisions, especially when the substantial proportionality criterion of Title IX is applied.

Additional gains have been made in gender equity since Title IX, including an increase in spending on women's sports programs. In the late 1990s, women's sports programs and budgets grew at a faster rate than men's sports programs and budgets, though data suggest that men's sports receive approximately twice as much money for recruiting, athletic scholarships, and operating expenses in the top collegiate athletic programs. In 1974 approximately fifty female athletes received athletic-related scholarships for their athletic ability, while 50,000 male student athletes were awarded such scholarships. By 1997, approximately 35 percent of all athletic scholarship dollars were awarded to female student athletes.

Although athletic-based scholarships awarded to female student athletes at the Division I level are increasing, many supporters of Title IX argue that the gap between male and female scholarship recipients is closing at an inexcusably slow rate. Even with an increase in the proportion of operating and recruiting budgets earmarked for women's sports programs, women's sports teams continue to receive less overall funding than men's sports teams. Additional data reveal that the Division II and III colleges and universities spend a larger proportion of their athletic funding on women's sports programs than do Division I institutions.

Despite the gains made by females in attaining midlevel athletic administrative positions in colleges and universities since 1972, women remain underrepresented in top-ranking, intercollegiate athletic leadership positions, including director-level administrative positions and top-paying coaching positions. A related and especially interesting phenomenon has occurred since 1972 in terms of the demographics of the head coaches of women's teams. Approximately 90 percent of female athletic teams had female coaches prior to 1972; however, by 1998, females coached only 47 percent of women's sports teams. A debate continues over this and related issues as to whether or not, with the passage of gender equity legislation and the male-dominated NCAA assuming leadership over the administration of women's athletics in 1983, women's sports have assimilated into the dominant culture of male sports. With this assimilation, some argue, came the loss of the unique characteristics of women's sports, as well as the female voice in governance issues related to intercollegiate athletics.

A major concern for many athletic departments at the beginning of the twenty-first century is how to commit to gender equity while building powerful and competitive programs, managing shrinking athletic department budgets, and avoiding the decision to eliminate men's teams. Debates over how to achieve equity, and at what cost to institutions and other athletic programs, are widespread in postsecondary institutions at all competition levels. Campus administrators employ various strategies to comply with Title IX, such as adding new facilities and purchasing new equipment and uniforms in an attempt to provide equal opportunities and equitable resources for female student athletes. Some colleges and universities have discovered creative ways to add athletic opportunities for female student athletes without eliminating men's athletic teams, which creates a win-win situation, produces a less threatening climate on campus, and placates both athletes and alumni.

According to Title IX, women in postsecondary institutions must be afforded equal opportunity in the classrooms as well as on the playing fields, courts, and tracks. Gender equity in general, and Title IX specifically, are necessary components to achieving equitable opportunities in the postsecondary education experience for all students, no matter their sex. Female student athletes and other individuals and groups, collectively, have made significant accomplishments in the area of gender equity in intercollegiate athletics. Debates surrounding how best to achieve gender equity in intercollegiate athletics, despite Title IX, additional supportive legislation, and court rulings mandating compliance, are likely to continue well into the first half of the twenty-first century.


ACOSTA, R. VIVIAN, and CARPENTER, LINDA J. 1985. "Women in Sport." In Sport and Higher Education, ed. Donald Chu, Jeffrey O. Segrave, and Beverly J. Becker. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE. 2001. Intercollegiate Athletics: Four Year Colleges' Experiences Adding and Discontinuing Teams. Washington, DC: U.S. General Accounting Office.

HOWELL, REET. 1982. Her Story in Sport: A Historical Anthology of Women in Sports. West Point, NY: Leisure Press.

LAZERSON, MARVIN, and WAGENER, URSULA. 1996. "Missed Opportunities: Lessons From the Title IX Case at Brown." Change 28:46–52.

NATIONAL COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION. GENDER EQUITY TASK FORCE. 1995. Achieving Gender Equity: A Basic Guide to Title IX for Colleges and Universities. Overland Park, KS: National Collegiate Athletic Association.

SHULMAN, JAMES A., and BOWEN, WILLIAM G. 2001. The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

SMITH, RONALD A. 1988. Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics. New York: Oxford University Press.

TOMA, J. DOUGLAS, and CROSS, MICHAEL E. 2000. "Contesting Values in American Higher Education: The Playing Field of Intercollegiate Athletics." In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, ed. John C. Smart and William G. Tierney. New York: Agathon Press.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION. 1997. Title IX: 25 Years of Progress. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights.


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