The Women’s Sports Foundation released its Chasing Equity report on the landscape for women and girls in sports at the beginning of 2020. Some of the findings are promising. Others are staggering. Here’s what you should know.

The Women’s Sports Foundation released its Chasing Equity report at the beginning of 2020. At 70 pages (not including the appendices), it’s a thorough account of the current landscape for women and girls in sports. 

Some of the findings are promising. For example, 50% of high school girls now play sports. But others are staggering—high school girls leave sports at a rate two-to-three times higher than boys. 

Here’s what you should know. 

Let’s start with the good news.

There are more opportunities than ever. Access to all sports across all levels has improved for women and girls. Athletic opportunities for women in the NCAA increased by 291% from 1981–82 to 2017–18. Today 54% of NCAA teams across all divisions are women’s teams. 

Participation is increasing. Girls’ participation has been on an upward trajectory for nearly 30 years. Before Title IX, one in 27 high school girls participated in sports; now one in two do. 93% of girls ages seven to 13 said they love to play sports, and 75% of them plan to play in high school and beyond.

The bad news? There’s a lot of room for improvement. 

Girls and women still have fewer opportunities to participate and work in sports. Even though they make up half the national student body, girls have less than 43% of all opportunities in high school sports—3.4 million opportunities compared to 4.5 opportunities for boys. And while girls’ participation has been on an upward trajectory for nearly 30 years, opportunities declined by more than 10,000 in 2018–19.

Coaching opportunities for women have actually decreased. While Title IX has greatly increased girls’ participation, there’s been a huge decline in women coaching since it was enacted. In 1971, 90% of women’s college teams were coached by women, but in 2017, less than half (43%) of those teams were coached by women. Women coach only 5% of men’s teams. 

Nearly 80% of college athletic directors are men across all NCAA divisions, with women making up only 11% of all NCAA Div. I athletic directors. 

Even in the WBNA, the league with the highest racial and gender diversity rankings, there’s cause for concern—only four of the 12 teams have female head coaches. 

Girls’ participation in sports has yet to catch up to boys’. While boys start sports at 6.8 years old on average, girls start at 7.4. From ages six to 10, girls’ participation lags 10 percentage points behind boys’. In grades eight to 12, girls leave sports at a rate two-to-three times higher than boys. And while 47% of high school boys play two or more sports, only 29% of girls do. 

Women of color and LGBTQ women face additional barriers. While 68% of all high school students participate in sports, only 29% of LGBTQ girls do—which is unsurprising since 84% of Americans say they’ve witnessed or experienced anti-LGBTQ attitudes in sports. 

Meanwhile, girls of color in urban areas drop out of sports at twice the rate of suburban White girls. 33% of African American parents said financial reasons kept their daughters from participating in sports, compared to 18% of White parents. And in 2017–18, only 3% of head coaches in the NCAA were women of color. 

Female athletes are underrepresented in the media. In the U.S., only 3.2% of coverage is devoted to women’s sports. The numbers aren’t much better worldwide. In a study of 20 different countries, stories on women’s sports made up just 11% of the total coverage. 

Coverage has fallen over a 25-year period, and it could be due to fewer female sports editors—a study of 100 U.S. and Canadian newspapers saw female sports editors fall from more than 17% percent in 2012 to less than 10% in 2014. A 2018 study of 75 newspapers and websites found that 90% of sports editors were men. 

And even when women’s sports are covered, that coverage isn’t always equitable. Studies showed female athletes are more likely to be shown off-court and out of uniform than their male counterparts. 

Women in sports are still fighting for equal pay. The USWNT soccer players’ widely-publicized fight for equal pay is ongoing. On the coaching front, former USWNT head coach Jill Ellis was offered a salary increase from $300,000 to $500,000—still significantly less than the $899,348 USMNT head coach Bruce Arena made in 2017. (Previous head coach Jurgen Klinsmann made $3.3 million during his final year coaching in 2016, despite the team’s elimination in the round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup, and failure to qualify for the 2018 tournament.) 

The women’s National Ice Hockey Team, WNBA players, and individual athletes like gymnast Simone Biles and runners Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher have also spoken out against disparate pay in their sports. 

This issue also exists at the collegiate level. In the 2015–16 academic year, head coaches of women’s teams in Div. I schools received only 30% of the money allocated for all head coach salaries in the division. (Divisions II and III were more equitable, with 48% and 37% allocated to women, respectively.)

Girls and women face different expectations and challenges in athletics. Two-thirds of girls reported having been made fun of or made uncomfortable by boys while they practiced their sport. In another survey, 44% of parents said they expected their sons to compete on a high school varsity team, while only 36% expected the same of their daughters. 

In a survey of both male and female athletes, 23% of women said a coach had directed purposefully hurtful comments toward them, compared to 17% of men. (It’s worth noting that male athletes did report higher instances of other types of abusive behavior, such as having something thrown at them by a coach.) More than 17% of female athletes have experienced sexual violence when participating in sports as a child, compared to more than 10% of male athletes. 

What can we do?

A study of U.S. adults found 60% of adults agreed girls don’t have as many opportunities—but only 43% knew what they could do to help. 

Prioritize research. The monitoring and reporting from organizations like the Women’s Sports Foundation is key to understanding what work needs to be done to reach parity in women’s athletics. 

Champion the benefits of sport participation. Involvement in athletics has been shown to improve academic performance. One study found sports participation was linked with higher AP placement rates for all students. Another found female athletes graduated at an 8% higher rate than female non-athletes. 

Sports have an impact beyond the classroom too—75% of women business executives said their sports background helped accelerate their careers. A study of women in C-suite positions found that 94% of them competed in sports, with 52% playing at the university level.

Support women’s sports coverage. To increase participation, young girls need to see themselves represented in sports. While women’s sports are severely underreported on, one thing individuals can do is subscribe to newsletters like Power Plays and The IX, and podcasts like Burn It All Down that are solely dedicated women’s sports. 

Finally: hire women. To level the playing field for women and girls in sport, women must have a seat at the table.