The sporting arena reflects a society’s gender divisions and values. Sport has been “historically associated with ideal masculinity, and, until today, it is often used to uphold the image of culturally determined masculine traits like strength, power, endurance, ambition, self-confidence, aggressiveness and activity – traits that are opposed to those considered ‘typically feminine’ like being submissive, obedient, tender, emotional, beautiful and passive.” (United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2007), Women 2000 and Beyond: Women, Gender Equality and Sport, Page 9.)
By necessity or by choice, there are times when boys and girls are integrated into a sport programme. Common scenarios include organisations that share resources, such as play space, sport equipment or coaches. This also occurs when a programme originally designed for the boys decides to add a component for girls. In this section, Women Win will explore the values, benefits and dangers of the combination of boys and girls in sport programmes and provide recommendations on how to effectively integrate the two.
It is important to remember that there are best practices to follow when mixing genders and that simply pouring girls into an existing boys’ programme without considering their unique needs could be harmful for the girls as well as the boys. Research shows that when girls’ and boys’ bodies change during adolescence, the playing field becomes unequal in many sports. Mixing genders should be carefully considered, making sure that the girls aren’t marginalized in the process. In the end, girls and boys do need their own spaces to discuss sensitive issues if they come up or are part of the curriculum.
Understanding Gender Roles
When considering mixing boys and girls in a sport programme, it is critical to first recognise the power dynamics that exist between genders in most societies. The term “gender” refers to the set of social norms, practices and institutions that regulate the relations between women and men (also known as “gender relations”). Gender relations involve a system of power relationships between women and men in the context of socio-cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity and economic relations. In many societies, the system of gender relations gives power and privilege to men and discriminates against women.1
A child’s sex will determine his or her gender role, expectations, tasks and responsibilities, and personal belief in his or her potential. Characteristics of gender roles vary greatly across cultures. However, across cultures, girls are often given fewer opportunities, decreased access to public spaces, and less power than male peers.
To effectively integrate girls and boys in programmes, you need to have a complete understanding of the social distribution of power and social expectations of both genders for the culture in which you are working.
1. United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2009). Women 2000 and Beyond: Role of Men and Boys in Achieving Gender Equality, page 4-5.