Be Mindful About Mixed-Gender Physical Activity


Unsuccessful integration of boys and girls in a sport programme can lead to a reinforcement of unequal power dynamics and girls’ feelings of athletic inadequacy. For example, if a coach rewards boys for passing to girls during a football game, he unintentionally reinforces the notion that girls are inferior to boys and would not receive passes unless others are forced to pass them the ball. 

Depending upon the age of the participant, there can be significant differences in boys’ and girls’ physical strength and aggression. This is especially true after boys and girls have gone through puberty. Having girls and boys play against each other can actually reinforce gender power structures and disempower girls. On the other hand, competing and succeeding against boys can be empowering for a girl. When considering integration, there is no hard rule for when it is or is not appropriate for girls and boys to compete alongside and against one another. What matters is that coaches pay close attention to the physical safety of girls and ensure that girls are not playing with greater reservation when competing with boys. It can be helpful to ask girls if they want to play with and against boys; coaches should honour their decision.

In programmes where girls are being integrated into existing boys’ teams, programme directors need to carefully consider if girls are physically and emotionally safe competing against boys, or if they need their own groups. Prior to adolescence, some programme partners report no issues at all having boys and girls play with one another. However, it is important to consider cultural context, as even younger children playing together in a mixed-gender environment can be viewed as socially unacceptable.