The Gender Gap in School Sport: The UK Needs Transparency, Not a Title IX

15/08/2014 16:38 | Updated 15 October 2014
  • Alexandra Kyrke-Smith Market researcher, history graduate and co-founder of SportingSpeak, a sports policy & development blog

A government report entitled 'Women and Sport' was published last month highlighting the discrepancy in participation rates in sport between men and women, across all age groups. The report explores a plethora of possible explanations for this, many of them deep-rooted and all of them interlinked. A major problem area which the report explores is that of school sport. That only 38% of seven year-old girls are achieving the recommended amount of physical activity, compared to 63% of boys, is as good a statistic as any to illustrate that school sport is exactly where we should be looking to address the discrepancy between male and female participation rates.

There is no quick fix. Those searching for one, however, often fix upon the same solution - a piece of US legislation known as Title IX which is, to this day, credited with boosting participation and promoting sporting equality in American schools and colleges. Quite simply, Title IX 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 education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance". Whilst Title IX is not without its critics, some citing a negative impact on men's sport due to reallocation of resources, the impact it has had on women's sport is huge. There is undoubtedly work still to be done (for example, female college athletes receive $183 million less in NCAA athletic scholarships than their male counterparts), but following the introduction of this legislation in 1972, the number of girls participating in high school sport has risen from 300, 000 to more than 3 million - a ten fold increase in contrast with a mere 22% increase for boys during the same time frame. In the US today, 42% of high school athletes and 45% of college athletes are women. From these statistics, then, it is no surprise that many conclude that it is legislative change the UK requires to drive female participation rates in the UK up to US levels.

Indeed, the government's 'Women and Sport' report suggests that the discrepancy in participation rates between boys and girls whilst still at school may be due in part to a discrepancy in the allocation of funding, with a disproportionate amount of funding being directed towards boys' sport - exactly what Title IX legislates against. The report does not suggest a Title IX per se, but an amendment to schools' Public Sector Equality Duty, in order to legislate for the principle of equitable spending on school PE. The intention here is good - it is crucial to ensure that equal opportunities are afforded to both boys and girls when it comes to sport in schools - however, for the UK it is not new legislation that is required, it is accountability and transparency.

Of course, legislation is an important basis, but current legislation in the UK is adequate: the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 makes good provision for legal challenge of any inequality by sex in the provision of services, and is framed in such a way that programmes of sport and physical education are covered. The crux of the problem is this: no-one knows whether or not there is equal provision for boys and girls when it comes to sport in UK schools. The 'Women and Sport' report acknowledges as much, stating that "anecdotal evidence was the only evidence available because neither the allocation nor the impact of spending was appropriately measured". Until there is hard evidence that the problem exists, the problem cannot be addressed.

The difference between the UK and the US is not that the US has Title IX; it is that the relevant legislation has been backed up with hard data on the allocation of resources and provision of opportunity which in turn allows the legislation to be adequately enforced. Every educational institution in the US has a Title IX compliance co-ordinator. Any institution deemed to be non-compliant with Title IX stands to lose its federal funding, and individuals who have been harmed by failure of the institution to comply have an individual right to sue under the law. Whilst federal funding has never been withdrawn, almost 95% of lawsuits having to do with athletic program violations have been successful. What we have in the US is not just Title IX: it is Title IX, data, and a system by which Title IX is enforced.

Given that UK legislation covers equal opportunities for both sexes in sport as in anything else, to look to amend the Public Sector Equality Duty is a futile move. It is all very well to speculate about the allocation of resources in schools, but speculation itself is not enough. Differences between the UK and the USA political and legal structures mean that a system built around litigation is unlikely to be as powerful in the UK as the US: in time, the UK must search for its own answer with regards to how best to enforce the Sex Discrimination Act within the context of school sport. We know that participation rates among girls are lower, but until we use data to identify and clarify the reasons behind this imbalance, it is difficult to address the problem. Thus, it is a huge oversight on the part of the 'Women and Sport' report not to call for extensive monitoring and data collection in this area, because whilst inequity of provision may only be one of many reasons for lower participation among girls at school, addressing this with robust data in hand would certainly be a large step in the right direction towards closing the gender gap.