Editor’s Note: Robyn Ryle is a professor of sociology and gender studies at Hanover College. She is the author of “Throw Like a Girl, Cheer Like a Boy,” “She/He/They/Me” and “Fair Game.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The 2023 Women’s World Cup Championship begins this week in Australia and New Zealand, and will be, for all appearances, a victory lap for gender equality in sports. For the first time, the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) will be paid the same amount as their male counterparts, and a record number of tickets have been sold.
In addition to being a worldwide occasion for soccer fans to gather and celebrate, this tournament is a big stage for the USWNT to defend their title and showcase a team infused with emerging talent. Given that spotlight, along with the USWNT’s leadership on matters of equal pay and opportunity for women and girls in sports, it’s also an important moment to take note of progress and identify priorities for the future.
The truth is that women have made incredible strides in sports in the US in the 50 years since the passage of the landmark Title IX legislation, but always against the backdrop of a status quo that sees men as indisputably better athletes. It’s time for that to change.
Of course, it’s true that there are physiological differences between women and men. All these differences are statistical rather than categorical. Yes, the tallest person in the world is a man, but many women are taller than many men. The same is true for athletic ability. Yes, the fastest person in the world is a man, but many women are faster than many men.
Additionally, not all the physiological evidence lines up in men’s favor when it comes to athletic performance. One study suggests that women are more efficient at processing oxygen— 30% more efficient than men. Because faster oxygen processing reduces muscle fatigue and perceived effort, it provides a definite edge in athletic competition. Other researchers suggest that because women make up only 35% of subjects in studies of athletic performance, they don’t have enough information to conclude that physiological differences favor one gender over the other.
Additionally, women have a distinct advantage in many endurance events, like long-distance swimming or dog sledding. For example, the best women’s times in long-distance swims, such as in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, are between 12% to 14% faster than the best men’s, on average.
Of course, sports like long-distance swimming and dog sledding are nowhere near as popular as soccer or football. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the most popular sports worldwide are those that also most exaggerate underlying gender differences. If we lived in a world where marathon swimming got the same ratings as the Super Bowl, assumptions about gender and athletic performance would look very different.
Beyond these physiological factors, differences in athletic ability are also influenced by our social environments. Our athletic careers begin to take shape in childhood, when we practice the skills that allow us to run faster or jump higher, and research demonstrates that gender still very much matters in how girls and boys move their bodies from the earliest age.
The skirts and dresses more commonly worn by little girls should be more freeing for movement than pants. But girls learn as early as five that wearing a skirt restricts their movement, as they are forced to patrol against their skirt flipping up. Research has shown that teachers and other adults monitor the movements of girls at much higher rates than they do boys. When boys are given instructions about how to move or not, they’re also more likely to ignore those instructions than girls are.
Even as infants, parents patrol the movement and risk-taking of their sons differently than they do their daughters. In one experiment, mothers were asked to adjust the slope of a ramp that their infants would crawl down based on their assumptions about what their babies were capable of crawling down. Mothers made the stope sleeper for their sons than they did for their daughters. In another study, fathers discouraged playground risk-taking for their daughters more than they did for their sons.
These differences in the way boys and girls are allowed or encouraged to move mean that girls are already at a disadvantage, long before they even step onto the field or pick up a ball. One study found girls in the US have a lower rate of sports participation than boys. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys by the age 14 and this is especially true in marginalized communities.
For the girls who do stick with sports, they’ll find fewer chances to excel. In the US, one study found that girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play high school sports than boys. For example, one young woman reportedly discovered that in her community, the all-star soccer league had twice as many spots for boys as they did for girls. Imagine this pattern repeated over and over again and the lack of opportunities begins to add up.
Assuming she overcomes all these other obstacles, a girl who does succeed on the field will find fewer rewards for her outstanding performance. The popular story of upward mobility told over and over again in men’s sports, where an athlete works hard at his sport to pull himself and his family out of poverty, doesn’t exist for women athletes. In most women’s professional sports, there isn’t enough money to achieve that kind of rags to riches story. The average NBA player makes $5.3 million compared to the $130,000 of the average WNBA player. At the elite levels, the disparity is even more stark. Compare Steph Curry’s highest-paid salary at $43 million to the highest-paid WNBA players’ salaries of $228,094. For many other women and girls, the opportunities to be paid less than men are limited, as women’s professional sports leagues are smaller, less stable and underfunded compared to those of men.
Salaries are just part of the rewards women receive less of than men. They’re less likely to get lucrative sponsorship deals. They’re less likely to transition into cushy post-sports careers in reporting or sports media. They’re less likely to be hired as coaches or to work in front offices.
What would women’s sports look like in a world where we devoted our time, money and attention to sports that leveled the gender differences in athletic performance, rather than exaggerating them? How would women perform differently as adults if they were allowed and encouraged to move differently as young girls? Would the gap in athletic performance persist if girls truly had the same opportunities as boys to play at all levels? How much faster would women run or how much higher would they jump if they were running and jumping toward rewards that were even close to what men receive for their athletic performances? We don’t know because we don’t live in that world. But that doesn’t mean we should stop asking these questions.
In 2023, as we enjoy the spectacle of mega-athletes like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, it’s time to rethink our stories about gender and athletic performance. It’s time to treat the question of whether men are truly better at sports than women as still open rather than settled for all time. It’s time to consider the possibility that we don’t know if men are truly better athletes than women and we won’t until we change the rules for how we play the game.