Gender, Sports, and Science

Linda Purrington (
Fri, 16 Oct 1998 16:37:59 -0700

The Times of London
October 16 1998

Playing sport improves girls' success in science.
Tony Mooney reports

Although girls are no longer allowed to
drop science subjects before the end of
compulsory schooling at 16, the subjects
are still male-dominated at A level and

In 1996, 60 per cent of all A-level science
and maths entries were boys and the girls
achieved their 40 per cent level only
because of their fondness for biological
sciences. Physics, chemistry and maths are
particularly male-dominated at A level,
even though in primary schools boys and
girls are equally interested in and do
equally well at these subjects.

Why girls lose interest in maths and
science as they grow older has sparked many
theories. A common theme running through
them all is that science is a male domain
with habits, rules and expectations that
inhibit women. The world of science is
outgoing, aggressive and independent.
Analytical characters tend to be those who
succeed and boys are encouraged to be all
of these through the cultures of families,
schools and communities. Girls are
encouraged to be passive, dependent and
nurturing and so find the climate
associated with the study of science

Given the strong cultural influences on
girls that deter them from following
scientific careers, what can we do to
improve matters?

According to new American research, the
answer is to encourage girls to become
involved in sports during their secondary
school years. This conclusion has been
reached by Professor Sandra Hanson of the
Department of Sociology at the Catholic
University, Washington DC, after following
the progress of nearly 12,000 students
through high school.

Her findings, reported in last April's
edition of Sociology of Education
(Vol.71:93-110), show that young women's
involvement in high school sports has a
strong association with their success in
science. On the contrary, comparable
analyses for young men showed that sports
activities are far less important in
predicting enthusiasm for science. Indeed,
if boys become involved in significant
amounts of sporting activity it has a
negative influence on their interest in

But why should participation in sport give
girls more confidence to take on the
sciences? Professor Hanson thinks it may be
that sport places emphasis on the goals of
winning and success, and on the values of
hard work, deferred gratification,
planning, competition and organisation. Not
surprisingly, all these factors encourage
independence and aggression, the same
traits that tend to be associated with
women's success in the male domain of

Professor Hanson writes: "Young girls who
are given an early opportunity to be
involved in a male domain like sports may
well be less intimidated and more prepared
for this male culture in science classrooms
and work settings."

But though sport is mainly a male domain,
most girls who participate in it do so in
female, not mixed-sex teams. So, as in
single-sex schools, young women who compete
in single-sex sports teams can compete
without being intimidated by young men.
Professor Hanson comments: "Both
environments are excellent socialising
agents for success in science."

The participation in sports activities is
the crucial factor in girls acquiring the
traits that direct them towards science.
Merely joining in cheerleading or
refreshment-making was actually related to
lower levels of success in science for
young women.

The effects of sports on women's science
attainment is not uniform across class and
racial subgroups. Participation in sports
seems to have the greatest effects on white
and upper-class young women. In contrast,
participation in sports had a negative
effect on the science experiences of young
African-American women.

This finding supports those sociologists
who take a conflict approach to the role of
sport in society, seeing sport as a source
of alienation and exploitation by serving
the needs of those in power. So the white
upper classes will have the most to gain
from participation in sport.

Why do young men not gain advantages in
science from their participation in sport?
Professor Hanson suggests that when they
become involved in sport, their level of
involvement and hours of commitment are
likely to be higher than those of young
women. This means that the involvement in
sport competes with success in science for
the boys.

Further questions emerge as a result of
this work. For example, does the type of
sport have any influence on the science
benefits women receive from their

Would the degree and length of
participation each week have the same
effect as that postulated for the negative
science experiences of boys? These
questions are worthy of further
investigation in our attempts to produce a
balanced curriculum for our children.

Forwarded by

new message to this message