The Rio Olympic Games might be remembered as a defining moment for the modern trajectory of U.S. women in sports.
For the second time in a row, the United States sent more women to the Summer Games than men. Fencer and bronze medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad made history as the first person to compete wearing a hijab at the Olympics. Simone Manuel and Ashleigh Johnson became the first Black women to win gold in swimming and water polo, respectively. Twenty-one-year-old Claressa Shields earned her second gold medal in boxing, making her the first person from the United States to ever win two Olympic championships in the sport. Simone Biles, who won a record-tying four gold medals, was the first female gymnast and first Black woman to carry the U.S. flag in the closing ceremony.
“I don’t think anyone can argue that the women didn’t have a stellar performance. I was in Rio for over half the Games …. It was a sense of pride for me to be in the stadium and listen to national anthem as the American flag was being raised, sharing in the joy and the experience of achieving at such a high level,” said Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, who won gold for the United States at the 1984 Olympics in the 100-meter hurdle—the first Black woman to do so.
Fitzgerald Mosley attributes the opportunities she had to compete at such high caliber to the implementation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which forbade sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. Still, she and other experts noted to Rewire that Title IX was just the beginning: Girls and young women, especially those of color, still have obstacles to surmount when it comes to accessing equal opportunities in sports.
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Since Title IX has been in effect, there has been a steady increase in girls’ participation in athletics at the high school level. “We wouldn’t have these athletes but for Title IX,” said Neena Chaudhry, director of education and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, referring to the “incredible” women representing our country in such high numbers.
“Coming out of high school in 1979, I was offered college scholarships all over the country, and earned my degree in industrial engineering …. I was a direct beneficiary of the law, and I never would have had those opportunities if it would have been seven years earlier,” said Fitzgerald Mosley, who served as the chief of organizational excellence for the United States Olympic Committee before becoming the CEO of Laureus Foundation USA, an organization that works to change the lives of youth and to strengthen communities through the power of sport.
“I have a daughter now that knows nothing but equal opportunity,” she added.
However, although she’s had personal success and was thrilled with the results in Rio, Fitzgerald Mosley observed that “we’re still struggling.” She also serves on the Board of Trustees at the Women’s Sports Foundation, which is dedicated to ensuring all girls have access to sports. She and other organization members “get stories daily from players, teams, coaches, and parents [who] feel they aren’t getting the opportunities Title IX says they should,” she said.
NWLC’s Chaudhry agrees. “So much of what we’re dealing with in terms of sexism is still cultural, but we also have a long way to go on the legal side for girls and women to have equal opportunities,” she said. Often overlooked, she continued, are the existing inequities at the high school level. Though the disappointing statistic remains that the typical high school provides girls with only 75 percent of the spots on athletic teams provided to boys, these differences often manifest in subtler ways too, Chaudhry and others said.
“I think the overarching theme of where we are with Title IX isn’t just improvement in terms of access and opportunities, it’s what happens once they’re in the doors,” said Terri Lakowski, former public policy director at the Women’s Sports Foundation and now CEO of the strategic advisory group Active Policy Solutions.
Things like how girls’ teams are treated, Lakowski said, point to the fact that although girls may have equal opportunities on paper, they are often still relegated to second-class treatment. These can include girls’ teams lacking access to the same practice fields and equipment as the boys’ teams, the lack of cheerleaders at girls’ games; the fact that girls’ competitions are often at 4:00 p.m., while the boys play at 7:00 p.m., when more parents and fans can attend; and the lack of announcements on the school PA system celebrating female athletes. These things are, by the books, Title IX violations if boys’ teams are getting them and not the girls’.
And yet, Lakowski said, they’re not uncommon.
“We still see this now, particularly in basketball. A lot of schools have two gyms, and girls usually end up playing and practicing in the ‘small gym’—most schools have figured out by now that it’s not OK to call it the ‘girl’s gym’ like when I was in high school,” said Lakowski.
“At a high school level, we have zero attention to equal access to facility—that’s a funding thing. How you spend your money [and on which facilities] is an expression of what you care about. Right now, we’re sending the message that we don’t care about developing female athletes,” noted Jessica Mason Pieklo, vice president of law and the courts at Rewire who frequently writes on Title IX’s effects.
And while gender-based disparities are found to be prevalent in schools across the nation, they are worse at schools that are predominantly composed of students of color, according to a report by the NWLC and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. Girls of color, the report found, receive far fewer opportunities to participate in high school sports than do white girls, boys of color, and white boys.
The report found that 40 percent of schools that have 10 percent or less white students enrolled have large “female opportunity gaps,” defined as a gap of 10 percentage points or more between the percentage of students who are female and the percentage of athlete spots available for girls. This is the case for only 16 percent of schools where 90 percent or more of the enrolled students are white.
Maritza McClendon, a 2004 Olympic silver medalist who was the first woman of color to make the U.S. Olympic swim team, saw these effects play out firsthand at Tampa Bay Tech High School in Florida, which she described as a “majority minority school.”
“At my high school, there wasn’t a huge welcoming for girls of color to sports. There wasn’t a variety of options that were made available to girls, either,” she told Rewire.
McClendon continued, “I was one of the few women of color to do sports—it wasn’t really something a lot of my friends looked into. I had a few that were on the dance team, but mostly they did more school activities instead of sports.”
According to the report, states and school districts are in a prime position to make decisions that will address the unique factors that lead to girls of color receiving the fewest sports opportunities.
“Schools should be looking at this information—they have it—and making sure they are providing opportunities for girls. We’ve worked with several school districts. Often, the number of sports for girls in minority schools are very limited—they don’t have full range that other high schools provide. There will be really popular sports, like soccer, that aren’t being offered for girls,” said Chaudhry.
And when girls of color do get opportunities, pointed out Donna Lopiano, former chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation and current president of Sports Management Resources, they are disproportionately channeled into certain sports at the expense of other sports. “We know that female athletes of color, especially African-American females, have been funneled into a limited number of sports like basketball and track,” she said.
McClendon has seen this too. She told Rewire, “I was in one of those sports that didn’t see many girls of color. I could count on one hand how many of us there were on the swim team in high school—there were only three or four of us my entire high school career.”
“It would be great to see more girls of color participate in a wider range of sports, as it could lead them to more college scholarships and even pro sports,” said McClendon.
Some might be unaware of the imbalance, observed Chaudhry. “Schools still have a lot of work to do to make sure girls are getting opportunities to play sports. You see lot of amazing women of color at the Olympics, so people in the U.S. may not realize there’s still a gap. What we saw in Rio isn’t reflected at home,” she said.
And the Olympics, as some advocates observed, still have improvements to make. A scan by Rewire of the U.S. Rio roster suggests that only about a quarter of female U.S. Olympians were women of color. None of those women had hometowns in Tennessee or Alabama, both states identified in the NWLC report as having the most severe gender inequality in sports in the nation.
Jason Thompson, the current U.S. Olympic Committee director of diversity, told Rewire via email that “the USOC is committed to diversity. In 2011, the USOC commissioned a Diversity Working Group to create an inclusive, competitive, and progressive management approach to formulating diversity strategies for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic family.”
Though he did not make specific demographic data available to Rewire, he said, “The USOC does track people of color on our national teams across all [sport] National Governing Bodies annually, but not necessarily the Olympic and Paralympic teams who will be competing.” He argued that this allows the USOC and the national governing bodies of each Olympic sport to identify opportunities for diverse hires, board recruitment, and membership growth.
“I see this year’s Olympics as a huge celebration of Title IX. The U.S. women have outnumbered men. This Olympics was the first time seeing women competing in non-traditional sports [that were recently added by the Olympic committee]. But we need to stay focused on what happens after women are in the door,” said Lakowski.
“With that celebration, I don’t want to see us complacent. We can’t rest, we can’t say ‘we’ve got higher numbers than men,’ so we’re done, and we don’t need Title IX. This is a huge success, but we need to remain vigilant that this growth continues,” she concluded.
How to maintain that growth? McClendon believes a lot of it is about girls seeing athletes participating and about athletes giving back to their communities.
“It does make a difference to have a mentor that looks just like you,” said McClendon. “It adds motivation and keeps them going. To build upon that success we’ve seen [in Rio] would make a huge, huge difference.”
McClendon practices what she preaches. Her former email pen pal Simone Manuel has just become an international star in their sport.
“I’ve known Simone a couple of years. Her swim coach reached out to me to say, ‘hey, this girl is really amazing’ when Simone was 13 years old,” McClendon said. “I remember when she first emailed me, she had told me she was my biggest fan—that will always stick out to me forever.”
The two continued to email and are still in touch. Since emailing with Manuel, McClendon also received messages from other young athletes aspiring to follow in her footsteps.
“I had no idea people knew about me as a swimmer. Even though I was an Olympian, not very many people knew about me. So when I got these messages from girls saying they admired me as a person, that I inspired them to continue to swim—that was an inspiration to me to keep going and it made my heart smile. I know now that what I’m doing is making a difference,” said McClendon.
McClendon also reiterated the importance of not “disappearing after the Olympics,” and said continuing such mentorship and advocacy work through each Olympic cycle will get more young people into sports they may otherwise have not tried, or keep them from getting discouraged and quitting.
Fitzgerald Mosley, too, said that the feeling of camaraderie that comes with participating with people that look like you can be very powerful. “I’ve been the only person of color, female, or woman of color in a group many times. You can feel very isolated,” she said. “Without that mentorship, people tend to flounder …. There’s strength in numbers, as is always said.”
Lopiano, for her part, believes we are at the tipping point for women in sports. “It’s the tip of the iceberg. It takes three generations, 60 years, for there to be cultural change.”
She added, “Sports are the antidote to sexualized and sexist parts of our societies that teach women to follow cultural norms.”
“I think that these women competing in the Olympics, who are so amazing, serve to move us a little further along in the worldview—and hopefully we’re getting closer to that day—where you aren’t defined by the way you look,” Chaudhry said.