Peer Attitudes towards Adolescent Participants in Male- and Female-Oriented Sports

By Alley, Thomas R.; Hicks, Catherine M. | Adolescence, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Peer Attitudes towards Adolescent Participants in Male- and Female-Oriented Sports


Alley, Thomas R., Hicks, Catherine M., Adolescence


Research has found remarkably consistent and stable gender stereotypes within our society. In brief, to be feminine is to be "communal" or expressive, while to be masculine is to be "agentic," instrumental, and competitive (Cann, 1991; Spencer & Helmreich, 1978; Williams & Best, 1982). Our society also has many stereotypes about participants in sports, including gender stereotypes (see Kaplan, 1979). Despite legal and social changes, "sexist ideology still pervades sport" (Eitzen & Sage, 1993, p. 347). Following what Sage and Loudermilk (1979, p. 89) call "one of the oldest and most persistent folk myths,... athletic achievement has been equated with a loss of femininity." Sports participation is seen as a masculine activity; sports are a traditionally male domain, male sporting events receive far more media coverage, and participation in competitive sports violates females' traditional sex-roles and movement patterns (Eitzen & Sage, 1993; Snyder & Spreitzer, 1978).

The belief that participation in competitive sports tends to masculinize females has been found in research using a variety of subject populations (e.g., Harres, 1968; Sherif, 1971). This is to be expected given that the stereotypic beliefs about females sharply contrast with the traits associated with successful athletes (Cann, 1991; Harris, 1981). While there is evidence that female athletes are indeed seen as somewhat masculine, even when people respond to photographs in which the athletes are not identified (Atkins, Morse, & Zweigenhaft, 1978), this may stem more from the stronger tendency of already "masculine" (e.g., large and strong) women to pursue sports than from masculinization of female athletes.

When examining these issues, it is important to keep in mind that some sports are seen as more masculine than others, and many sports attract disproportionate numbers of male (e.g., football) or female (e.g., ballet) participants. Cratty (1983) suggests that sports such as golf and swimming as well as sports such as gymnastics that "emphasize beauty of line" are believed to be acceptable for female participation, whereas sports associated with high levels of contact, such as ice hockey and football, and others such as baseball and basketball are thought of as appropriate for males but not for "ladies" (p. 172). Other reports indicate that the most appropriate sports for women are individual rather than team sports (DeBacy, Spaeth, & Busch, 1970) and sports emphasizing lean bodies (Hallinan, Snyder, Drowatzky, & Ashby, 1990).

Through socialization individuals learn which sports are considered masculine, neutral, or feminine. Gender stereotypes for certain sports appear to be learned by grade school. Corbin and Nix (1970) found that grade school girls and boys both considered a competitive task that requires power, speed, and strength to be a "male" activity. Even female athletes see sports such as soccer and rugby as very unfeminine compared to tennis or volleyball (Salisbury & Passer, 1982).

These gender-based stereotypes probably influence sports participation. For those who do participate, these stereotypes may lead to role conflict and distinct attitudes about athletes that depend on whether they participate in gender "appropriate" or "inappropriate" sports (Snyder & Kivlin, 1977). These stereotypes may lead to perceptions of males and females as more or less masculine or feminine depending on the sport(s) in which they participate. While there is some evidence for this, surprisingly little research has been reported on these issues (Matteo, 1988). Sage and Loudermilk (1979) found that although women competing in more gender-inappropriate sports may not themselves perceive more role conflict, there is evidence that they will experience more role conflict (but see Anthrop & Allison, 1983).

Masculinity and femininity are often viewed as bipolar opposites, yet many theorists (e. …

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