For more stories and information about the challenges faced by female collegiate athletes, please check out She Plays Too, featuring work by Madison Freeman, Brooke Palin, and Lorenzo Gavilan-Vargas.

Women’s collegiate athletics continue to grow in popularity in Canada, however these young athletes are often left to struggle with unequal opportunities for growth and success after they graduate.

Female athletes face significant barriers when it comes to transitioning into professional sports careers, with a disproportionately low number of opportunities and resources available to them. The lack of investment in women’s sports not only limits the potential of talented female athletes, but also perpetuates gender inequality in the broader sporting industry. 

According to a 2022 study conducted by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS), female athletes in Canada face significant challenges when transitioning from university sports to professional sports careers. 

“As much as we love sport, the truth is the current system isn’t inclusive enough. It’s time to disrupt the old norms and create the conditions for more girls, women and gender diverse people to participate fully and safely in sport,” reports the CAAWS in their 2022 Rally Report

Gender inequities and disparities in sports needs to be first analyzed in a social context to fully understand why women’s sport is viewed and treated the way it is, says Mount Royal University professor Marty Clark, PhD., who teaches courses that ask students to examine concepts of health, physical activity, physical education, and sport from historical, philosophical, and sociological perspectives.

“Women’s involvement hasn’t been there historically. I think we’re still fighting the same ideas that women are weak or incapable or quote/unquote ‘not as good as men’ and they get compared to men’s sports a lot,” says Clark.

Women in leadership roles

Women’s involvement in sports may remain steady, however, the lack of female representation in leadership positions plays a large role in the lack of proper representation and treatment of girls and women in sports. 

“If you fast forward to 2023, the infrastructure and women’s participation in both the sports and leadership roles is really just starting now in a mass kind of way,” says Clark.

According to the CAAWS, 59 per cent of leaders in women’s sports want to progress further as a sport leader but 52 per cent feel there are few opportunities to do so in the female athletics environment. 

“I think one of the key questions is, do we listen to women at a cultural level and do we listen to them as coaches, as officials? Because I think traditional masculinity or hegemonic masculinity has not just been about physicality. It’s been about leadership decision making and rationality. And so to be included in sport, women have had to fight hegemonic masculinity or the idea that masculinity is hegemonic or dominant in not just physicality, but also rationality and leadership.” 

Because female sports and female-led sports initiatives receive less funding and resources than male-led ones, that ties into a lack of leadership opportunities for women.

Infographic by Lorenzo Gavilan-Vargas

One example that can be examined is Canada Soccer. Despite winning Olympic gold in 2021 and consistently achieving more success than the men’s team on the world stage, the Canadian women’s national team received less funding than the men’s national team in three of the four years shown.

In their financial statements from 2017 and before, the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) did not distinguish a difference in men’s teams and women’s teams funding in their financial statements.

In February 2023, the CSA announced funding cuts to both national teams, which were especially inconvenient to the women’s national team as they prepare for the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer.

This lack of investment results in fewer opportunities for women to develop the skills and experience needed to become leaders in the industry, which perpetuates the cycle of underrepresentation. 

Despite this prominent difference in allocated funds and support, 37 per cent of sport leaders report that they do not consider gender when they determine how to allocate resources. This includes funds, facility access, coaching and volunteering time.

Alicia Tan, SAIT women’s basketball assistant coach and alumni, says basketball has been a major part of her whole life, having been influenced by her father who played professionally in the Philippines. 

I can’t even explain how much basketball means to me. To keep it simple, I don’t know who I would be without basketball. It has shaped me into who I am as a person, athlete, leader, sister, daughter, employee, and everything else. Because of basketball, I have learned so many life skills, and for that, I’ll always be thankful. Since I have been around the sport forever, I can’t ever see myself not being involved with basketball.

Alicia Tan, SAIT Trojans alumni and assistant coach

“I can’t even explain how much basketball means to me. To keep it simple, I don’t know who I would be without basketball. It has shaped me into who I am as a person, athlete, leader, sister, daughter, employee, and everything else. Because of basketball, I have learned so many life skills, and for that, I’ll always be thankful. Since I have been around the sport forever, I can’t ever see myself not being involved with basketball.”

After completing her program and own basketball journey as a SAIT Trojan, Tan was inspired to become a leader for future female Trojans to come.

“(As a coach,) I find ways to make sure I inspire, educate and empower the female athletes so that they don’t feel less important to male athletes. If men can achieve greater things through sports, then why can’t we as females? Why allow the media to determine our choices, when we can choose to be the difference and compete in a sport made for both women and men?”

Mental health challenges

The evident lack of equality, leadership, and funding for female athletics can create mental health issues for female athletes, resulting in them often leaving their chosen sport earlier than they would have otherwise. 

Female athletes may feel undervalued, unsupported, and underrepresented, which can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Additionally, the pressure to perform at a high level without the necessary resources and support can further exacerbate mental health issues in female athletes. 

“I like to lift (my female athletes) up by helping them build their confidence within the sport so that they can also build confidence not only as an athlete but also as a person individually.”

Basketball runs in the Tan family, as her father played professionally in the Philippines. PHOTO BY: Daylin Holmen

Seventy-five per cent of girls think that sport organizations, brands and companies, and governments should do more to support sport for girls and women in Canada, whether it be from a mental health perspective or an overall perspective. 

“I think eventually we could possibly get (the same level of support as men,) now that there is a Girls and Women in Sports Day. I think society is finally starting to recognize women in sports and what they actually have to offer,” says Tan. 

“They still have a long way to go but I hope we will get there eventually. It does help that professional male athletes are fully recognizing professional women athletes now. For example, NBA players going to the WNBA games – people see the NBA players getting involved and watching the sport so it encourages others to realize women’s sports deserve to be recognized more.”

Lowering participation rates

Participation rates of female athletes have fluctuated throughout the years, being impacted in a unique way by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The 2022 Rally Report reports that girls’ participation rates have held steady through the pandemic, but overall remain low.

The report also states that girls and their parents are now expecting more out of female-based sports post-pandemic, with 14 per cent of girls who returned to sports post-pandemic not participating to the same extent they were prior to the pandemic.

William Bridel, PhD., says that female participation and inclusion in sport is now more important in a post-COVID environment than ever before. Bridel, a University of Calgary associate professor and dean of the faculty of kinesiology, has focused his work and studies on sociocultural aspects of sport, as well as gender and sexuality in sport.

“There are calls and movements from Canadian women in sport to get more women in leadership roles, more women in coaching roles, and to think really critically about the intersection of race and gender and how that impacts girls and women’s participation.”

Bringing up moving past COVID-19 and its impact on sport, Bridel says that participation rates are no longer growing. 

“Participation rates are low for girls and women. And then when we also think about race, it decreases even more. We think about girls and women from lower socioeconomic status or lower social classes, it decreases even more,” says Bridel. 

“I think there are folks out there doing really, really great work that should be highlighted. But it also is time for, quote/unquote, the majority to step up and move past this narrative that somehow girls and women’s sports don’t count (or) don’t matter.  Because they do, and they should, and they must.”

Athletes representation in the media

Alongside the inequalities women face internally in their sport, there are also external factors that affect them and their sport overall, including representation in media. 

Women athletes have been underrepresented, poorly portrayed, and overly sexualized in the media for decades, whether it be in your stereotypical journalistic publications, or larger sports media and publications.

2019 study analyzed 1,587 Instagram images from the main media accounts of NBC, ESPN, FOX Sports, and CBS Sports. The researchers discovered that while there was a notably small percentage of female athletes covered, almost half of them were depicted in a passive state and outside of their field of play. In contrast, male athletes were shown in athletic positions in 80 per cent of their pictures. 

“Coverage of women’s sports has decreased in quantity over time, and the quality of coverage is often quite terrible or lackluster, if I am being a bit kinder. In the Canadian context, it’s around the same. About four per cent of media dedicated to sport is dedicated to women’s sports,” says Bridel.

Next steps

A lack of proper coverage, proper representation, proper and adequate pay, proper leadership, fair opportunities, and proper allocation of funding and support are just a few of the issues that young and older female athletes face on a daily basis. 

These issues result in an unfair playing ground for all female athletes which perpetuates an unhealthy environment and lack of growth in all sports, ultimately harming the sport as a whole due to limitations in the pool of talented athletes – narrowing the diversity of perspectives and experiences in the sport. 

In order to create a level playing field for all athletes, it is crucial to address these issues and invest in the development of female athletes and leaders in the sports industry, says Bridel.

“It frustrates me to no end that we are still having this conversation, because to me, it should just happen. It needs to actively change. And people need to commit to that until people are willing to make that commitment. By people, I mean sport leaders, the media, and business leaders. Right now most of the change that has happened within sport has happened because of girls and women taking the lead and demanding change, and you can’t and shouldn’t always rely on members of equity-denied groups to do all the labour.”

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Madison Freeman

Madison Freeman is a journalism student at Mount Royal University with a passion for all things sports - ultimately leading her to the role of sports editor for the Calgary Journal.