Red Zone: Female Empowerment in Sports

Over the past 50 years women have seen an incredible increase in the amount of opportunities and recognition they have received in the world, and studies are showing that sports have a lot to do with it. The continued promotion of women through sports is an integral part of female empowerment in general society.

According to the United Nations, “women and girls’ participation in sports is an important social and economic empowerment tool.” A report from the UN found that:

  • Women and girls acquire new professional networks, develop a sense of identity and access new opportunities to become more engaged in school and community life;
  • Sports serve as a vehicle to improve women’s and girls’ leadership roles and participation in decision-making;
  • Sports convene people across borders, cultures and belief systems, and can promote greater tolerance and understanding among individuals and communities;
  • Girls’ participation in sports can challenge gender stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes;
  • Sports teams and organizations provide an excellent opportunity for sharing information and promoting dialogue on the importance of girls’ education; and
  • Studies show a direct correlation between girls’ participation in sports and higher education and employment; and that a single year of primary education correlates with a 10-15 percent increase in women’s wages later in life; a single year of secondary education results in a 15-25 percent increase.

Shawn Butler, President of the Anchorage Women’s Hockey League (AWHL), agreed.

“I think sports above all give you confidence, because you’re learning how to use your body,” said Butler. “Any time you have control over your body, that’s a very positive experience for a woman.”

Butler was a Lieutenant Colonel in the military before becoming the President of AWHL, and she how empowerment through sports correlates to empowerment in the rest of a woman’s life.

“Hockey I think is even more empowering for women – I’ve played probably every sport there is,” said Butler. “Hockey is even more empowering and I think it’s because it’s a physical sport. A lot of the women that pick it up have never had hockey in their lives, never had an opportunity to do hockey. It’s an expensive sport, so parents don’t invest in little girls to play hockey if they aren’t sure, and the opportunities just aren’t there for girls in a lot of places. There is so much coming together for a woman who has never done that before.”

As long as those opportunities are available, students and women everywhere can benefit from sports.

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When asked how sports is a positive experience for him, Jackson McTier, a Natural Sciences major on the Men’s Basketball team said, “It’s awesome, because I get to travel the world; I’m from Australia so I get to come over here to the US. It gets me a degree at the same time while I’m playing the sports that I love, it gets me active, it’s an all-around good thing.”

McTier also talked about how sports can be beneficial for women in all aspects of their life.

“Back home, in Australia there’s a lot of women sports, with netball, which is kind of like basketball but you can’t dribble…Only women play it so it’s an all-women sport, and a lot of the women in that league are doing positive things like outreaches for kids to get them involved and active. They have a huge league and national and world championships…it’s good!”

McTier thinks UAA also has a positive atmosphere for its women athletes.

“We have a lot of women’s teams… they push towards high school girls to work towards playing that sport in college, and I think that’s always a good empowerment tool.”

It’s not just the UAA collegiate women athletes that feel the benefits of sports though. Megan Johnson, a civil engineering major who played volleyball in high school, agrees.

“I think sports empower women,” said Johnson. “It not only gives you confidence but I feel like it gives other females, especially younger, something to strive for.”

The opportunities that are available to women through sports such as travel and scholarships, as well as personality and skill development, provide an avenue for women to be influential in a world previously dominated by men.

In 2014, the Bleacher Report published an article detailing 25 of the Most Influential Women in Sports, saying in the intro that, “The fact that sports are still such a male-dominated world makes highlighting the influential women in the industry all the more worthwhile.”

Women like Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey challenge notions about “a woman’s place” by dominating in sports that historically were reserved for men. Both Williams and Rousey also break down stereotypes of successful women as only feminine or reserved, which is important for society to actually view women as equal. If society believes that women can only be weak, quiet and submissive in sports, then society probably believes that women can only be weak, quiet and submissive in other aspects of society.

“I think being physical in the sport is hugely powerful,” said Butler. “When I started playing basketball in seventh grade, they only allowed girls to play half-court basketball, and we could only take three steps before passing the basketballs. That’s the way women’s sports used to be. I came up before Title IX, and we would get the courts to play basketball, when I was playing high school varsity basketball, after all the boys got their time. There were no opportunities to play baseball, or Little League or any of that stuff. That’s all changed. From my experience, being able to play a sport and have an opportunity to play a sport that is very traditionally men is very empowering.”

Title IX was an amendment made to the 1964 Civil Rights Act to ensure that no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, shall be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

This act created the legal mechanism to ensure gender equality in college campuses, and here at UAA, there are many opportunities for women to get involved in sports. The empowerment of women is a crucial part of modern sports institutions, but it didn’t used to be that way. Butler told TNL more about what it was like as a woman in sports before gender equality was directly legislated.

“Before Title IX, our teams used to have to go door-to-door to sell anything to make money just to buy a shirt so we could all have the same shirts to play with. None of the coaches were paid for in women’s sports. They all did on volunteer work. We had to beg for buses to play against other teams. I remember, as a senior, calling up other schools and saying ‘we have a basketball team, would you like to play us.’ So there was no administration whatsoever,” said Butler. “Of course we had no cheerleaders, we had none of that stuff. At the school that I was in during tenth grade, I tried out for basketball and they didn’t have basketball competing against other schools. They got maybe 15 girls, and divided us up into two sections, we practiced against each other, and had an exhibition game. That was our whole basketball season. Then Title IX came along, and the very next year my coaches got paid to actually coach the girls. The boys always had paid coaches.”

It’s important to recognize that women were granted the “privilege” of equality in sports and activities in 1972. Women were seen as equal in the eyes of educational establishments only in the past 40 years. If America is going to truly empower and enable women, the first step is recognizing how close the past of legal inequality is. Fortunately, many are aware of the needs of women, and how the empowerment of women is beneficial for an entire society as well.

“I think sports are starting to push more towards empowering women, I think in the past it was always empowering for women. There’s a lot of programs out there now, like Fast and Female, that are pushing more towards empowerment for women in sports,” said McTier. “I think it’s a good time for women in sports.”

Grace Kiraguri, the Managing Director of Icon Sports Marketing Limited and an advocate for female empowerment said that, “the more we educate women, the more we engage them, the more we empower them, the better it is for our communities.”

Women are citizens of the world and make massive impacts in society, and the strength and success of women is something that all people have an interest in furthering. Entrepreneurship, intellectual achievement, social activism and progression, and many more types of societal contributions are possible when women are given opportunities and recognition. Sports are clearly a motivator for these kinds of achievement.

“I think that team sports help women prepare for work,” said Butler. “The more women we can get interested in sports, the more successful they’ll be in society, because it’s still a man’s world. You can go in that world isn’t fair, but you can’t change it unless you get to the top and then you can change it.”

There are few social issues as important as assuring equality and advancing the achievement of women and minority groups. When universities and organizations create opportunities for women through sports, they are promoting the growth and success of the entire community.