Call to end gender-based segregation in sport


The Department of Education’s Primary School Sport Association Handbook does not list Australian football, rugby league and rugby union as sports that are available to all students. “Girls will have access to these sports, taking into account strength, stamina and physique,” it states.

Netball is listed only as a sport available to girls. This is despite the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 stating that “children who have not yet attained the age of 12 years” cannot be excluded from sporting activities. After this time, it is deemed that exclusion can occur as “strength, stamina or physique of competitors is relevant”.

Whether or not the practice of exclusion being enforced at this age is based on any scientific evidence related to a difference in strength, stamina or physique resulting in an increased risk of harm for either sex, is not detailed. This sexist stereotyping and discrimination affects skill development and can affect students’ mental health and even their academic success.

Boys are given more opportunities to involve themselves in sport outside of school overall compared with their female counterparts.

The total number of males aged five to 14 involved in organised sport exceeds that of their female counterparts in every age category in every state and territory in Australia, according to 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics data.

Not only are females generally underrepresented in sport but also it has been found that some segments of the population have even lower than average participation rates including girls and women who have a disability, where English is an additional language or dialect, and for Indigenous girls
and women.

The evidence shows that having same-sex participants is important for students to initially engage and sustain physical activities. Our younger female students need to see older female students involved in sports because rather than looking up to sporting stars, female students tend to look to peers, teachers, parents and other significant adults in their life.

In 2009, the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation reported that girls and women tended to view sport as a male-dominated activity. “It is just not seen as feminine or ‘girly’ to be interested in sport and, for many girls, being sporty is felt to be at odds with being feminine,” the Foundation said.

The evidence suggests that this view starts to become entrenched quite early in life. Australian research from 2001 found that primary-school-aged children perceive sport as a pursuit of men, rather than women.

Discrimination has led to the undervaluing of women in sport at all levels resulting in restricted opportunities for participation. For historical reasons, gender is treated differently in sport than in any other social institution.

It was thought that sport generally, or certain sports more specifically, are not suitable for girls and women. Johnstone and Millar reported: “Gender has been socially constructed in a way that discourages or prevents many women and girls from becoming physically literate (competent).”

Despite this segregation of genders, Milner and Braddock reported: “There is no scientific or biological proof that a sex binary exists. If women were able to procure the same opportunities in sport as men throughout their lifetimes, differences in ideology about physical ability between the sexes might dissipate.”

While gender equality in school sporting teams is the ideal, we need to consider the historical discrimination against girls and women in sport, the existing policies that reinforce this and our own bias when selecting teams. Equity, which would involve setting minimum numbers of each gender in every team, would allow the pendulum to swing back towards the centre.

With all of this in mind, we need to look to our local schools, sporting clubs and government departments, including the Department, to question their existing policies so that we see positive changes made to documents such as the Primary School Sport Association Handbook. Question the historical models of gender-segregation in sport and society more broadly, our children are relying on you.

Lisa Jacobsen teaches at Mimosa PS