Barriers to Women in Athletic Careers

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Low Salaries

Women are discouraged from entering careers in athletics because of low salaries. 15

Seventy-five percent of women college athletes in an NCAA survey said they are interested in a career that offered a higher average salary than did coaching or administration of intercollegiate athletics. 15

Coaches of women’s teams are still paid less than coaches of men’s teams. Out of 14 sports that have men’s and women’s teams, the Division I men’s head and assistant coaches’ combined average base salaries were more than the women’s in all sports – sometimes a lot more. In basketball, men’s head coaches were paid an average of $71,511, but the women’s coaches made only $39,177. Even in female dominated sports like gymnastics, the men’s coaches were paid more on average. And because most schools offer more sports for men than women, the average combined spending for men’s coaches salaries was $625,396 for Division I schools, but only $227,871 for women’s teams. 16


Homophobia in women’s athletics is widespread. More than half of female administrators surveyed said their involvement in sports often led others to assume they were lesbian. Fifty-one percent of women coaches agreed, as did 46% of women athletes. All felt this homophobia was a hindrance to attracting and retaining women in athletics careers.

Christine Grant, University of Iowa women’s athletic director, says homophobia in women’s sports is “like the McCarthyism of the 1950s. The fear is paralyzing.”

As former basketball star Mariah Burton Nelson put it in her book Are We Winning Yet?, “Homophobia in sports serves as a way to control women, both gay and straight.” Whether a woman is lesbian or straight, homophobia in sports and the society at large tends to discourage girls and women from pursuing traditionally “masculine” activities such as contact sports and team sports for fear of being labeled a homosexual. “Female athletes in traditionally masculine sports challenge the social dictates about proper behavior for females; therefore, the reasoning goes, there must be something wrong with them.

Focusing on sexual orientation unfairly denies women opportunities in sports on the basis of personal preferences irrelevant to athletic abilities. According to an article in Women’s Sports and Fitness magazine, homophobia is the cause of 4 women turning down scholarships at schools unfriendly to lesbians; lesbians getting married and divorced to maintain a heterosexual image; women terrified to reveal they were fired as suspected lesbians; single women who are not hired as coaches; heterosexual women declining athletic careers for fear of being labeled lesbians. Many parents worry that athletics might influence their daughters to become lesbians.

Many lesbian athletes are afraid to go public with their sexual orientation for fear of losing corporate sponsorships. Only one well-known woman athlete, Martina Navratilova, has dared to be open. Even then, however, Navratilova lost corporate endorsements because of homophobia.

Homophobia in sports not only causes discrimination against lesbians; but it also hurts all women by perpetuating the stereotype that sports are not feminine, thus preventing some girls and women from enjoying athletic participation and successful careers in athletics.

(Empowering Women in Sports, The Empowering Women Series, No. 4; A Publication of the Feminist Majority Foundation, 1995)

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