Dawn E. Trussell, Shannon Kerwin, Amanda Lyn & Laura Lozinski
This literature review on “Participation” was conducted for the Gender+ Equity in Sport in Canada Research Hub to serve as a foundational report for strategic research priorities development.
The review took place from May 2020 to August 2021.
Results (yield of N = 332) were limited by year (2000-2020) and English language. Findings were included (n= 305 (academic)+ 27 (grey)) when determined relevant after initial abstract review and scanned for commentary on gender/sex related to sport participation. Specifically, articles were excluded when not specific to gender, not focused on participation, duplicate articles, and/or were leisure or physical activity focused (e.g. walking, gardening) and outside of the definition of sport for this analysis. The search was divided into three phases. During the initial phase search terms such as “gender”, “girls”, “women”, “female”, “femin*”, “transgender”, “non-binary”, “cis-gender”, and “youth” were used alongside database filters of “North America” and “English language”. Through analysis of our exhaustive search term results (N=57 (28 ProQuest, 29 SPORTDiscus)), we came to realize that the search term “participation” was limiting and was not explicitly used throughout the sport literature. In other words, the concept of “participation” may be inherent in research related to gender+ equity but was not explicitly identified in the title, keyword search, or abstract. For the second phase, more results were found (N= 28 (13 ProQuest, 15 SPORTDiscus)) when the term was reduced to “Participa*” or other search terms such as “inclusion”, “athlete” or “Title IX”, “mother”, “participant”, “athletic”, “university”, “varsity”, and “policy”. The lead researchers also provided Canadian author names (from diverse fields of study in sport) to include in search terms (e.g., Caldwell, Giles, Hayhurst, Hoeber, Paraschak, Van Ingen, and Young), with the same inclusion/exclusion criteria as above. Through this search strategy N=5 additional articles were added to the collection. In the third phase, “English language” and “North America” were unselected in the database filters and an additional N=215 academic journal articles were included in the results with the same inclusion/exclusion criteria as phases one and two.
The grey literature (N=27) was limited to Canada through databases used in the academic review (i.e. SPORTDiscus and ProQuest – Sociology Collection) as well as a systematic search conducted on three major Canadian organizational websites (i.e. Sport Canada, Sport Information Research Centre (SIRC), Candian Women & Sport). We searched the databases and browsed the websites using our search terms adopted in the academic review and reflected on the work of our contacts in this space. It is important to recognize that the initiatives and resources that are outlined represent a perspective from three dominant organizations in Canadian sport culture. We challenge future searches to move into grey literature spaces that intersect with other marginalized communities (e.g., Indigenous communities, New-comer populations) who most certainly engage with other literature to inform their practices.
- Research emphasizes that socialization into sport participation includes the performance of femininity within the cultural narrative of heteronormativity (e.g. Berlin & Klenosky, 2014; Byczkowska-Owczarek, 2018; Krane et al., 2004; Shea, 2001).
- Many scholars focus on the benefits of sport for girls and women and the need to focus on retention of participation for girls and women (e.g. Bowker et al., 2003; Clark, 2012; Shakib, 2003) that may require diverse strategies and program designs (Drake et al., 2015; Park & Lee, 2008; Reina et al., 2017; Warner & Dixon, 2015).
- The structure of sport programs and barriers to access have been a focus of previous research (e.g. Giles, 2008; James & Embrey, 2001; Jin-Hyung et al., 2001; Moreno-Black & Vallianatos, 2005).
- A review (and critique) of sport policy that enhances equity and equality has been identified (e.g. Atteberry-Ash & Woodford, 2018; Brown & Connolly, 2010; Giles, 2002; Kennedy, 2010; Pickett et al., 2012).
- An acknowledgement of differing social identities such as class, race, sexual orientation and gender identity have an impact on and relation to sport participation for girls and women (e.g., Atteberry-Ash & Woodford, 2018; Berlin & Klenosky, 2014; Carter-Francique & Richardson, 2016; Channon et al., 2016; Iwasaki & Ristock, 2004; Juniu, 2002; Kuppinger, 2015; Pickett et al., 2012; Sartore, 2009)
- Lack of literature on gender and sport participation that is interdisciplinary.
- A large body of research exists where gender/sex is a variable of interest (e.g., control variable); however, the meanings and experiences of women, girls, and gender diverse identities remains a growing, yet limited, focus of study.
- Limited intersectional understanding of gender with other social identities.
- The term ‘participation’ is difficult to locate within databases with a complex, interconnected family of terms, concepts, and assumptions that surround the concept.
- Establish a line of research that focuses on sport participation that recognizes the intersectionality (gender, race, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, class or caste) of experiences for girls, women, and gender diverse identities.
- Remove fragmented exploration of participation to understand and respect a broad array of sport participation experiences for girls, women, and gender diverse identities.
- Draw from disciplinary perspectives and theoretical frameworks to form transformational understanding of sport participation experiences for girls, women, and gender diverse identities in Canada in relation to deconstructing previously established masculine sport structures (e.g., programming, governance).
This literature review is a foundational document for the E-Alliance Gender+ Equity in Sport in Canada Research Hub. Lead by Dr. Dawn Trussell and Dr. Shannon Kerwin, the team searched research related to gender+ equity and sport participation (2000-2020) in SPORTDiscus and ProQuest-Sociology databases as well as the websites of Sport Canada, Sport Information Research Centre, and the archives of Canadian Women & Sport. Key findings that emerged in the academic review included women and girls socialization into sport and the performance of femininity, the psychological benefits and retention of their participation, a lack of transformative critique of sport structures and barriers to access that women, girls, and gender diverse people experience in the sport space, and a review (critique) of sport policy that enhances equity and equality opportunities. Problematically, the focus on white, affluent, youth female populations in previous work was identitied. The grey literature search emphasized several main themes including, declining participation, equality versus equity, sport across the lifespan, and differing social identities. We also identified key gaps and issues related to the politics of knowledge construction and dissemination. For example, difficulties in locating the term ‘participation’ from disparate fields of study, a dearth of diverse and innovative methods that focused on action and social change, and difficulties with database search filters providing incomplete results. Based on the results from our review, future Canadian gender+ equity in sport research should emphasize diverse social identities and intersectional ways of thinking. With a call to action, we advocate for the continuation of descriptive and explanatory frameworks, but also tranformational frameworks that connect research to social and political action with the capactity to move researchers, practitioners, and policy makers in the direction of a more socially just set of relations.
Opportunities for women and girls in so-called “masculine” activities such as sport participation increased in Western societies through the enactment of human rights legislation. While these legislations are not always sport specific, their focus on gender-equality has become influential in respect to sports participation. In Canada, gender equality is protected under the Canadian Charter for Human Rights and Freedoms and has been a key focus in sports policies such as the 2009 Actively Engaged: A Policy on Sports for Women and Girls. This policy acknowledges that women and girls are increasingly participating in sport as athletes, however, not to the same degree as their male counterparts (Canadian Heritage, 2009).
Although gender-equity policy is meant to enhance opportunities, problematically, dominant ideologies are still reproduced by those in power (Paule-Koba, 2013). Moreover, growing recognition of the within-group differences as well as between-group differences (i.e. identities associated with age, gender, race, ethnicity, able-bodiness, and/or social class) of women’s lives (Watson & Scraton, 2017) draws attention to further complexities in understanding women’s sport participation over the past two decades. Therefore, it is important to examine the ways in which opportunities for women and girls’ participation remains unequal and unequitable.
Defined by Sport Canada (2009), “athlete participants are individuals who are active in the practice of organized sport. Athlete participants include individuals who are beginning to learn sport skills through to high performance competitors” (p. 1). Moreover, participation in sport refers to the engagement of girls and women as participants in all levels of sport. This participation ranges from recreational or local club levels, to provincial and national level sport. This broad definition of participation appears simple; however, the notion of being a sport participant is quite complex. The academic and grey literature reviewed highlights the conceptualization of participation experiences for girls and women in sport varies greatly. Specifically, the definitions in theory and practice range simply from competitive sport programming (e.g., school and community teams for which individuals must “try out”) to recreational sport programming (e.g., teams for which there are no required skill criteria) (Bowker, Gadbois, & Cornock, 2003). Moreover, the multiple realities that shape women and girls sport participation experiences is complex when considering intersectional and multiple social identities (e.g. race, sexual orientation, class or caste). Participation alone does not equate to social inclusion (Spaaij, Magee & Jeanes, 2014).
This reconciliation by girls, women, and gender diverse individuals and the very definition of sport participation has historically evolved. Specifically, within the first decade (2000-2010), researchers acknowledged the need to explore women’s sport participation and barriers for involvement. This call for research emphasized the need to understand how women experienced sport uniquely (often negatively) in comparison to men. Researchers emphasized the need for women to be involved in research regarding women’s sport participation, and that an examination of role models was an essential solution to increased participation. Developing from these findings, researchers acknowledged that increased participation would not be achieved without a reflection on how sport is experienced by women, the inherent barriers that are placed within sport programming (by the very definition of sport), and the heightened awareness of the power of social networks to enhance participation experiences for girls and women. Finally, over the last decade (2010-2020), literature has emphasized the need for systemic change where sport programs need to be strategically developed, managed, and governed to emphasize different ideals of sport participation that represent girls, women, and increasingly, gender diverse identities. It is here we see the need to understand the interconnectivity between individual experiences, sport programming, and societal/cultural expectations of what it means to be girls, women, and gender diverse identities in the sport space.
Results (yield of N=305 journal articles) were included in this review and limited by year (2000-2020, plus seminal pieces identified by research leads) and English language. Over 242,000 journal articles were found across all search terms; however, findings were included (n= 305) when determined relevant after initial abstract review and scan for commentary on gender/sex related to sport participation. Specifically, articles were excluded when not specific to gender, not focused on participation, duplicate articles, and/or were leisure or physical activity focused (e.g. walking, gardening) and outside of the definition of sport for this analysis.
The academic review included the intentional use of two different databases. The first database SPORTDiscus (EBSCO) is a leading database for sport research. In contrast, the ProQuest – Sociology Collection database provided a wide range of articles from multiple disciplines; primarily sociology and psychology and included authors who may not necessarily identify as sport scholars. The use of two different databases (i.e. SPORTDiscus and ProQuest – Sociology Collection) resulted in separate research results with very limited (n=6) duplication of journal articles.
The search was divided into three phases. During the initial phase search terms such as “gender”, “girls”, “women”, “female”, “femin*”, “transgender”, “non-binary”, “cis-gender”, and “youth” were used alongside database filters of “North America” and “English language”. The most successful search term was “gender” that provided a broader understanding of gender+ equity and sport participation results that included not only the experiences of women but other gender diverse identities (e.g., transgender and non-binary). These terms were used in a combination of additional search terms such as “participation” as well as “sport”, “recreation”, “competitive sport”, “alternative sport”, “elite sport”, “lifestyle sport”, “professional sport”.
Searches with the term “sport” as well as “recreation”, included research where leisure activities were common; however, after reviewing the abstracts it was evident that leisure activities (e.g. walking, gardening) did not always align with the Hub’s pre-determined definition of sport, and consequently results that included the term ‘leisure’ were excluded. Yet, this created some difficulties particularly when looking at older women and sports as their sport involvement was often identified as leisure rather than sport which resulted in the possible exclusion of ‘women and aging’ literature.
Through analysis of our exhaustive search term results (N=57 (28 ProQuest, 29 SPORTDiscus)), we came to realize that the search term “participation” may be limiting and was not explicitly used throughout the sport literature. In other words, the concept of “participation” may be inherent in research related to gender+ equity but was not explicitly identified in the title, keyword search, or abstract. For the second phase, more results were found (N= 28 (13 ProQuest, 15 SPORTDiscus)) when the term was reduced to “Participa*” or other search terms such as “inclusion”, “athlete” or “Title IX”, “mother”, “participant”, “athletic”, “university”, “varsity”, and “policy”.
Another way we attempted to address this issue was to search by author, focusing on identified Canadian sports scholars from diverse fields of study in sport ( e.g., Caldwell, Giles, Hayhurst, Hoeber, Paraschak, Van Ingen, and Young ), with the same inclusion/exclusion criteria as above. This was found to be a tedious approach and yielded very little results with the exclusion criteria as noted above. Through this search strategy N=5 additional articles were added to the collection.
In the third phase, “English language” and “North America” were unselected in the SPORTDiscus and ProQuest – Sociology database filters as we realized that these filters provided incomplete results. After unselecting these database filters and going through all of the search terms once again, an additional N=215 academic journal articles (25 Proquest, 190 SPORTDiscus) were included in the results with the same inclusion/exclusion criteria as phases one and two.
All articles (N= 305) that met the inclusion criteria were uploaded to Zotero. An excel document was created to identify the following information from each source as well as assist with a integrated analysis of the citations: author, year, journal, future recommendations, methods, and researcher notes.
The grey literature was limited to Canada through databases used in the academic review (i.e. SPORTDiscus and ProQuest – Sociology Collection) as well as a systematic search conducted on three major Canadian organizational websites (i.e. Sport Canada, Sport Information Research Centre (SIRC), Candian Women & Sport). We searched the databases and browsed the websites using our search terms used in the academic review and reflected on the work of our contacts in this space.
Systematically, the same search term combinations were used as the academic review with document types including annual reports, blogs, case studies, conference proceedings, handbooks, news articles, magazine articles, books, and conference proceedings. The search criteria yielded (N=27) documents that were uploaded to Zotero.
It is important to recognize that the initiatives and resources that are outlined in the grey literature review represent a perspective from three dominant organizations in Canadian sport culture. We challenge future searches to move into grey literature spaces that intersect with other marginalized communities (e.g., Indigenous communities, New-comer populations) who most certainly engage with other literature to inform their practices.
Following the so-called paradigm wars of the 1980s, and the explosion of published work on qualitative research methods in the 1990’s (Denzin & Lincoln, 2013), we also noted a shift in the literature we reviewed with a noticeable increase of qualitative research around 2005. Of the 305 journal articles that were published between 2000-2020 that met the search criteria, the research design of the studies were approximately as follows: qualitative (60%), quantitative (31%), mixed methods (5%), and unidentified or conceptual (4%).
We also noticed a shift from post-positivist to interpretivist and critical research traditions. Aligned with this shift, the common theoretical perspectives cited were feminist theory with theoretical frameworks including gender roles or sex roles. Many journal articles in our search, however, did not identify a theoretical perspective or framework suggesting the opportunity for greater theoretical sophistication that may bind future research together. Further, interviews and questionnaires were the most common form of data collection, leaving opportunity for more diverse and innovative methods going forward.
For a full list of academic and grey literature identified through this review, please consult the Gender+ Equity in Sport in Canada Zotero Library. Below is a summary of this literature that highlights key findings. Academic literature will be presented first, followed by grey literature.
The analysis of the academic literature reflects four thematic and interrelated areas of interest. Although research is dominated by white, middle-class participants, there is limited research that has examined the intersectionality of gender with other social identities such as the aging body, race, ethnicity, disability, and class. The need to understand intersecting identities in relation to gender+ equity participation in sport remains.
The first theme highlights the socialization into sport and the performance of femininity within the cultural narrative of heteronormativity. Scholars have investigated the different influences of girl’s/women’s sporting participation including school, coaches, parental, and sibling influences and the importance of role modelling (e.g., Carter-Francique & Richardson, 2016; Knifsend & Graham, 2012; Moreno-Black & Vallianatos, 2015). Sport has also been examined as a space where traditional understandings of femininity/masculinity are perpetuated or resisted. It is widely understood that gender stereotypes and gender role expectations have the greatest impact on sport experiences (e.g., Adams, 2010; Burke, 2019; Byczkowska-Owczarej, 2018; Giuliano et al., 2000). Feminist research, points to the performance and overemphasis of femininity (either during the sporting event or off the field) and the hyper-sexualization of female athletes (e.g., Krane et al., 2004; Shakib et al., 2003). Related to this point, sport has long been thought of as an institution that priviledges male hegemony through heterosexist ideals and homophobic discourses that create mechanisms of social exclusion and priviledges cisgender identities (e.g., Adams, 2010; Caudwell, 2014; Elling, 2009; Perez-Samaniego et al., 2019; Teetzel & Weaving, 2017). The performance of gender and the assumptions of heteronormativity may limit the meanings and experiences of not only female athletes, but also men who participate in what is perceived as traditionally feminine sports as well as gender diverse and transgendered individuals. Moreover, research has examined the ways in which sport challenges dominant ideals of femininity, particularly within traditionally masculine sports, and how women/girls use sport to resist cultural norms that reject or redefine constructs of femininity (e.g., Byczkowska-Owczarej, 2018; Shea, 2001). Although relatively limited, intersectional social identities has also been examined through the lens of race (e.g. Bruening et al., 2008; Carter-Francique & Richarson, 2016; Theune, 2016; Wegner et al., 2016), culturally (in)appropriate sport participation (e.g. Dagkas et al., 2011; Hamzeh & Oliver, 2012; Perkins & Partiridge, 2014) and the ‘double bind’ stigmatization for women with (dis)abilities (e.g. Anderson, 2009; Cottingham et al., 2018; Richard et al., 2017; Spencer-Cavaliere & Peers, 2011). These works emphasize the role of sport in not only reinforcing dominant cultural ideologies but also as a vehicle to resisting them.
The second theme outlines the the psychological benefits and retention of participation. It is widely understood that participation in sport results in psychological benefits such as increased levels of self-esteem, self-confidence, enhanced body image, identity development and reduced rates of depression (e.g., Bowker et al., 2003; Clark, 2012). These benefits have been the criteria used to encourage women/girls participation in sport as well as measurements used to examine retention in sport. Authors have tried to understand if the type of sport is more likely to provide enhanced psychological well-being for women; however, this research is inconclusive. Some authors (e.g., Richman & Shaffer, 2000; Robinson & Ferraro, 2004) hypothesized that traditionally feminine sports or aesthetic spots (dance, gymnastics, figure skating, etc.) are more likely to lead to poor psychological well-being because they are more body-focused in comparison to traditionally masculine sports. While others (e.g., Krane et al., 2004; Shea, 2001; Strübel et al., 2016) believe that gender-crossing (women participating in traditionally masculine sports) can cause more insecurities due to the challenging of gender roles and the influences of peer-perspectives. Through this analysis, a focus on women’s perceptions of their bodies, particularly measures such as body image, eating behaviors and analysis of the negotiation of muscularity is examined. Negotiating major life transitions and identity development such as immigrant women acclimatizing to a new culture through sport (e.g., Juniu, 2002; Kuppinger, 2015; Taylor & Doherty, 2005; Tcha & Lobo, 2003) as well as the transition to motherhood has also been examined (e.g., Appleby & Fisher, 2009; Darroch et al., 2016; McGannon et al., 2018; Palmer & Leberman, 2009; Shannon, 2003; Weaving, 2020). Yet, there is critique that this research has not considered the impacts of socio- and cultural factors such as objectification, sexualization and stereotyping (e.g., Berlin et al., 2014; Byczkowska-Owczarek, 2018; Cooky, 2009). In addition, psycological benefits research has mainly focused on white, middle-upper class participation with increasing calls for more diverse participants (e.g. race, ethinicity, sexual identity, social class).
The third theme that was uncovered in the academic literature was related to the structure of sport programs and barriers to access. Authors have noted that limited access to programs and resources hinders the potential for participation. Specifically, difficulty accessing resources is problematic for girls’ and women’s participation (e.g., Glennie & Sterarns, 2012; Jin-Hyung, Scott, & Floyd, 2001). Within programs that are accessed, it is also clear that inherent barriers prevent girls and women from engaging in continued and full participation within sport programs. For example, barriers such as a lack of playing time for girls and women, lack of time for other pursuits, lack of ability to demonstrate success, lack of skill or perceived competence, little skill improvement, high pressure to perform or win, dislike of the coach, school work, and lack of fun (i.e., boredom) were cited (e.g., Clark, 2012; Cooky, 2009; Mummery, Spence, & Hudec, 2000; Shannon, 2016; Skille & Østerås, 2011; Videon, 2002). A lack of support from governing bodies and corporate sponsorship has also been identified for female athletes (e.g. Wheaton & Thorpe, 2018) and problematically heightened during pregnancy and postpartum (e.g. Darroch et al., 2019). These are factors that have been outlined as common programmatic deficits for girls and women have a larger impact on withdrawl when combined with the psychosocial factors above. Further, connected to the earlier theme, gender and sexual prejudices act as a barrier to participation or a conduit to withdraw from sport participation (e.g. Elling & Janssens, 2009; Giles, 2008; Sartore & Cunningham, 2009; James & Embrey, 2001; Johnson, 2002 ). Scholars have analyzed various (inequitable) structures of sport participation such as coed experiences, women only programs, and program delivery specific to intersecting identities such as LGBTQ+ and (dis)abilities (e.g. Cohen et al., 2014; Hardin, 2007; Herrick & Duncan, 2018), as well as making a call for the reorganization of sport and the move away from gender binaries to reduce harmful experiences for transgender people (e.g. Caudwell, 2014; Martinkova, 2020). These findings outline the important interplay between psychosocial, sociological, and structural factors that influence participation in sport for girls and women.
The fourth theme acknowledges that these structural barriers that influence sport participation of girls and women has led to a review (and critique) of sport policy that enhances equity and equality in this space. In particular, an analysis of the relevance of Title IX in the United States (e.g., Kennedy, 2010; Theune, 2016) and specific territorial gender equity policy in Canada (Giles, 2002) emphasized the progression of sport policy, but the lack of evidence of policy in action. Specifically, Giles outlined that the implementation of such policy is contingent on “prescribed whitestream, Western notions of feminism and gender roles” (p. 95). Further, critique of Title IX specifically outlines that the policy focuses more on equality than equity. Scholars have insisted that equal treatment rather than equal opportunity should be the focus. For example, Kennedy (2010) suggests that allocation of resources, scholarships, operating expenses, coaches' salaries, and recruiting expenses, scheduling of practices and practice sites can provide more insight into whether a school (or organization) has improved their gender equity standing. Scholars have also encouraged more understanding of the socially constructed experiences of women in sports to provide more insight in to women/girls experiences of inclusion. Scholars have also examined and called for policy development that would allow for the betterment of the lives of transgender people (e.g. Klein et al., 2019; Jones et al., 2017; Pecoraro & Pitts, 2020). Thinking intersectionally, notable scholars such as Pickett et al (2018) have called into question equal access for persons of colour in relation to Title IX. Work in sport policy further highlights the need to move exploration of these topics within the gender equity space to more transformative methods and evaluations.
To meet the call for increased sport participation by girls and women in Canada, a number of initiatives and policies exist. For example, Sport Canada has developed policies to enhance the participation and meaningful engagement of women and girls in sport (e.g. Actively Engaged: A Policy on Sport for Women and Girls, 2019). Furthermore, the working group entitled, “Women in Sport: Fueling a Lifetime of Participation Sport Canada” and resulting paper was a joint venture between Sport Canada and Canadian Women & Sport. Canadian Women & Sport is an organization that provides reports and resources to address sport participation for girls and women. For example, Same Game is a toolkit resource that provides a framework for sport managers to assess how programming can be inclusive for girls and women in their sport clubs. Sport Information Research Centre (SIRC) is also a hub where sport researchers are providing white papers and blogs that translate their research into practice. Recent articles in this space look at “Playing like a Girl: What we can learn from the feminine approach to sport and competition” (2014); “The 2015 Conversation on Women and Sport” (2015); “Examining the Benefits of Female-to-Female Mentorship as a Result of Participation in a Female Coach Mentorship Program (2016); “What Women are Saying About Coaching Needs and Practices in Masters Sport” (2016); “Commonwealth Games Federation: Far-reaching Gender Equality Strategy a First for Sport” (2017); and “Beginning to Understand the Sport Experience of High-Performance Female Transgender Athletes in Canada” (2019). It is important to recognize that these initiatives and policies were the basis for the themes outlined below, but are limited in scope in that the researchers acknowledge these programs may be missing a connection to marginalized groups of women and girls in Canada.
The grey literature search emphasized several main themes including, declining participation, equality versus equity, sport across the lifespan, and differing social identities. First, declining participation of girls and women was emphasized in numerous documents. The literature commonly discussed the declining participation among women and girls in sport. Most often these resources mentioned that 1 in 3 girls were likely to drop out of sports in comparison to 1 in 10 boys, and that most girls drop out of sports around early adolescence (The Rally Report, 2020). Due to this focus most literature in this space was on girls’ participation rather than the experiences of women and older adults.
Second, with a focus on equality versus equity the literature detailed that while access may still be an issue for some girls and women (equality), it is the quality and relevance of sporting opportunities that have a greater impact on sport participation (equity). In particular, the literature from Canadian Women & Sport explained the many psychosocial factors that impact participation such as interpersonal, intrapersonal, environmental, and policy related factors (Johnstone & Milar, 2012) need to be considered in the development of equitable sport programs. Moreover, a major factor that was discussed was the importance of social connection. It has been shown that social acceptance enhances female sport performance and in turn creates a supportive sport experience (Wallace, 2020). Therefore, the literature related to this theme recognized that sport programming needs to be structured in an equitable way to meet the needs of female sport participants.
Third, while most of the grey literature focused on youth populations, the goal of these reports was to improve physical literacy and encourage lifelong participation. There was one report that discussed the importance for sports participation and physical activity of older women as well as some barriers that affect this group of women (The Rally Report, 2020). For older women these barriers include internal barriers (poor body image, fear, guilt, lack of confidence etc.), external barriers (transportation, cost, infrastructure) as well of other barriers such as a lack of role models, lack of supportive environment, and isolation. Each of these factors were outlined as unique to older adults who identify as women. The limited focus on understanding particiapation experiences of older adult women in sport highlights a gap in meeting the reports’ focus on sport across the lifespan.
Finally, the grey literature addressed how differing social identities such as class, race, sexual orientation and gender Identity impact sport participation. This was most evident in Canadian Women & Sports’ position paper that states a dedication to creating an equitable sport and physical activity system which includes creating more inclusive environments for LGBTQ+ individuals. Within these resources, there were important discussions around homophobia in sport and its impact in sport. There were some resources that identified the many ways (overt and covert homophobia) occur in sporting spaces. They also spoke specifically to those who identify as transgender, two spirited, gender diverse, and gender non-binary, in a commitment to developing opportunities for marginalized groups to participate in and benefit from sport participation at all levels in Canada.
The reports also identified cultural identity as an important factor in participation as there is a call for sport spaces to be more culturally sensitive. It was recommended that diversity be integrated into planning sport program design such as acknowledge that some player may be fasting and changing or modifying practices (forces on decision making rather than endurance or including more breaks). There was an acknowledgement that differing and intersecting identities are important in creating safe and inclusive spaces for all.
It is important to recognize that historically barriers to female sport participation have been explored in isolation in that gender is often viewed as an independent variable or construct on its own. However, barriers may uniquely influence the experiences of girls and women with diverse social identities in sport (e.g. who identify as disabled/black/Indigenous/trans). Research indicates that a specific demographic of individuals engages in sport participation (cf., Berger et al., 2008). Those who are affluent, white, and have geographic access to programs appear to participate at greater levels (Berger at al., 2008).
Moreover, we understand that sport may provide a “socially unwelcoming space” for girls and women, but little is known about how programs need to be adjusted to become welcoming to girls, women and gender diverse identities. There are limited understandings of programmatic gaps, oppressive discourses, and structural shifts that occur and need to be managed to ensure equity and inclusivity within sport spaces. Multi-level explorations of participant experiences need to be explored through an intersectional lens to ensure that a comprehensive critique of how sport participation is experienced by women is understood.
It is clear, too, that the role of technology and database searches are fraught with complexitites. First, the concept of ‘participation’ is often implicitly conceptualized within sport studies that examine gender+ equity in sport, making it difficult to locate through key word search terms. Second, research that we examined through this review may focus on meanings and experiences, rather than dichotomous sex or gender differences that defined early gender scholarship (cf., Henderson, 1994; Tetrault, 1985). Third, the use of database filters (i.e. selection of English language; North America) inaccurately excluded relevant articles that met our inclusion criterion, and upon this realization, we had to systematically go through the entire process once again for an additional round of data collection. Fourth, the interdisciplinary nature of the study of sport has resulted in a fragmented and hard to define concept because it is addressed in conflicting ways with researchers in specialized fields of study (e.g. sport management, sport sociology, recreation and leisure, gender studies). Relatedly, we were somewhat troubled to learn that the use of two different databases (i.e. SPORTDiscus and ProQuest – Sociology Collection) resulted in separate research results with very limited (n=6) duplication of journal articles. This may reflect the fragmentation of the concept of ‘participation’ between sport scholars (SPORTDiscus) and scholars who may not identify with sport (ProQuest-Sociology Collection). It may also represent the role of technology and the commodification of knowledge with whom has access to what information (i.e. what journals are subscribed to and packaged within specific databases).
Authors repeated call for an intersectional approach to examining gender and sport has largely gone unanswered. Thinking intersectionally (e.g. analysis of gender, sexuality, racialization, disability, social class or caste) is no doubt a difficult task but a worthwhile one (cf., Flintoff, 2008; Herrick & Duncan, 2018; Watson & Scraton, 2017; Watson, 2018; Wilson et al., 2001). Rather than simply continuing this call, we advocate for the development and provision of resources to help operationalize insectionality into research programmes. The Gender+ Equity in Sport Research hub might provide an important space to develop resources, literature, and tools to help support future research.
As we have observed in our own work, as well as identified by Andrews, Silk, Francombe and Bush (2013), scholarship in the study of human movement has been fraught with fragmentation and specialization processes due to the political and rising market-driven university. Mirroring this, gender+ equity and sport research also appears to be fragmented within socially constructed disciplinary boundaries. In turn, we wonder how the Hub can support interdisciplinary research within sport studies fields that will advance a more comprehensive research agenda. How can the Hub provide mechanisms wherein scholars can learn from diverse paradigmatic and disciplinary perspectives different from their own?
It is important to recognize the epistemological focus of previous work and implications for the theoretical and applied contributions. We advocate for gender+ equity in sport research that moves beyond descriptive differences and explanatory frameworks to transformational frameworks that focus on social and political action. The majority of the research we reviewed align with descriptive difference and explanatory frameworks and have the potential to reduce oppression and enhance justice and equity, but largely detach from any policy context for action. For example, the third theme emphasizes that research on structural barriers to female sport participation has been descriptive in nature (e.g., Richman & Shaffer, 2000; Shakib, 2003; Skille & Østerås, 2011; Taylor & Doherty, 2005). This research outlines the trends and description of experiences that are helpful to understand the phenomenon (i.e., girls and women sport participation). However, the need to be explanatory and more so, transformative, in sport participation research has been highlighted (Hayhurst, 2011). Specifically, Hayhurst (2011) suggested within sport participation literature a “postcolonial feminist lens is therefore paramount in order to challenge the historically Eurocentric gender analyses so prevalent in sport and physical activity research” (p. 534). She goes on to state that we must transform our assumption that sport is a space for women and girls to challenge and resist their domestic duties, improve their social networks and relations with communities, confront gender norms, boost self-confidence, advance communication skills an increase their ability to make decisions regarding their own well-being. Aligned with Giles (2008), we advocate that research must inherently value the notion that the benefits of sport participation do not simply occur because we place girls and women into sport. A systemic examination of the structural elements of sport must be critiqued to determine their fit within feminist realities.
The process of the academic and grey literature searches emphasized the siloed nature of information regarding sport participation. When searching academic literature, two databases were intentially chosen (e.g., SportDiscus and ProQuest) as they were seen as prominent search engines yet may represent diverse fields of study (e.g., SportDiscus for sport scholars, and ProQuest for psychology and sociology scholars who may not necessarily identify with sport scholarship). Pointedly, the searches in these two databases using similar search terms yielded very different results with very limited journal article duplication. Therefore, it is important to recognize how research “homes” may cause blindspots when researchers conduct academic literature searches. Further, the ways in which the concept of “participation” were engaged in different disciplines is an important finding to emphasize. When research is siloed in the manner we uncovered, gaps form in a comprehensive understanding of gender equity within sport participation. This gap must be addressed. Further, until very recently (2012 to present) the link between the academic and grey literature was nonexistent. In order for transformative implications to be realized, a direct connection between theory and practice must be made. Therefore, linked to transformational values, we argue that researchers need to intentionally create a community of practice that thoughtfully engages and provides research access to sport policy makers and practitioners who have limited access to research from the academic community (e.g. journals requiring paid institutional subscriptions). Said otherwise, we are concerned with the access to knowledge to make meaningful and positive change related to gender+ equity and sport participation.
In sum, with a call to action, we advocate for the continuation of descriptive and explanatory frameworks, but also an increase in transformational interdisciplinary frameworks that connect research to social and political action with the capacity to move communities or groups of people in the direction of a more socially just set of relations within the context of gender+ equity in sport in Canada. The literature review process provides evidence for an explicit push to remove the siloed approach to previous research, where a community of practice is developed between researchers from different fields of study and among researchers, practitioners, and policy makers. Through this engaged approach, transformation is possible.
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The unselection of these two filters in SPORTDiscus as well as ProQuest Sociology resulted in a staggering difference in the quantity of articles that were found across all search terms. From under 500 articles in phases one and two to over 242,000 articles in phase three. In all three phases the inclusion/exclusion criteria was methodically applied resulting in N=305 articles that are ultimately included in this review. ↑
Cauldwell (2011) introduces the concept of ‘sport feminisms’ for a movement that is at times divergent in its aims and articulations; yet maintains the overarching purpose of tackling inequality. ↑
“Heteronormativity refers to the complex entanglement of gender and sexual ideoloiges that function to maintain the (often unquestioned or essentialized) systems that privilege heterosexuality” (Parry & Johnson, 2015, p. 32). ↑
We argue that diverse epistemological considerations is not only helpful but necessary. To be clear, we do not see descriptive differences, explanatory, and transformational frameworks as being a linear development. Rather, we believe that all three types of frameworks are not only relevant but necessary to fully understand gender+ equity and sport participation with contributions complimenting and informing one another. ↑
There are several approaches to research that aim to enhance a social justice agenda. Stewart (2014) discusses three approaches within leisure studies research: descriptive, explanatory, and transformational. Descriptive approaches aim to describe an injustice of a given social group but do not generally develop theory or offer a framework to explain differences between groups of people. This type of research focuses on statistical association of patterns and characteristics related to gender, class, race, sexuality or ability (i.e. participation rates and individual patterns). Explanatory approaches explain “reasons for a group being oppressed and marginalized, and in doing so, identify culpability and suggests a solution” (p. 330). Explanatory approaches tend to have direct contributions to theory and future research recommendations but political outcomes are not required. Transformative approaches ground the theoretical framing of research questions in the community of study and explicitly identify the desired socio-political outcomes of the research. As Stewart explains: “Unlike a prototypical descriptive study that would conclude by revealing social practices that marginalize, or an explanatory approach that points to the culprit of the power differential, a transformative approach is centered on liberation and successful narratives of negotiating oppressive forces” (p. 333). ↑