Is North Carolina behind the times when it comes to providing opportunities for girls to play sports?
A new study, released last month by the National Women’s Law Center, showed North Carolina had one of the widest “gender equity” gaps in the nation. It ranked 44th among all states.
Nearly 4,500 of 16,000 schools examined nationally had what the center called large gaps, meaning there was a difference of at least 10 percentage points between the spots allocated to girls on sports teams and the percentage of girls in the student body.
For instance, if a school’s enrollment is 50 percent girls, but only 35 percent of the school’s athletes are female, that school would have a 15 percentage-point gap.
In North Carolina – where girls’ participation in high school athletics has nearly tripled since 1990 – 47.3 percent of schools surveyed had what the center considered a large gap.
Anytime there’s a study that shows North Carolina in the bottom of the country, that’s always a concern.
Que Tucker, interim commissioner of the N.C. High School Athletic Association
Officials from the center said they weren’t targeting total participation but the percentage of potential spots on teams afforded to female athletes, relative to the percentage of girls in schools. They said in states where football was a highly popular sport, such as in North Carolina, schools tended to trend lower on the gender-gap scale. They urged those states to ramp up their offerings to girls to make up the gap.
“There’s lots of research showing the lifelong and healthy benefits to playing sports,” said Katherine Gallagher-Robbins, director of reseach for the center. “These girls are likely to earn more money, less likely to fall prey to drug use, and their pregnancy rate is lower. We know sports are enormously important for most boys and girls as they move forward in their lives. Schools should be (offering more team spots to girls) because ... they should be setting these girls up for a successful future.”
Que Tucker, interim commissioner of the N.C. High School Athletic Association, said her staff will look at the study closely.
“Anytime there’s a study that shows North Carolina in the bottom of the country, that’s always a concern,” Tucker said. “Does that mean we’re going to change what we do? I’m not saying that, but studies are designed to help you look at yourself, and if we want to get out of the bottom half – and we’re strictly looking at the methodology they’re using – we’ll take a look at it.”
The center – a 60-person staff in Washington, D.C., dedicated to “expanding the possibilities for women and girls” in the United States – used information from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2011-12 school year.
The data show
- In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, boys accounted for nearly 51 percent of the total enrollment but 62 percent of all sports participants. Nearly 54 percent of all CMS teams were boys’ teams.
- In Wake County, boys accounted for 51.2 percent of the total enrollment figures and 62.1 percent of all sports participants. Like in Mecklenburg County, girls had fewer teams to choose from: 51.3 percent of the teams were for boys.
- In nearby counties, the numbers were similar. In Gaston County, boys were 52 percent of total enrollment and 61 percent of sports participants. In Union County, boys were 51.1 percent of total enrollment and 60.4 percent of sports participants.
More rural counties tended to have larger discrepancies. Cleveland County, for example, has boys as about 52 percent of enrollment, but boys made up more than 70 percent of sports participants. More than 60 percent of the sports teams offered in Cleveland were for boys.
Neena Chaudhry of the National Women’s Law Center said that’s what the study was targeting: Were schools offering girls the same opportunity to play sports, on different teams, as boys?
“When you see large gaps, there are many more opportunities for girls to play that schools need to add,” said Chaudhry, senior counsel and director for equal opportunities in athletics at the center. “At many schools, they should look at the numbers and be regularly asking girls, ‘What sports do you want to play?’ And ‘Are there sports we’re not offering?’
“Look at competitive sports girls are playing in the region. If the school isn’t offering that sport, that’s an indication.”
44 North Carolina’s rank among 50 states and District of Columbia in gender equity, according to National Women’s Law Center study
94,368 Female participants in athletics in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools athletics programs in 2013-14, up from 33,663 in the 1990-91 school year.
62 Percent of participants in sports in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools athletics who are boys. They make up nearly 51 percent of the total enrollment.
Tucker, a former North Carolina high school coach, said in a state as diverse as North Carolina, all schools don’t offer the same suite of sports. She said the state’s larger schools, which compete in the 4A class, generally will offer a wider variety of sports than smaller schools, which are often in more rural areas with smaller student bodies.
“We do have schools where there are times where you may not offer a women’s JV program because the interest is not there,” Tucker said. “I think interest level is the primary reason some of our schools don’t offer a sport, because they don’t have the females who want to participate in, say, lacrosse, or maybe there’s a school that doesn’t offer women’s soccer because they do not have enough people who want to have a women’s team.”
At some schools in Mecklenburg County, home to large 4A schools, participation is strong across the board. Hough, Ardrey Kell and Myers Park recently won Wells Fargo Conference Cup awards for overall athletic excellence.
But at others, girls’ participation is a big issue.
“At Garinger,” Wildcats athletic director Tony Huggins said “it’s the interest level. You find more girls here that work a full-time job. We try to entice them with new equipment, to give them the same opportunies they see with the boys, to let them know there are college scholarships out there for girls.”
In the 2014-15 school year, Huggins said Garinger didn’t field girls’ teams in tennis, golf, swimming or cross-country because of a lack of interest.
Statewide, girls’ participation has grown rapidly.
Since 1990, the NCHSAA has added several girls’ state championships and sanctioned several new girls’ sports, such as lacrosse. In the 1990-91 school year, 33,663 girls participated in athletics. In the 2013-14 school year, that number had grown to 94,368.
In that same period, boys’ participation rose from 69,958 to 127,267.
Tucker also notes the NCHSAA allows girls to participate on boys’ teams. Girls regularly play football, wrestle and play golf and baseball on boys’ teams at schools throughout the state.
“If I am a soccer player and I’m at a school where there is no women’s program, I know I can participate with the males,” Tucker said. “Now that’s not ideal, and in North Carolina that’s not what we want to have happen. But we certainly want our athletes to have an opportunity to play.”
Gender equity in high school sports
A study by the National Women’s Law Center ranked states for gender equity, North Carolina (44th) and South Carolina (45th) ranked poorly. Ranking is based on the percentage of high schools in each state that had “large” gender equity gaps in sports participation, defined as a 10 percentage-point gap between the percentage of athletics spots occupied by girls and the percentage of girls in the total enrollment. The rankings:
% with ‘large’ gap
District of Columbia
Source: National Women’s Law Center