Strategies for Promoting Gender Equity in Youth Sports

By Nelson Musselman | Posted on February 7, 2024

NGWSD blog 410

Join us in celebrating National Girls and Women in Sports Day®, an annual celebration hosted by the Women’s Sports Foundation to celebrate all the girls and women who play, coach or work in sports. At NRPA, we believe every child should have the opportunity to play sports, no matter their age, ability, gender identity, race, ethnicity, family income or interests — and that park and recreation professionals have a unique opportunity to ensure kids all have access to sports opportunities at their local park and rec agency.  

Girls’ sports participation is on the rise; in fact, the participation rate for girls is the highest it’s been since 2013. And while women’s sports participation has grown, girls unfortunately still don’t have access to the same number of opportunities provided to boys, with the National Federation of State High School Associations reporting there are still 1.3 million fewer school sports participation opportunities for girls than boys.  

To honor the mission of National Girls and Women in Sports Day, NRPA sat down with park and recreation professionals from Maine to uplift ways that park and recreation agencies can increase girls’ participation in sports. Deb Smith, executive director at Maine Recreation and Park Association, has dedicated her career to making the communities where people live and play a better place. Her colleague Ryan French, recreation programmer at Portland Parks, Recreation, and Facilities, shares Deb’s passion for ensuring girls and women in Maine thrive in sports.  

Deb and Ryan shared key insights and actionable steps for promoting equity and inclusion in girls’ sports. According to them, these considerations are key for agencies interested in centering equity in sports offerings: 

Recognizing Girls’ Needs

Girls need to have respect, encouragement, positive role models, clear communication, a voice that's heard and mentors to teach essential skills in their sports experiences. These principles form the bedrock of a fulfilling youth sports environment for girls. 

Evolving Parental Roles

Reflecting on historical norms where mothers often assumed fathers would take on coaching roles, Deb and Ryan advocate that it's time to reshape parental roles. Diverse parental involvement can create a more inclusive and supportive setting for young women athletes.  

Empowering Women Coaches

Create a marketing campaign that encourages all women to consider the benefits of becoming a coach. Consider hosting all-women or co-ed coaching training sessions and integrating comprehensive guides on what children seek in a coach. Support in facilitating such events can contribute to a broader dialogue on the experiences of women in coaching roles. These clinics can help create a community feel and expand the women's coaching network. What’s more, sharing success stories of women coaches can further encourage others to embrace coaching opportunities. Check out NRPA’s previous NGWSD blog post, “Lead Her Forward: Creating a Culture of Women Coaches,” for additional resources. 

Collecting and Acting on Input

Retaining women players and coaches is pivotal for the success of youth sports programs. One strategy to improve retention is to implement regular feedback mechanisms throughout the season so your agency can be aware of and act upon participant feedback, fostering a higher likelihood of continued engagement from women and girls. Community engagement and collaborations with local schools can provide insights into tailored solutions that fit your distinct community needs. 

According to Deb, “There are many challenges to getting and keeping young girls playing sports. Barriers such as transportation, money, peer pressure, not having the right clothes or footwear and not having parents who are supportive” are among a few. She notes that other challenges might be societal norms, gender stereotypes, and/or lack of confidence and interest. Before addressing them, the first step is for parks and recreation staff to be aware of these barriers.  She reiterates the need for staff to learn how to connect with the girls in their community to find out why they aren't participating. 

The dedication of park and recreation professionals like Deb and Ryan shines a spotlight on essential considerations for promoting inclusivity in girls' youth sports. By acknowledging and overcoming barriers, fostering engagement and championing equity, park and recreation agencies can help create a future where every girl has equal opportunity to thrive in sports. NRPA is excited to follow and report on the journey in Maine over the next few years as they look to implement these gender equity strategies. 

NRPA also looks forward to partnering with agencies to advance gender equity in local sports. How is your agency celebrating National Girls and Women in Sports Day®? Get involved and spread the word

Nelson Musselman (he/him) is an NRPA program specialist.