Refocusing the Lens on Girls' Participation in Physical Education

Desmond Woodruff Delk, PhD

Langston University

Leonard D. Towns-Newby, MAT

Auburn University

Henry H. McCladdie, M.Ed

Clark-Atlanta University

Marsha D. Herron, PhD

Langston University


Recommendations for effectively teaching girls in physical education have been an initiative of scholars decades before Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 was enacted (Cassidy & Kozman, 1943; Curtis, 1915; Frymir & Hillas, 1935). In fact, the argument for gender equality in physical activity is nearly as old as the United States. In his historical recount of women in physical activity, Robert J. Parks (1982) highlights colonial papers that advocated for coeducational classrooms, and lamented the modicum of physical activity engagement of women and girls. As the literature has evolved throughout the years, it has become evident that works about girls in physical education has progressed from overly opinionated recommendations about girls' decorum in gender segregated classes to theoretically-based research that considers girls' attitudes and their perceived barriers, as well as ideal class settings for optimum learning and participation. However, neither physical activity levels nor interest in physical education are high for girls (Inchley, Currie, Todd, Akhtar & Currie, 2005; Jago, Anderson, Baranowski, Watson, 2005; Wolf et al., 1995). Although the scope of this review of literature does not delve into the long history of women in sports; gender issues in physical education will be explored, thus giving insight into the many aspects of women in physical education, and physical activity through the years.

Girls ' Expected Decorum in Physical Education

The push for women to be fit and active was the focal point of Virginia E. Hawkes's article in the The Physical Educator in 1959. Hawke expressed disdain for the "gadgets of wizardry," such as dishwashers, which, according to her, were taking the place of a woman's expected household duties. This "wag[ing] war on work" seemed to warrant recommendations for women to find alternative ways to become fit. She endorsed that girls obtain sport competence, be provided activity choice, and be exposed to a variety of activities during physical education class. Albeit an agenda to help develop a "wholesome woman", the predominant goal was to develop a physically educated individual-goals that align with Society of Health and Physical Education America's National standards (Society of Health and Physical Education America & Human Kinetics, 2014).

As with reinforcing the stereotype of girls becoming housewives and filling other expected gender roles, Sara Jernigan juxtaposed girls' sportsmanship with cooking in her 1960 poem:

A dash of skills
A pinch of honest rivalry
A generous helping of fairness

Mix well with:
Feminine behavior
Respect for opponents and officials
Enthusiasm for the game

Add large portions of:
Loyalty to the team
The will to win
Graceful acceptance for the final score
Stir all the ingredients until blended

Season heavenly with:
Your smile
Your thoughtfulness
Your sincere handshake (97).

Additionally, psychologist Melvin Weiner (1968) gave suggestions for educating the malleable teenage girl. Gymnastics, with a lack of emphasis on competition and being a team activity, was highly recommended as the ideal activity for girls' physical education. His charge was for physical educators to acquire an understanding of the psychological developments of girls-to understand their feelings and the factors that may cause them uneasiness. The aim was to curtail components of the classroom ecology that would cause harm to girls, such as clothing. The suggestion was that clothing be loose fitting, chiefly because of its "action-fitting" and it being a deterrent to the acknowledgment of the diverse body shapes, and the sensations of guilt and confusion. Uniformity in style and color was stressed to eradicate individuality, which, was assumed, granted security due to the benefits of association. Whereas safety is a major tenet of the quintessential classroom, the impetus of this research was to offer an environment that would restrict girls from their evolving-selves. Hamzeh and Oliver (2012), also studied the restrictions that attire causes girls in physical education classes. Their study on Muslim girls explored the dichotomy of religion and girls' clothing expectations during physical activity. The stipulations of their religion hampered physical activity involvement, especially swimming, but the efforts of the researchers granted the girls an environment where the restrictions were suspended during physical activity involvement. Under desirable conditions, the girls would swim without their headscarves. Hamzeh and Oliver (2012) concluded that communication with parents and cultural-competency could also result in higher physical activity among female students.

Participation in Physical Activity

Nearly forty years after Weiner's (1968) paper on teenage girls' psychology in physical education, a study on the concept of "girly girls" was being conducted to examine girls' self-identified barriers to physical activities (Oliver, Hamzeh, & McCaughtry, 2009). "Girly-girls" do not sweat, "mess up hair and nails", or participate in physical activities that will obstruct their appearance. Through field notes, interviews, focus groups, and participant artifacts techniques, the researchers were able to understand that forced abandonment of culture and restriction of activity choice were barriers to girls' physical activity levels. Similarly to Weiner's (1968) conclusion of girls opposing competition, the girls in the latter study, too, opposed competition and would revert back to the role of "girly-girl," if confronted with this factor. This reinforces the need to incorporate activities which are of interest to the various types of female students that teachers encounter daily. Answine (1969) advocated for a cheerleading unit because of the numerous perceived benefits for girls: agility, coordination, strength, voice projection, and confidence. Although the unit design was loaded in undertones of expected femininity with the goal to eliminate a flabby look in the legs and the acquisition of poise, cheerleading, as encouraged by Answine (1969), was not competition focused and it allowed choice. Student-centered curriculum design is what sparked interest in the "girly-girls" in the study by Oliver, Hamzeh, and McCaughtry (2009). The novel classroom approach derived from cooperative design and encouraged participation could be the link to increase physical activity within girls.

Griffin (1984) examined participation patterns of girls in coeducational physical education class. The six categories established to describe the observed participation patterns, which ranged from very skilled and involved (athlete) to extremely disinterested (femme fatale) or low-skill (lost-soul), posited that skill levels among girls do vary and that some girls do enjoy physical education regardless of the gender make-up of the class. Due to the majority of the girls' nonassertive demeanors, Griffin (1984) further categorized those behaviors as giving up, giving away, hanging back, or acquiescing. The study gave clarity to some participation patterns of girls, as well as their corresponding levels of assertion in physical education classes. The author called for more practice time to assist with skill attainment: a factor that affects participation and motivation. In a similar study with boys, Griffin (1985) described some of the most athletically skilled boys as complete terrors to girls and boys with low athletic abilities. Those interactions may be interpreted as a call for separate classes based on skill levels, however a model such as Teaching Social-Personal Responsibility (Hellison, 2003) gives goals for students to achieve by "...taking responsibility for your own development and well-being and for contributing to the well-being of others..." (16). A teacher willing to understand participation styles of students, create adaptable lessons, and promote responsibility, can increase the chances of effective coeducational classes.

Beter (1970) distributed a questionnaire to 189 twelfth grade girls to determine if the attitudes of gifted girls towards physical education differed from average and below-average students. The results of the questionnaire indicated that the girls generally understood the benefits of physical education and had a positive attitude toward the subject. Differences among the groups were in the areas of gymnastics interest, course offerings, and leisure activities. The gifted girls seemed to enjoy gymnastics more than the other two groups and possessed more of a desire to see softball and archery incorporated into the curriculum. The gifted group, however, did not participate in as much leisure-time physical activities as the other groups. Pate, Ward, O'Neill, & Dowda (2007) examined the role in which physical education enrollment affected physical activity levels. The study concluded that enrollment will increase moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in adolescent girls, thus combating the obesity epidemic. Pate, et al. (2007) also contends that the staggeringly low number of required physical education classes in grade school needs to be addressed to truly witness girls being able to maintain physical activity in an ideally gender-equitable atmosphere.

Coeducational Experience

Pre-Title IX supporters advised the imperativeness of gaining an understanding of the coeducational classroom climate. Penny (1969) urged physical educators to reflexively think about the continuous trend of separate, yet equal, classes of boys and girls. He brought to light that physical education must evolve and be in alignment with the efforts of other disciplines in terms of coeducational environments. Lirgg (1993) investigated the effects of attending a coeducational or same-sex class. The findings showed, in general, that teenagers prefer same-sex classes. The author commented that the transition from single-sex to coeducational classes, during the passing of Title IX, happened with little research, and that the phenomena should be explored to effectively assess students in the setting. Contrarily, same-sex classes have been seen to be a setting where girls flourish and have an increased self-esteem (Sadker & Sadker, 1994, p. 233). Ennis (1999) implemented a Sport for Peace curriculum in a coeducational physical education class and received favorable results from both boys and girls. The implementation of Sport for Peace, an equity based sports education curriculum model, resulted in girls being fully engaged in the learning experience and boys increasing positive attitudes towards girls in physical education. This study supports the existence of coeducation in physical education. A curriculum that holds students accountable and captivates their attention have the potential to increase overall participation.

Gender Identification

In Werner's (1972) review of literature on gender identification, he purported that the role of a physical educator is to be a model and shaper of appropriate gender identification. He suggested that boys who consistently played with girls in physical education class were suffering social-adjustment issues at an early stage. Werner (1972) recommended that these boys visit a psychiatrist to develop ideal self-concepts and attitudes; and a speech therapist could assist with "correct[ing] an effeminate boy whose voice pitch is too high." He attributed the students' "issues" to a lack of athletic skill-a deficiency, he felt, could be curtailed through more team games and the encouragement of aggression for passive boys. To diminish the gender confusion for girls, a bombardment of gymnastics and less competition was encouraged for the ones who visited the sandbox too often. In recent times, there has been an outcry for more men in the classroom. This too, was seen, at the time, as an added benefit to help boys choose "correct" gender identification (Werner, 1972). Current research has found that traditionally lucid gender associations is becoming nebulous. Through images of physical activities being performed by both men and women, Azzarito and Katzew (2010) explored children's attributions of gender appropriateness in the physical education setting. The findings negated the notion of strict gender roles in physical education-a discipline which is infamous for assigning activities based on gender, i.e., football for boys and cheerleading for girls. The study shows the evolving fluidity of gender roles.

Beverly Wilson (1972) criticized the impact that stereotypes of masculinity and femininity has on curriculum; from policy to funding. She advocated for a resolve of ego among educators and pushed a concentrated effort to emphasize and update the subject. She considered that the ideal educator is one who is competent and cares for all students-an ideal which should be the goal of physical education teacher education programs. Azzarito, Munro, and Solmon (2004) studied the historical development of physical education in schools. Gender and racial issues have been imbedded in the fabric of the profession throughout the twentieth century, but the researchers, "...hope that all of us, researchers and educators, can rethink the discriminatory spaces of physical education..." (Azzarito, Munro, & Solmon, 2004). Ideas that oppose this thinking can create an impasse for gender equality.

Patricia T. Morrison (1968), a practicing physical education teacher for over 15 years, expressed complete antipathy towards the behaviors of adolescents; especially the actions of girls. She continually expressed her preference for nostalgic times when little girls were not interested in bras and boys, and little boys picked fishing over girls. Parents were included in the criticism as they exhibit apathy to the children and are inhibitors of their childhood, she contended. Physical educators, in her opinion, can help the "whole" student evolve, and be the first line of defense against girls becoming "he-shes". According to her analysis, students who did not fulfill their expected gender role were not within the natural order of society. In regard to class participation, Morrison (1968) was also more accustomed to students fulling either the role of follower, aggressor, or neglect. The traditional class structure which she promoted did not provide space for non-conformist and may have resulted in the loss of interest for students who were not the most skilled or outspoken. Essentially, the differences among the students were not seen as a uniqueness, but rather the natural order of battle of the fittest. Vertinsky (1992) purported that the differences in abilities of girls and boys during adolescence was due to the cemented gender roles constructed in physical education classes. The call was for current teachers and future teachers to be reflective practitioners who truly make a commitment to gender equity.

Kleiman (1970) passionately addressed the body of physical educators about the perpetual avoidance of a poignant topic: gender equality. He admonished the omnipresent culture where upgrades of equipment for girls and women usually came into fruition as a result of the leftover and used equipment following the acquirement of new items for men's and boys' programs. The argument was not limited to the classroom, but it was also directed toward treatment of female athletes and female physical educators. The dual national organizations were into question as well. He pondered the purpose of two gender-segregated national organizations while there was an integrated association which alternated presidents between a man and woman on an annual basis. The answer was clear, gender equality was not ingrained throughout the field. The continued establishment of the two separate organizations, when an integrated one had been created, clearly indicated an indomitable oppositionist posture. The impact of teachers willing to establish gender equality has become apparent. Teachers that believe in classroom equity are sometimes willing to creatively circumvent traditional lines of authority to ensure that gender-sensitive physical education is experienced by students. McCaughtry (2006) examined one teacher's relentless feat to implement the aforementioned curriculum by masking her agenda from administrators through creative anecdotes that would seem to support the dominant male-sports focus. For example, the teacher encouraged the department head, who was also the football coach, to allow her to become the head PE teacher in order to lighten his load. The primary goal was not to be of service to the coach, but rather to position herself in a role that garnered authority and the ability to enact change.


The research on gender issues in physical education has evolved over the decades. Unfortunately, still prevalent to this day, as it was sixty years ago, is low physical activity and despondent physical education class participation for girls. As the literature delves deep into the barriers which prohibit the participation of girls, it is imperative for practitioners to make a concentrated effort to attempt to implement a gender equitable curriculum. Conversely, if the attitudes of teachers project gender-equity as an insurmountable task, then the efforts, perceptions, and attitudes of girls will likely not be considered. The continuing cycle of gender inequality, which has been in place since the Declaration of Independence, will continue to go in circles until policies are acted out. However, if teachers transform their attitudes to believe that girls can learn tasks and present an equitable environment, then girls will play, too.


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About the Authors

Desmond Woodruff Delk, Ph.D - Langston University

Desmond W. Delk is an assistant professor of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Langston University. He is a member of OAHPERD and SHAPE-America. His research focus seeks to gain an understanding of the dynamics of physical education teachers of English Language learners.

Leonard D. Towns-Newby, MAT - Auburn University

Leonard D. Towns-Newby is a doctoral candidate at Auburn University in the Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, & Technology. Leonard is currently an instructor of psychology at Tuskegee University and a graduate assistant for the Tuskegee/Auburn Nano-Bio Math and Science Partnership. Leonard's research interests include educational theory, policy and program evaluation.

Henry H. McCladdie, M.Ed - Clark-Atlanta University

Henry joined the DeKalb Academy of Technology and Environment Charter School in administration, June 2015, as Dean of Students. As a member of the administration team, he is involved in all aspects of school leadership, with a focus on the school safety, discipline, and attendance. Currently, he is in third year of the Educational Leadership doctoral program at Clark-Atlanta University.

Marsha D. Herron, Ph.D - Langston University

Marsha Dempsey Herron is Chair of the Department of Elementary and Special Education at Langston University, where she oversees teacher preparation instruction. Her most recent publication appeared in the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders.


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