Why Top Female Athletes Stay in Male-Dominated Sports to an Elite Level

Table of contents


This study is focused on why top female athletes stay in male-dominated sports to an elite level and involves female athletes from different countries. Semi-structured interviews will be carried out on 15 participants. The study is characteristically interpretive and qualitative, and involves a four-year timeframe.

1. Background

Sport is an institution that continues to create, reinforce, and maintain male hegemony. However, some of its aspects may also be seen as a product of collective effort. Gender diversity in sports are often placed in subtle, multi-level and ignored structures and behaviours embodied in sport organisations. Hence, there is a need for continued work on the matter (Fink 2008). The participation of female athletes in male-dominated sports will be explained by male hegemonic concepts as well as cultural and structural concepts.

1.1 What prompted the interest in the topic

What prompted the interest in the topic was the researcher’s own exposure in female sports where she was able to associate with elite female athletes of various ages from different countries, including those under Islamic rule and the Muslim region, such as Iran, Morocco, and Turkey. She has had worked closely with female competitors in over 50 members of the International Federation of Muaythai Amateur (IFMA), and hence considers the topic a realisable one. Since the researcher is into sports herself and associates with the likely respondents of the study, she finds the topic both interesting and challenging.

1.2 Relevance to Previous Research

The relevance of the topic to previous research is that it serves as a supporting material to what has already been claimed of the participation of female athletes in male-dominated sports. Previous research has indicated the prevailing role of cultural and structural systems that produce and reproduce these sports as an exclusive realm of male athletes (e.g. Anderson 2008; Carty 2005). The present study confirms these notions, and likewise looks into patterns of possibilities whereby female athletes can be generally accepted and recognised within these once male-stereotyped sports.

1.3 Contributions to the Research and the Field

The study’s contribution to research is identified in its investigation of culture, and somehow, of gender issues, in the participation of female athletes in male-dominated sports. Its contribution to the field is its introduction of certain theoretical concepts that can explain why female athletes continue to delve into male-dominated sports and an analytical explanation of their intent to stay or move out of the system.

1.4 Research Aims and Objectives

This study aims to ascertain why top female athletes stay in male-dominated sports to an elite level; the hurdles they face and how they overcome these hurdles. It also aims to draw out the similarities in challenges faced by these elite athletes and to see if such challenges are similar across cultures and religions. The study purports to use this understanding to help support women to stay in a specific sport once they are already participating.

The objectives of the research are as follows:

To review the existing literature on the subject of Sports Sociology in relation to women’s sports participation;
To conduct interviews and surveys to elite female athletes from various countries;
To find out gaps in knowledge within the field; and
To provide recommendations for future research.
2. Literature Review

This part of the research proposal identifies a range of works and studies related to the topic being investigated. It aims to establish the theoretical framework for the study and provide evidence to the topic.

2.1 Trends in the Literature Relating to the Research Topic

In their work, Krane, Choi, and Baird et al. (2004) stated that female athletes live in two cultures: One that is characteristically masculine; and the other – the larger social culture – which celebrates femininity. The study was linked to feminist cultural studies and aimed to determine how female athletes negotiate femininity-based social expectations with athleticism. It involved 21 female athletes who served as participants in focus group discussions. Three themes comprised the data analysis, specifically the ‘influence of physicality, femininity, and athlete as other.’ The data revealed that being athletic is in contrast to being feminine and that the participants themselves felt being marginalised as athletes and expressed that others perceive them as being ‘different’ from typical women. Despite these, they were proud of their physical strength and developed bodies and regarded themselves as being empowered, which can be generalised beyond the context of sports (Krane et al. 2004).

The use of focus group discussions in the study aimed at encouraging self-disclosure amongst female athletes with similar experiences and reducing the anxiety that might be felt in individual interviews. The authors also pinpointed the fact that focus groups are especially effective in feminist research (Krane, et al. 2004).

According to Carty (2005), sport has been a social aspect that has traditionally prevented women from participating. Recent policy developments and broadening public support enabled girls and women to participate dramatically in sports that had been typically limited only to men. Female athletes had come out from those sports that had been stereotypically designated only to them, such as tennis and gymnastics, and can now play male-dominated sports such as hockey, football, rugby, and so on. Of equal significance is the revealing of masculinity constriction and the concept of gender differences. Hence, Carty explored social changes accompanying the broadening popularity of women in sports and some opposing messages in advertisements initiated by these changes. The qualitative method is used in the study to explore all the issues covered by the aims and objectives, which were tackled through semi-structured interviews. It may be inferred that Carty’s assertion on the constraints placed against women in regard to participating in male-stereotyped sports is similar to the notion of Krane et al. (2004), specifically the marginalisation of female athletes and their being perceived as different from normal women. There is therefore congruence between the two authors in reference to their view of the situation of female athletes in male-dominated sports.

On the other hand, Pringle (2005) emphasised that issues linked to female sport and exercise can be examined via Foucauldian theories. However, the Gramscian theory, which is used to examine the concept of masculine hegemony, remains dominant. The article made a comparison and contrast of the theoretical tools branching from Foucault and Gramsci’s writings in relation to investigating sport and masculinities. It was indicated that masculine hegemony does not simply point to a prevailing concept of masculinity but also to specific understandings of power that may be problematic to some. The discussion is useful to the study as it focused on the concept of masculine hegemony that can address the prevailing male dominance in sports, as well as male sports in general, which had once been (and continuous to be) considered an exclusive field for male athletes. It is important to note that Pringle’s assertion provides the groundwork for the situation of female athletes, as explored by the concept of masculine hegemony that explains women’s marginalisation, pinpointed earlier by Carty (2005) and Krane et al. (2004).

Pringle’s concept of masculine hegemony was similarly described by Whisenant, Pedersen, and Obenour (2002) who cited the end of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) as the cause for sport administrators to deal with reestablishing their place as athletic directors. The study aimed at assessing the success ratio of these directors, focusing primarily on gender. The initial results validated the expected findings that masculine hegemony is a well-established concept within inter-collegiate athletics. This is note-worthy in the topic’s exploration of the hurdles faced by female athletes in male-dominated sports.

On the other hand, Vincent, Imwold, and Masemann et al. (2002) made an investigation of female athletes’ receipt of equitable coverage in “women’s games.” The study made a comparison of six selected newspapers from Canada, Great Britain, and the United States and how they dealt with male and female athletes during the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. The qualitative method and content analysis were used for the comparison of all articles and photographs of athletes on all newspapers involved. Albeit there were differences found, the results generally demonstrated an equitable amount of coverage for both male and female athletes participating in the games. The study confirmed the idea that female athletes receive increased newspaper coverage when they participate in major competitions.

However, analysing critically Vincent et al.’s work against those of Pringle (2005), Krane et al. (2004), and Carty (2005), one may posit that the former tackled a rather neutral presentation of female athletes vis-a-vis male athletes, as demonstrated by the equitable newspaper coverage on them. Vincent et al. looked into the ‘outward configuration’ of the male-female dichotomous existence in sports, as against the internal focus made by Pringle (2005), Krane et al. (2004), and Carty (2005).

2.1.1 The Role of Culture in Sports

In their study, Elling and Knoppers (2005) used a social-critical perspective to analyse symbolic sport inclusion/exclusion in relation to gender and ethnicity amongst adolescents. The findings suggested that dominant normative gendered images still influence young people’s preferences in sport participation. Sport can function as an integrating agent as well as a differentiating and discriminating tool amongst the youth. With regard to gender, sport participation is less predictable because of such circumstances as ethnicity interactions. Albeit ethnic minority females had the least participation in sport, a relatively higher value is placed on traditional masculine sports such as karate and soccer. Additionally, the potential circumstance of being labeled as ‘sissy’ serves as a powerful mechanism to exclude oneself from participating in conventional sports for girls. However, stereotypical images are continually challenged as well (Elling and Knoppers 2005).

Viewing the earlier notions of gender-based explanations of the uneven perception between male and female athletes (e.g. Pringle 2005; Krane et al. 2004, and Carty 2005), Elling and Knoppers apparently provided a deeper explanation of the reason for such disparity.

On the other hand, Pelak (2005) emphasised on how South African female football players negotiate ideological constrictions in participating in the stereotypically masculine sport. The author highlighted the micro-level experiences of situating athletes within social structures at macro level, such as apartheid. The study used a multi-method approach, including interviews, survey, observations, and documentary data. Various feminist sport frameworks and theoretical insights of Black feminists contributed to the analysis. The findings revealed an ongoing creative resistance amongst female soccer athletes against exclusionary practices in the sport.

Pelak evidently upheld the findings of Elling and Knoppers (2005) with regard to symbolic sport inclusion/exclusion, as exemplified by social structures that serve as constraints to female participation in male-dominated sports.

Meanwhile, the study of Anderson (2008) explored the cultural and structural elements that contribute to the breeding of anti-feminine perspectives amongst men in team sports. The authors initially led the readers to the view that men’s separation into a homosocial environment puts a limit to their social contact with women and promotes a hostile masculinity that induces the proliferation of orthodox views about women. However, the study also suggested that when these same men participate in a gender-incorporating cheerleading sport competition, they tend to reinvent their perspectives toward women. The author used a range of theoretical concepts and linked them to grounded observations and interviews, upon which a theoretical model was established. He specifically used a socio-feminist theory of masculinity that holds gender as being formulated by an intricate interaction of “organisational culture, institutional power, and individual agency.” The study involved a sample of 68 male cheerleaders who identified themselves as heterosexual and who used to play football. The findings suggested that the socially negative outcomes affixed to male sport athletes might potentially reduce through gender-incorporating sports (Anderson 2008). This study is relevant to the topic under study as it explains the male athlete’s propensities when participating in male and female stereotypical games, thereby contributing to its query on why women stay in male-dominated sports.

2.2 Limitations and/or Gaps in the Literature

The existing literature on the topic is observed to include works that are not very recent, which hence suggests a need for updated findings. There are not many academic studies delving into the issue of culture as a prevailing factor for certain sports to be perceived as typically male; and most of which are discussed using gender-based criteria.

Theoretical Framework

Below is the theoretical framework of the study based on the literature:

Figure 1: Theoretical Framework

3. Research Methodology

3.1 Research Paradigm

The interpretive and positivist paradigms are utilised in this research. The interpretive paradigm states that social actors generate meanings about their interaction in the world. Social reality is hence interpreted as an attempt to interpret the world, thereby connoting a subscription to realist ontology (Scott and Morrison 2005). The use of interpretive paradigm is justified in this study as it attempts to gather interview data that are grounded on ascertaining perceived realities surrounding female athletes, as well as the meanings they append to these realities. The positivist approach, on the other hand, relies on the methods of the natural science (Lee 1991) and is seen in the study’s use of survey to assist certain inferences suggested by interview data.

3.2 Research Design and Method

This study is characteristically mixed methods (combination of qualitative and quantitative methods) in its research design. Qualitative methods hold that findings about human interaction (e.g. female athletes) can be understood better and more systematically when studied from the inside out rather than the opposite (Monsen and Horn 2008). Quantitative methods, on the other hand, maintain that phenomena can be explained by collecting numerical data (for this study is the survey) that are analysed through statistical methods (Mujis 2011).

3.3 Participants

The research participants for both interviews and the survey are 13-35 year-old female athletes from different countries with whom the researcher has frequent association, including those under Islamic rule and Muslim religion, such as Iran, Morocco, and Turkey. The sample size for the interview is 15, which is considered sufficient to generate findings. For the survey, the sample size is 35.

3.4 Data Collection

Primary and secondary data shall be collected. Primary data shall be generated from semi-structured interviews and the survey whilst secondary data shall support the primary data and shall be obtained from books and academic journals. An interview schedule and a survey questionnaire will be constructed.

3.5 Data Analysis and Discussion

Once the information has been established, data analysis will take place using the thematic analysis, which intends to find patterns/themes/meanings from a range of data sets (Hamdan 2009). The discussion will be towards addressing the research questions and will be backed by the literature.

3.6 Weaknesses and Limitation

The study finds no weakness in its methodology. One limitation that can be identified is in terms of using interviews for data gathering, which is perceived to lack generalisability because of a relatively small sample (Ford 2012). This is addressed by using a larger sample (15 participants) (e.g. Waltz, Krumperman, and Zigmont 2011) and triangulation through the survey.

3.7 Ethical Considerations

First amongst the ethical considerations that the study takes note of is the anonymity of the target participants, as well as the confidentiality of data to be collected. It is the researcher’s responsibility to ensure that participants provide informed consent prior to their participation and that they have the right to withdraw their participation at any point, without incurring any liability. The data collection shall take place vis-a-vis having informed the participants of the general purpose of the study and why their participation is being sought. Moreover, the data will be stored in a database using passwords that only the researcher knows, whilst the survey questionnaires will be put to safekeeping and disposed of upon the total completion of the research in order not to be accessed by anyone. The proposal shall require approval from an ethics committee.

3.8 Significance of the Research

This study is significant in a number of ways, one of which is its contribution to the existing literature on female participation in what has been generally considered as male-dominated sport. Another is its confirmation of the prevailing role of culture and gendered images in such perception, as well as the continuing struggle of female athletes to situate themselves in the realm of sports, thereby adding to the existing knowledge on the subject.

3.9 Timeline

The research timeline starts on February 3, 2014 and ends on February 16, 2018. The first part of the survey will be done in May 2014. The various aspects of the research are shown in the Gantt chart below:

Figure 2: Gantt chart showing the research timeline


Anderson, E. (2008) ‘I Used to Think Women Were Weak’: Orthodox Masculinity, Gender Segregation, and Sport. Sociological Forum, 23 (2), 257-280.

Carty, V. (2005) Textual Portrayals of Female Athletes: Liberation or Nuanced Forms of PatriarchyFrontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 26 (2), 132-172.

Elling, A. and Knoppers, A. (2005) Sport, Gender and Ethnicity: Practices of Symbolic Inclusion/Exclusion. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34 (3), 257-268.

Fink, J. S. (2008) Gender and Sex Diversity in Sport Organizations: Concluding Comments. Sex Roles, 58 (1-2), 146-147.

Ford, N. (2012) The Essential Guide to Using the Web Research. First Edition. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Hamdan, A. (2009) Muslim Women Speak: A Tapestry of Lives and Dreams. Toronto: Women’s Press.

Krane, V., Choi, P. Y. L., Baird, S. M., Aimar, C. M., and Kauer, K. J. (2004) Living the Paradox: Female Athletes Negotiate Femininity and Muscularity. Sex Roles, 50 (5/6), 315-329.

Lee, A. S. (1991) Integrating Positivist and Interpretive Approaches to Organizational Research. Organization Science, 2 (4), 342-365.

Monsen, E. R. and Horn, L. V. (2008) Research: Successful Approaches. Third Edition. US: American Dietetic Association.

Mujis, D. (2011) Doing Quantitative Research in Education with SPSS. Second Edition. London: SAGE Publications.

Pelak, C. F. (2005) Negotiating Gender/Race/Class Constraints in the New South Africa: A Case Study of Women’s Soccer. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 40(1), 53-70.

Pringle, R. (2005) Masculinities, Sport, and Power: A Critical Comparison of Gramscian and Foucauldian Inspired Theoretical Tools. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 29 (3), 256-278.

Scott, D. and Morrison, M. (2005) Key Ideas in Educational Research. NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Vincent, J., Imwold, C., Masemann, V., and Johnson, J. T. (2002) A Comparison of Selected ‘Serious’ and “Popular’ British, Canadian, and United States Newspaper Coverage of Female and Male Athletes Competing in the Centennial Olympic Games: Did Female Athletes receive Equitable Coverage in the “Games of the Women”International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 37 (3-4), 319-335.

Waltz, B. J., Krumperman, K. M., and Zigmont, J. (2011) Foundations of EMS Systems. Mason, OH: Delmar Cengage Learning.

Whisenant, W. A., Pedersen, P. M., and Obenour, B. L. (2002) Success and Gender: Determining the Rate of Advancement for Intercollegiate Athletic Directors. Sex Roles, 47 (9-10), 485-491.

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