For women's sports, the past few years have been marked by monumental highlights, from the U.S. National Women's Soccer Team's World Cup victory to U.S. women's gymnast Simone Biles' sixth national championship and overall domination.
More recently, the WNBA and the players reached a tentative agreement on a groundbreaking, eight-year collective bargaining agreement that would increase player cash compensation and benefits among other historical advancements for the players.
However, the barriers and issues surrounding women's sports still remain.
On Wednesday, the Women's Sports Foundation released its new national research report, "Chasing Equity: The Triumphs, Challenges and Opportunities in Sports for Girls and Women," and announced The Equity Project, an initiative designed to put knowledge from the report into immediate action. The comprehensive report examined the United States through a broad lens focusing on five core spheres of impact, including girls' sports: access and opportunity; Title IX: awareness, education and compliance; mental and physical health and safety issues; leadership, pay equity and workplace bias; and media coverage.
Over five years, a team of WSF researchers reviewed nearly 500 research studies and reports from scholars, sport governing bodies and public policy organizations. Additionally, WSF reviewed public reports filed by colleges and universities, including selected lawsuits, and media reports primarily spanning the time period from 2014 to '19.
On top of the comprehensive research, WSF undertook a nationally representative survey of nearly 2,500 U.S. female sports leaders from across girls' and women's sports (youth, high school, college, elite/Olympic and professional) to gather insight on progress, where things have stalled and what steps can be taken to empower girls and women within sports organizations.
One of the most positive takeaways from the report was that there is improved access to sports opportunities for girls and women. Across the country, girls are participating in a wide array of sports programs provided by schools, communities, churches and beyond. On top of traditional youth sports programs such as Amateur Athletic Union basketball or American Youth Soccer Organization soccer programs, girls are participating in programs that combine sports with positive youth development lessons, such as Girls on the Run.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, girls' high school participation also reached an all-time high in 2017-18 for the 29th consecutive year with 3,415,306 opportunities for girls to compete, dropping slightly in 2018-19 to 3,402,733. Overall, girls have 42.9 percent of all high school sports opportunities. At a higher level, at the 2016 Olympics, American women represented a historical and unprecedented number with 292 women in participation.
However, the report found the gender gap in participation still persists. Most glaringly, at the college level in 2017-18, women had 62,236 fewer participation opportunities than men in NCAA sports. In the three NCAA divisions, 87 percent of schools offered a disproportionately higher number of athletic opportunities to male athletes compared with their enrollment. And at the professional level, the opportunities were still scarce, forcing many women to play overseas (such as the case in women's basketball and volleyball).
While more girls and women are accessing the benefits of sports participation, "girls of color, girls of lower socioeconomic status, and girls in urban and rural areas often enter sports later, participate in lower numbers, and drop out earlier than white girls, suburban girls and girls from higher socioeconomic status," according to the report. As a result of the lack of resources within marginalized communities, urban and rural girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys.
When it comes to participation, 70 percent of female sports leaders who participated in the report's survey attribute the lack of women's sports media coverage to the still-struggling participation numbers for all girls in sports.
For those working in sports, 60 percent of female sports leaders report they have experienced sex discrimination in the workplace. Sixty percent of female sports leaders admitted to being paid less for doing the same job as a man.
"Pulling together all of this data really provides extraordinary color and commentary on what's happening across the landscape of sports for girls and women," Karen Issokson-Silver, WSF's vice president of research and education, said of the report. "It's incredibly illuminating to have in one place, all of the data that really highlights the progress, the achievements, the milestones, but also calls out the tremendous need of improvement. The report is illuminating, but really it paints the picture in a way that helps us grasp the full scope of what needs to be accomplished in order for us to achieve equity."
Part of the goal of The Equity Project is to bring together leaders in every sector -- from grassroots, to education, not-for-profit, philanthropy, business, healthcare, law and media -- to utilize their expertise while also accelerating the pace of change. Over the next few months, the project will unfold with continued meetings, communication and advocacy efforts to "identify measurable goals and outcomes within the five core spheres of impact stemming from the Chase Equity report," according to WSF.
One of the biggest issues The Equity Project will try to tackle, in response to the report, is Title IX. While a lot of success in women's sports has been a direct result of Title IX, there is still room for improvement. According to the report, 83 percent of college coaches said they have never received formal Title IX training, while 31 percent of female coaches believed they risked losing their job if they spoke up about Title IX and gender equity. These factors have a direct effect on the proper implementation of the legislation at every level.
"To see the 83 percent number, it just really hits home the fact that how much more education and awareness needs to be done proactively to make sure that everyone understands the law, understands the rights of the law to really fulfill the promises of the legislation," Sarah Axelson, WSF senior director, advocacy, said. "If we don't have informed coaches and administrators who implement the law, then we are never going to fulfill the promise of creating opportunities for all."
Founded by Billie Jean King in 1974 with the goal of enabling girls and women to reach their potential in sport and life, the WSF will continue to build on the organization's rich history of protecting Title IX and promoting gender equity for girls and women in sports through findings of the Chasing Equity report and the birth of The Equity Project.
"Our foundation is built on taking courageous action to change society for the better," WSF CEO Deborah Antoine said, in response to the release of the report and announcement of The Equity Project. "We are resolute in achieving our vision that one day girls and women will no longer be chasing equity, they will be living it fully."