New research from Adidas, who are proud sponsors of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023, has revealed the hidden inequalities young women and girls face within sports, with concerning insight into the systematic imbalances faced by female soccer players and how these inequalities start to impact girls from as early as school age.
As part of its commitment to equity in sports, Adidas has implemented key initiatives to support young women and girls in sports, addressing these systematic disparities.
The findings delved into the last 10 years of high school sports participation statistics from the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Association), aiming to evaluate the growth of female soccer participation compared to male participation.
The data revealed that in the academic year of 2011–2012, 370,975 girls competed in soccer across the US. Disappointingly, this figure only saw a marginal increase of 1% over the past 10 years, with 374,773 girls participating in the sport in the latest academic year (2021–2022).
In contrast, male soccer participation experienced a commendable 6% increase during the same period.
The data also highlighted the disparities between states, which could serve as one explanation for why there has been such a small increase in girls’ soccer participation across American schools.
After analysing the number of females competing in soccer in each school across 49 states and the District of Columbia, the data found that 24 states had fewer females participating in high school soccer in 2021–2022 than in 2011–2012.
Alaska saw the biggest decrease in girls’ soccer participation, with a 32.94% decrease, followed by Vermont (-24.49%) and North Carolina (-21.84%).
The decline in these states correlates with the decrease in the number of schools in each state that allow girls to compete in soccer. For example, in Alaska, there were 35 schools in 2011–2012 where girls competed in soccer, compared to only 30 schools in 2021–2022.
However, 26 states saw an increase in the past 10 years of girls participating in soccer within their schools.
Alabama saw the biggest increase at 68.43%, with 3,358 girls competing in soccer in 2011–2012 compared to 5,656 in the last academic year (2021–2022). The District of Columbia saw the second biggest increase in participation (48.33%), followed by Arkansas (28.93%) and Utah (24.21%).
What is interesting to see, when analysing the states that have seen an increase in girls competing in high school soccer, is that 30% of the players selected to represent The US Women’s National Soccer Team at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup are from California, including Alex Morgan. This state has seen an 8.47% increase in girls’ participation in the past 10 years, emphasising the importance of having strong female role models originating from there.
Furthermore, the team’s captain, Lindsey Horan, is originally from Colorado, which has seen a 6.93% increase in girls competing in their high school teams.
Gonzalo Calvo, director of culture and communities at Adidas football, commented: “At Adidas, we’re surprised to see such a small increase in girls’ soccer participation over the past 10 years.
“Although our data found that female high school sports participation has grown by 1000% in the last 50 years, over one million more males compete yearly in sports than females across US schools.
“We believe that school curriculums play a vital role in shaping the future of sports for young women and girls. A previous report by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that at the age of 14, girls are twice as likely to drop out of sports than boys, and, therefore, schools must do their part in preventing this to help give girls the opportunities to succeed.
“It is impressive to see that 26 of the states we analysed saw an increase in participation, but with almost half of the states also showing a decrease in female soccer participation, our new research has shown there are still improvements needed to be made to give high school girls an equal chance.
“Existing research into the hidden inequalities women and girls face can provide understanding as to why girls’ participation is only increasing slowly within schools and sheds light on factors that give girls a disadvantage as early as school age, including ACL injuries and the menstrual cycle.”
The impact of menstrual cycles on young women and girls in sport
The menstrual cycle continues to be a barrier many women and girls in sports face. This was the case for 37% of the 27,867 girls surveyed in the UK by the Youth Sport Trust, who explained that their periods were why they stopped participating in sports activities between 2018–2021.
In 2021, British boxer Shannon Courtenay was stripped of her WBA bantamweight world title when she failed to make weight in the lead-up to her fight against her American opponent, Jamie Mitchell. It was later unveiled that Shannon’s menstrual cycle was the cause of the weight issue, highlighting the impact menstruating has on women’s performance.
The inequality of ACL injuries among women and men in sports
The biological makeup of the female body is among some attributes that cause more ACL injuries among girls and women. Research by The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 2021 found that women in sports are two to eight times more likely to experience an ACL injury than men, with an estimated 38,000 women suffering from ACL injuries every year, in comparison to 17,000 males.
Gonzalo explains: “The reality is that women and girls still face many barriers within sports, and more specifically soccer, both at a professional and grassroots level.
“We envision a world where girls and women have equal opportunities, support and gain recognition, and that’s why we are proud to showcase the long-term partnerships we have implemented to support young women and girls in sports.
“In 2021, Adidas became an Impact Sponsor for the Common Goal movement, which aims to make soccer inclusive for everyone, focusing on gender inequality, racism and LGBTQ+ inclusion.
“In the same year, Adidas partnered with the Black Women’s Player Collective to help under-represented black women and girls have better access to soccer, specifically creating opportunities in under-resourced communities.
“One of the most recent initiatives has seen Adidas and the US Soccer Foundation launch the free Just Ball League, which has already launched in Los Angeles and New York City. The Just Ball League aims to provide fair access to soccer for children, as well as help, tackle issues such as transportation and cost, which can be factors that stop young people from being able to participate in sports.
“We believe that through sport, we have the power to change lives, and these partnerships further exemplify our commitment to removing barriers young women and girls face within sports.”