Despite the advancements delivered by Title IX legislation over the last 50 years, girls still participate in sports less than boys, and the disparity widens with the pressures of adulthood. Why does it matter? Because kids who compete do better in school, at work and throughout life. So WBFO's Marian Hetherly took a look at leveling the playing field in a series she's calling "Girl Power."
It was 1992. Stacey Schroeder was an All Star in high school basketball and volleyball, but this day she was "tremendously proud" waiting for her name to be announced over the PA to the entire school.
"So I dressed up for school that day. I was so excited. You know, I just couldn't wait for that announcement to go out. I was just literally at the edge of my seat waiting," Schroeder remembered.
She had just returned from the state track and field championships a record-setting two-event winner - but her excitement would quickly fizzle.
"Instead of 'Stacey won shot put and discus, two state titles that had never been done before in our school's history or anything else,' it started with the finish of our football team in, I think, fifth place. And then it went to the upcoming basketball season. Everyone was excited about the tryouts that day," she said. "And as the announcements rolled on, I wondered if I would even be mentioned. I didn't even know if I would be celebrated at all."
"And it hurt. It really stung to listen to the announcements go on about all the guys' teams," she said.
Then came a long pause in the announcements and everyone assumed they were over.
"You know, there was the roar of the bookbags being put away and all of a sudden, I could hear over the announcements, 'Oh, before I forget to mention, Stacey Schroeder won the shot put and discus in the state's this past weekend. Okay, have a good day everybody.' And I remembered looking around the room," she said. "Someone must have heard that. I tried to see if someone would meet my gaze and I could feel a sense of pride or connection, but not a single one looked back."
"And I realized at that point, it's not as important that everyone celebrate with you, it's important to have that pride inside and to celebrate others. It doesn't matter if it's woman. It doesn't matter if it's man. It matters," she said. "I made it a point from that moment on to make sure I started speaking up."
Stacey Schroeder went on to become one of Western New York's most successful athletes, including a two-time NCAA All American in discus and a member of several Sports Halls of Fame. Today, Dr. Stacey Schroeder-Watt is an anesthesiologist for Kaleida Health, but still coaches and speaks to area schools about opportunities in athletics.
"I sort of made it my mission to become more of a voice, because it's important when we celebrate everybody," she said.
Female athletes have been historically celebrated less than male athletes. Consider that only about 3% of U.S. sports media coverage is devoted to women's sports, and that drives interest and support - or lack of it - across the country. To this day, girls start sports later, participate less and exit earlier than boys.
"We've been looking at the gender gap for decades now and we continue to do so," said Karen Issokson-Silver, vice president of Research and Education at the Women's Sports Foundation. "The fact is, gender discrepancies still persist and we see it at every level."
Issokson-Silver said the gap is compounded by race and ethnicity, socioeconomic income and geography.
"African American youth and youth from low-income households in particular, they are the least likely to be current players and the most likely to have never played sports," she said. "A lot of that is driven by issues around cost, transportation and safety. Although in urban communities, we see that lack of access to programming is also a compounding factor."
Issokson-Silver said girls of color in urban areas also drop out of sports by age 14 at twice the rate of rural girls and four times the rate of suburban girls. Add LGBTQ, immigrant families or girls with disabilities to the equation and participation numbers fall even more.
"We know that having access to female role model is really a key piece of what motivates young people to play. We always say if you can see it, you can be it," she said. And it's not that there are a lack of role models. I think it's really a function of a lack of media coverage, really giving women their view."
Dr. Robert Zayas, Executive Director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, said his organization's findings also indicate a historical gender gap in youth sports.
"When you look at our participation survey data, we have about 53% of boys participating amongst the almost 600,000 participants," he said, "and then out of those 600,000 participants, we have around 47% of girls who participate in high school sports."
Compare that to a decade ago, when the gap was 55% boys, 44% girls. There were about the same number of sports, but more than 17,000 teams for boys and only 14,000 for girls. And the gap gets wider as you go back in time.
Zayas agreed with Issokson-Silver that cost is a huge driver of participation today.
"When you look at registration fees of youth sports or AAU or club sports at the youth level, some sports are obviously much more expensive, and nowadays we also have to be aware of the travel cost involved," Zayas said. "It's not uncommon for an eight or nine or 10 year old kid to be jumping on a few flights each season and flying to North Carolina or Nashville, Tennessee, or even Dallas, Texas or down to Florida for a tournament or competition. And that's drastically changing the way that kids and their families get involved in youth sports."
He said greater specialization is also driving participation, for both genders.
"Both boys and girls are unfortunately only playing one sport today, or focusing on one sport today, compared to just a decade ago," Zayas said. "Kids are making the choice at the age of five and six or seven years old that they're only going to focus on soccer or only focus on basketball, whereas years ago, they would play a fall sport, they'd play a winter sport and a spring sport."
So a combination of factors is driving what sports kids participate in, how many sports they participate in, and how long they participate.
It also drives what schools can offer. NY districts spend only about 2% of their budgets on interscholastic sports, according to Zayas. According to Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act, that money is supposed to provide equal opportunities to girls and boys, but that is not always the case.
"Gender stereotypes are still really prominent," said Issokson-Silver. "The latest research shows that a third of parents endorse the belief that boys are better at sports than girls. And that's really pretty alarming, right, in 2020. We know that that has an impact on decision making."
"You'd love to say that we've evolved to the point where everyone is on equal terms. We're not there yet," said Schroeder-Watt. "We're better, but we still have room to grow and really realize that everyone's an athlete. It doesn't matter if you're male or female."
So what's being done to level the playing field? WBFO takes a closer look at that Monday morning in the next segment of our series "Girl Power."