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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The hashtag went viral again on Sunday evening after the airing of a Super Bowl commercial showing how girls are often derided and ridiculed for trying to play sports.

The spot for Procter and Gamble‘s Always feminine products addressed the lack of confidence that often follows when girls enter puberty. It showed how the familiar phrase "like a girl" becomes a powerful insult, in the athletic context, at that age.

The commercial has been available on YouTube since last June. But it gained profile after its Super Bowl broadcast this week.

"It was phenomenal," said Megan Bartlett, chief program officer at Up2Us, a sports-service program based in New York. "It was a huge step forward for understanding the things that people do. Maybe they don’t mean to minimize the role of women in sports, but they do."

Bartlett, whose work focuses on a training program for coaches — Coach Across America — says girls in under-resourced communities are the least likely to participate in sports. "Girls in urban areas in third and fifth grades only participate in sports at 11 percent, which is really, really low," said Bartlett, adding that lowers the girls’ horizons in education, career and social life.

Bartlett’s comment is backed up by plenty of research:

  • , published in , finds that a sports background can help accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential, and has a positive influence on hiring decisions. The research, based on a global online survey of 400 female executives, found that 94 percent of the respondents have participated in sport during some period in their life.
  • Playing sports also helps girls and women develop a positive body image and enjoy a stronger sense of psychological well-being, according to a document from the .
  • Several studies since the 1950s have linked physical activity and school performance. One of the first was carried out in France. Researchers there reduced academic curriculum time by 26 percent and replaced it with physical activities, according to a document of the World Health Organization. Academic performance was not hurt and participants displayed fewer discipline problems, greater attentiveness and less absenteeism.
  • Minority female athletes get better grades than their nonathletic peers; in particular, black female athletes are 15 percent more likely to graduate from college, according to data gathered by the . Hispanic female athletes are also more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

One of the keys to encourage girls to participate and stay in sports, Bartlett says, is to increase the number of female coaches. "Seventy-two percent of girls drop out of sports because either it was not fun anymore, or they didn’t like their coach or they didn’t like their teammates . . . By putting more female coaches into low-income communities we think we can attract more girls and make sure they stay longer."

Since 1972, U.S. colleges and universities have been expected to offer women and men equal opportunity to play sports thanks to Title IX, the federal educational gender-equity law.

In 2010, the number of college women participating in competitive athletics was nearly five times the pre-Title IX rate. By 2008-09, a record 82,503 women competed, representing 43 percent of college athletes nationwide.

Before Title IX the primary physical activities for girls and young women were cheerleading and square-dancing. Only 1-in-27 girls played high school sports and college scholarships for female athletes were virtually non-existent.

The availability of athletic scholarships dramatically increases a young woman’s ability to pursue a college education and to choose from a wider range of colleges and universities. Yet, women still do not receive their fair share of athletic scholarship dollars, according a document from the National Women’s Law Center.

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