Walk into most high school gym classes, and chances are you won't see very many girls. Students and experts alike tell the same story. High school gym is often set up for boys.
In Alberta, of 28,888 students enrolled in gym past Grade 10 during 2016-17 school year, only 9,244 were girls according to the Alberta Teachers Association.
Feeling bullied and excluded: Calgary girls tell their stories
A Grade 12 student at Robert Thirsk High School, Catherine Dobler, has a story that echoes many others. After mandatory Grade 10 gym, she quit because she says she felt uncomfortable in the required gym strip, excluded from activities and picked on frequently by the boys in her class.
“I was relieved that I wouldn’t need to be teased by other kids due to my inexperience with sports or my level of fitness,” says 17-year-old Dobler.
“I eventually gave up trying,” says Dobler.
Student Bianca Sevilla can relate. The Notre Dame High School student quit gym in Grade 11 shortly into the term due to academic needs.
“The bothersome part of it is coed. I'm not really a fan of that because I don't really like working with boys,” she says.
“Boys don't view the girls as super sporty and into sports so it’s like if you don't do well they will probably judge you and never include you.”
The trend of giving up high school physical education classes presents other concerns, such as missing out on academic scholarships (such as the Athletic Financial Award) and a healthy lifestyle.
While Sevilla isn’t worried that she won’t be eligible for scholarships because she wants to go to Alberta College of Art and Design once she graduates, Dobler feels differently.
“It does upset me that gym is a requirement for these scholarships,” says Dobler, adding that she hopes she will be able to apply for other scholarships that don’t require gym.
Despite the downsides of quitting gym, both say there were some upsides.
“I feel that my mental health improved from not being forced to be in a stressful environment everyday,” says Dobler.
She still participates in physical activities such as rugby.
“I joined my high school rugby team because it was a girls-only team and this meant that I wouldn’t be nearly as judged,” says Dobler.
Gender socialization at the heart of the problem
There are few reasons as to why girls are fleeing gym class after Grade 10. Physical education and gender studies experts agree, the reasons relate back to gender.
Mount Royal University gender studies professor Maki Motapanyane says gender roles have been at play for thousands of years.
“Because of their reproductive capacity, women were historically relegated to the domestic/private sphere, where they birthed, breast-fed and raised children; the public sphere of sport competition was designated for men,” says Motapanyane.
Fast forward to 2018. While things are better, (meaning women are coming out of their traditional private roles), the underlying issues of entrenched gender roles persist, says Motapanyane.
“A culture of athletic competitiveness is encouraged as part of boys' social education into masculinity; this is not so much a part of girls' socialization into femininity,” she says.
“They have already gone through a number of years of boys getting more encouragement, support and mentorship in athletics … so the girls can become self-conscious when they are playing with boys — they can wonder whether they are good enough, and often are told by both adults and their male peers that they are not,” says Motapanyane.
MRU health and physical education professor Shannon Kell says one of the big problems occurs when people conflate physical education with sports alone.
When the focus is on sports, things like personal growth, co-operation, community involvement and teamwork can slide out of view. Skill in sport is only a fraction of what students should be learning, says Kell.
“Girls who are not driven by sport lose interest quickly and come to believe that PE isn't for them, when in reality PE is for everyone.”
“Because PE continues to be delivered using a 'sport model' and evaluates skill in the team tryout sense, many students feel left out and unmotivated to continue,” says Kell.
Girls’ stories backed by research
A 2009 Alberta research study published in the Journal of Health and Physical Educationsubstantiated girls’ concerns including the feeling that teachers punish students based on gender bias in PE.
David Chorney and Cameron Weitz wrote: “Many girls are discouraged by harassing comments and critical remarks from classmates about their performance.”
“Male classmates, who often feel secure in the physical education environment, make many of these derogatory comments.”
Another Canadian study, Closing the gap: addressing the attitudes and experiences of young women in physical education classes, showed segregated gym classes to be more beneficial for each gender due to the increase of individual confidence. Boys and girls have different ideas about what physical education should be about; many boys prefer competition while girls value having a fun time.
The Alberta Teachers association posted their enrollment rate for the 2016-17 school year and only 9,244 of 28,888 students were girls enrolled in physical education past Grade 10.
Moving forward: Keeping girls engaged
A substitute physical education teacher for the Catholic school board, Jen Goeressays, says she was one of the girls who did not take physical education past the mandatory level. This was due to terrible junior high experiences in gym class.
“It was in those challenging classes where I realized I never wanted young girls to feel the way I did and knew I wanted to become a PE educator,” says Goeres.
She recently facilitated a program called HIGH FIVE, an accreditation program for recreation and sport for kids aged six to 12.
The goal of this national program, which in Alberta is based in Edmonton, is to build self-esteem, social skills and confidence.
The program’s purpose is to lead children on the path of healthy development through different types of principles such as participation, play, mastery and support from a caring adult.
“I was lucky to share my experiences when I facilitated HIGH FIVE for generalists and PE teachers at the Calgary Teachers Convention and South East Teachers Convention,” says Goeres.
Motapanyane says that investing more money into all sports teams regardless of gender and celebrating accomplishments are vital to helping girls enjoy physical education.
“Don't run campaigns to encourage girls' increased participation in sports using gendered stereotypes,” says Motapanyane.
“Treat girls like athletes, not like ‘girl’ players.”
- By Alexandra Nicholson