"There are still very few girls playing rugby".

According to INSEE, 87% of boys aged 13 and 14 take part in sports, compared with 78% of girls. One-third of girls take part in competitions, compared with half of boys. Julie Boiché, social psychology researcher at Euromov DHM1explains how the persistence of gender stereotypes in sport creates and fuels this difference.

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How do you define gender stereotyping?
Julie Boiché: In social psychology, stereotyping refers to the characteristics - whether physical, psychological or behavioral - that are socially attributed to the feminine and masculine genders.

Why did you become interested in gender stereotypes in sport?
J.B.: With Melissa Plaza, who wrote her thesis under my supervision, we started from the observation that girls and women are less physically active than boys and men. Although stereotypes are less prevalent in discourse and norms today, they still exist in practice.

You followed several cohorts of students from the 6th to the 12th grades in the course of a survey. What kind of questions did you ask them?
J.B.: We might ask them, for example, "How important do you think sport is for girls?" "How good are they at sports? Then we ask the boys exactly the same questions, and see if there's a difference in perception between girls and boys.

And so?
J.B.: We find that by the 6th grade, boys have, on average, already internalized a stereotype that is favorable to them, namely that they are better than girls and that playing sport is more important to them. Girls tend to be fairly neutral in their responses at the start of secondary school, but over the course of middle school they tend to internalize the idea that they are less athletic than boys, and that it's less important for them to practice.

You've delved into the gendered perception of different sporting disciplines. What does it reveal?
J.B.: Many disciplines are still perceived as masculine: combat sports, mechanical sports and contact team sports such as rugby. Some activities are considered more neutral, such as racket sports and athletics, while dance, yoga, gymnastics and horse-riding are still represented by women.

And is this reflected in the rates of female and male participation?
J.B.: We cross-referenced these responses with data provided by the federations, and yes, there is a very strong correlation between the gendered perception of sports and participation. To put it briefly, there are still very few girls who play rugby, and very few boys who play dance; and so the situation tends to reproduce itself, because it's not easy to be "the only girl" among the boys, or vice versa.

You also had elementary school children draw...
J.B.: Yes, with Claire Bréchet from the Epsylon laboratory, we asked them to draw a child playing sports. The boys all drew a boy spontaneously, while only two-thirds of the girls drew a girl. In the disciplines represented, we found the big dominants like soccer, among both boys and girls. We also noticed that girls were represented doing both "masculine", "neutral" and "feminine" sports, while boys were essentially confined to "masculine" sports. We can see that they too are excluded from certain practices, and that this issue has not been resolved; there can always be difficulties in accessing certain activities, and the young people's environment plays a big part in this.

J.B.: Among adults, 85% of responses are neutral, which is a good sign that an anti-sexist norm has taken root. However, when we offer them tasks that are less explicit than a questionnaire, links between the parents' stereotypes and those of their children appear, which we can interpret as a form of transmission.

You show that these stereotypes contribute to a higher drop-out rate among girls than boys. When does the drop-out occur?
J.B.: Right from the start, the vast majority of children who don't take part in sport at all (apart from PE) are girls. Then, in adolescence, more girls drop out, and the presence of gender stereotypes is one of the hypotheses put forward to explain this. Either because they have internalized these unfavorable beliefs, or because socially they are less encouraged to continue.

With lifelong consequences?
J.B.: Yes, the less you exercise at that age, the less likely you are to exercise as an adult, with all the attendant issues of sedentary lifestyles and the importance of sufficient physical exercise for good health.

Are public policies tackling this issue?
J.B.: Yes, but even proactive policies sometimes come up against stereotypes. For example, in some towns where sports facilities have been installed in public spaces to facilitate access to sport for all, they are quickly "fixed" by boys. Instead of combating the stereotype, this reinforces it, as boys take over a new sporting territory, reinforcing girls' belief that it's not for them.

So gender stereotypes still have a long way to go?
J.B.: We think we're living in a more open age, and to some extent that's true, but there are still a lot of shocking things going on. There's the whole question of media coverage and the promotion of women's sports. Certain groups of sportswomen have rebelled against the inappropriate outfits imposed on them by federations... There's still a long way to go!

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  1. Euromov (UM, IMT Mines Ales)