It is widely accepted that the physical activity (PA) levels of school-aged girls decreases rapidly in early adolescence for a host of reasons. Many girls are significantly less active than their male counterparts, particularly in school-based physical education (PE). Girls are not the problem. Curricular access, choice, selection, programming, and other pedagogical approaches within PE lead to less active participation by girls.
Many girls report their dislike for traditional sport and competition in PE, rating dance and fitness activities which can increase physical activity levels – higher in desirability. In a 2011 study, 47% of girls preferred fitness to sport units because fitness activities do not require a team, so participation can occur virtually anytime, may require less coordination than sport, and are non-competitive. Girls generally want a more ‘girl friendly’, single-gender fitness option over a mixed-gender class. Participation levels of girls improve because of an increased feeling of comfort and confidence, as well as being allowed to participate with friends.
Our student–teacher connection leads girls to feel heard, valued, and supported. Studies suggest that girls can actively engage with and co-create positive and meaningful activity experiences that lead to increased participation and enjoyment. PE environments are created and supported by teachers, the ‘crucial’ adults in the room. While it is of no surprise that the student–teacher relationship is critical to engagement, the fact that peer relationships are mediated by the student–teacher relationship seems important to note. In mixed gender classes, PE teachers must intentionally confront gender barriers as well as peer-to-peer and teacher-to-student relationships. Single-gender classes allow girls to have more positive perceptions of and experiences in PE.
Mixed gender PA and PE classes have been places rife with dominance, harassment, and intimidation of girls, leading girls to disengage and/or prefer different circumstances. Research has found that some girls prefer single sex to mixed-gender classes and girls who participate in single-gender teams increase perceived competence and decrease perceived competitiveness.
In interviews and multiple journal entries, girls are clear about preferring single-gender classes.
Ashley: “EXTREMELY HAPPY! [sic] because I dread regular PE it’s awkward embaresing [sic] and coed’. Girls feel embarrassed to be around and/or made fun of by boys. The boys could be mean and hurtful, or too aggressive, too competitive, and/or not inclusive. And, sometimes they ‘just [act] dumb”.
A few girls were empathic toward their female peers, including Bailey, who discussed what she would change about PE:
I knew a lot of girls in my PE class last year would not be good at a sport and be insanely embarrassed and then some boys would make fun of them. I would not want that to happen…I’d maybe sometimes separate the boys and the girls cause the girls would be just so self-conscious.
Girls talked specifically about feeling ‘lesser than’ boys in certain activities, and limiting or adjusting their efforts:
…the guys like the physical sports…and the girls…they took a step back and they just let the boys do it and so that wasn’t as much fun because not everyone was involved and there should have been something else for the girls to do that wasn’t dodgeball (Grace).
Annie’s comment came with an added twist specific to the impact on grades:
I think guys are more competition [sic] and girls are more like ‘I’m going to do my own thing’. I think a lot of girls are embarrassed to do [PE] in front of the guys. And for those that are embarrassed to do things in front of guys, like part of your grade is doing like what the teacher expects you to do, so it’s hard for girls that are embarrassed…to do what the teacher asks. Like I’ve seen it before and like you get a bad grade in PE. I mean PE is like the easiest class…and also guys like weren’t in [single sex] option, so I think girls’ personalities came out more.
Harassment, intimidation, dominant play, and the masculinisation of PA, PE, and sport causes girls to disengage. We must challenge the ‘dominant idea of “real” physical activity as structured, competitive and highly vigorous’. This is a natural outcome of single sex classes.
This week’s article is an excerpt of the journal article:
‘It doesn’t seem like PE and I love it’: Adolescent girls’ views of a health club physical education approach
First Published May 2, 2017 Research Article,
Dr John Fry
Deputy Principal - Studies