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Billie Jean King’s trouncing of Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes in 1973 signaled that women were ready to compete as equals, ready to succeed in all arenas.  It was in that spirit that Billie Jean founded the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) over 40 years ago to serve as the collective voice for women’s sports. She knew then what research has since confirmed: that the skills girls learn from sports would make them successful on the field, in the classroom and in the C-suites around the world.

The Women’s Sports Foundation is dedicated to providing safe and equitable opportunities so that all girls receive the significant health, education and leadership benefits associated with sports opportunities. WSF’s work shapes public attitude about women’s sports and athletes, builds capacity for organizations that get girls active, ensures equal opportunities for girls and women and supports physically and emotionally healthy lifestyles.  We operate through five guiding pillars: research, advocacy, grants and programs, collaborations and leadership.  Early on, we recognized the need for a structure that relied on solid data to fuel advocacy and grant programs and to establish broad-based, high-level relationships with stakeholders to maximize human and financial resources. Our strategically directed coalitions and partnerships enable us to serve as the conscience striving for equal opportunities for girls. Importantly, we’ve learned that periodic “disruption days” are healthy ways for our leadership to evaluate relevancy and meet future demands. While we have seen great strides in women and girls’ participation throughout our four decades, we recognize that there is still more work to be done.

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Billie Jean King’s trouncing of Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes in 1973 signaled that women were ready to compete as equals, ready to succeed in all arenas.  It was in that spirit that Billie Jean founded the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) over 40 years ago to serve as the collective voice for women’s sports. She knew then what research has since confirmed: that the skills girls learn from sports would make them successful on the field, in the classroom and in the C-suites around the world.

The Women’s Sports Foundation is dedicated to providing safe and equitable opportunities so that all girls receive the significant health, education and leadership benefits associated with sports opportunities. WSF’s work shapes public attitude about women’s sports and athletes, builds capacity for organizations that get girls active, ensures equal opportunities for girls and women and supports physically and emotionally healthy lifestyles.  We operate through five guiding pillars: research, advocacy, grants and programs, collaborations and leadership.  Early on, we recognized the need for a structure that relied on solid data to fuel advocacy and grant programs and to establish broad-based, high-level relationships with stakeholders to maximize human and financial resources. Our strategically directed coalitions and partnerships enable us to serve as the conscience striving for equal opportunities for girls. Importantly, we’ve learned that periodic “disruption days” are healthy ways for our leadership to evaluate relevancy and meet future demands. While we have seen great strides in women and girls’ participation throughout our four decades, we recognize that there is still more work to be done.

In the 1970’s, one in 27 girls played high school sports. Today that number has grown to two in five – and that’s progress. It has been aided by two generations of girls who have benefitted from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance.

Moving the Numbers: 2 in 5

Millions of girls have participated in sports through their school-aged years and some have gone onto the elite levels. They account for the outstanding players we saw this summer during the US Soccer team’s World Cup win; what we’re seeing all season from the professional women basketball players in the WNBA and Serena and Rhonda wowing us with their record-breaking feats on the tennis court.

It is a great achievement that we now see two in five girls participating in sports, but we can’t let it take another 40 years to get the other 60 percent of girls active. Today, the critical need is to focus on the almost 4 million girls, most of whom are African-American and Hispanic, who are left out of athletics. Our research confirms that these girls are doubly hit by both gender and race disparities. Girls in these demographics are less likely to play sports than boys and less likely to play sports than their Caucasian peers. They also enter sports at a later age and drop out earlier. As a society, knowing the significant health, education and leadership benefits derived from sports, we can’t afford to let these girls sit on the bench or worse, sit on the couch.

Research has confirmed that diverse groups of leaders produce better business decisions and are good role models.  In the 70’s women were the leaders of women’s sports. Ninety percent of the coaches of women’s sports were women.  Today less than 43 percent of coaches of women’s teams and only 2 percent of men’s teams’ coaches are women; women represent 20 percent of all coaches. Female coaches are paid less, are held to higher standards and get less support than their male counterparts and are being fired and not hired at disturbing rates. There is little doubt that gender bias is at play, but up until now, the reasons fall to anecdotal accounts. The WSF is currently conducting research to collect the data, expose the problems and create viable solutions–or coaching will become solely a man’s profession.

Back in the day, conversations around “safety” typically addressed regulatory or liability issues around facilities and equipment. Today “safety” has taken on different meanings. It’s personal.  Our advocacy efforts address sexual violence, bullying, sexual harassment and more. We develop sound policies around body image, sexual orientation, disabilities and harassment.  Lest we think Title IX has done its job, many schools are still not in compliance with this Federal law. While many girls have an opportunity to participate in sports, they often receive inferior treatment and benefits compared to their male peers.  For example, NCAA collegiate female athletes miss out on more than $200 million in athletic scholarship dollars than male athletes annually. The WSF is working to increase athletic department compliance with Title IX at all levels of education.

Sports matter.  It’s part of the fabric of our lives. The benefits are too great and the stakes are too high to have girls be anything less than full and equal participants. The issues facing girls and women in sports are but a microcosm of issues women face in other arenas of life. Contact the Women’s Sports Foundation for more information and ways to help provide girls the opportunities which will help them become our future leaders.

Deborah Slaner Larkin is serving her second tour as CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation. With more than thirty years’ experience in corporate, government and non-profit leadership, she has worked with the Aspen Institute’s Sport and Society – Project Play effort and  was Executive Director of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Foundation. From 1994 to 2002, she served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

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