Gender and Physical Education

By: Molly M.

In high school, many of us were given the chance to start making choices in regard to what classes we would be taking and when. For me, and probably many of you, phys. ed. class was one of these choices. I had the choice to sign up for an all girls class or a coed class. For me, this was a no brainer- all girls. Why? All my friends were doing it and everyone talked about how much fun it would be. That’s all I needed to hear. I wasn’t concerned about what exactly we would be doing in the class or how it would be different than the coed class. A lot of other girls took the class with the understanding it would be ‘easier’ than the class with the boys.

In retrospect, I question why the option even existed. We didn’t have a choice to take gender segregated biology or math class, so why phys. ed? I think there are a number of ways to look at this. On one hand, it could be argued that giving young girls, who are already self-conscious and unsure of themselves, a safer environment to experiment and learn skills for sports might give them the confidence to continue with sport throughout their lives. Another way of looking at this might be that this segregation only gives the girls negative perceptions of their own abilities. They may believe that they cannot play the same types of sports that their male counterparts can, or as well.

Research actually shows a number of significant differences between all boys and all girls classes. According the study ‘Physical Activity in High School Physical Education: Impact of Lesson Context & Class Gender Composition,’ classes made up of only male students showed much higher levels of vigorous physical activity than in the classes of only females. The boys spent about 21.9% of the class in a state of vigorous physical activity while the girls only spent 12.9% of their time in this state. Boys also spent much of their class time actually engaging in game play compared to girls. Some of the explanations for these gaps include the nature of the activities and the teachers. It has been suggested that in order to combat this, teachers need more professional development in order to understand the different interests that male and female students might have.

It seems that although there may be some legitimate reasons young girls may benefit from gender specific classes, there are also some serious drawbacks. What do you think about this? Should we continue on with separate classes or push for coed classes? What is best for everyone?

Smith, N.J., Lounsbery, M.A., & McKenzie, T.L. (2014). Physical Activity in High School Physical Education: Impact of Lesson Context & Class Gender Composition. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 11(1), 127-135.


8 responses

  1. Great post Molly!
    I personally think that if we are ever to get some form of equality in the world, female athletes need to be able to prove what we can do. The idea of having co-ed classes can push for this in the girls who take a keen interest in the sport, and aren’t just there because there friends are, or because they have to take part in class.

    The article Women in Sport mentions how women are now becoming more involved in sports such as bodybuilding and ice hockey in particular. Another discussion in class rose the point of how women are judged as the “weaker” sex. How can this be justified if they are not given the opportunities to participate in the sports like men do. The main discussion was about ice hockey and how women are not allowed to body check. However, there is no league to be able to give the women the opportunity to do this, but yet women are still perceived as “weaker”. Although these sports are not available in all schools, it is still about setting the correct principles for people to follow.

    Throughout my high school years, from the ages of 11-14 all of my classes were with girls of my age. In the English education system we have to choose a selection of classes otherwise known as GCSE’s – these are the courses we want to specify in and take exams on. When I chose to take P.E (physical education) as one of my classes, I was put into a co-ed class. We played all of the sports together and had the theory side of the class together too. I think this helped benefit me as a person and a player. Taking part in sport with males helped develop a better technique and a complete different mind-set of how I was going to approach a game. The thought of being challenged more excited me, I wanted to win, I wanted to be better than the boys.

    Recently the UNB Varsity Women’s Soccer Team joined up with the men’s team to play in a co-ed league. At first I thought this is going to be a shambles; sure enough after the first game we played and several bad challenges I was having second thoughts about it. There is no denying that physically men are bigger and stronger than women. After a few games I started to enjoy playing in the co-ed league, the physical demand that my body was asking of me can only help me be a better player.

    Although these are just my thoughts on the whole situation of bringing co-ed together, I think that in terms of developing better female athletes it would be a huge benefit.


  2. Nice post Molly,

    I find it extremely interesting that there was an option for you to choose between a girls only and a coed class. I came from a large high school where we had options to choose Physical Education as an elective. Our options included the following: Physical Education (co-ed), Hockey Physical Education, Basketball Physical Education, and an Outdoor Pursuits course. Despite these courses offered, there was no girls only class.

    I took the Hockey Physical Education and the Physical Education (co-ed) during high school. I noticed that most girls seemed to be extremely uncomfortable around the boys. These were fairly intense courses, and the physical expectations were heavy. It seemed that whenever the girls had to do something where sweating would occur, only a handful really pushed themselves. After reading Cassie’s post on “You Throw Like a Girl:’’ and discussing gender stereotypes in class, it would make sense to assume that some girls don’t want to feel judged when placed in this gym environment (with boys present).

    I understand why you took the girls only class, as it could have been easier but also made you feel more comfortable. I think that if there was an option to choose a yoga class, many boys wouldn’t do it as much as if there was the option to do a boys only class. Perhaps people would feel uncomfortable with girls, since yoga can be seen as a female dominated activity.

    I think that separating classes can be a good thing because it gives the option for all genders. It’s nice to have a variety but I feel that if there is a girls only and a co-ed class, a boys only class should be offered as well to keep everything gender neutral. More options could be better in my opinion!


  3. Interesting post, Molly! I’m often surprised when schools have gender segregated phys. ed. classes, since my school didn’t offer any, nor was it something I ever wanted to have during my public school years. I went to the same high school as Aiden, and I definitely agree; the girls did not try as hard as the boys did. I think there are many reasons why. For the most part, girls didn’t want to get sweaty, and smell bad for the rest of the day since they couldn’t shower easily like the boys could (girls are supposed to be pretty and smells like flowers, don’t you know). Boys also didn’t usually care if they smelled bad! They also didn’t take P.E seriously, since most didn’t play sports or engage in physical activity with the school, or on their own time. Another big reason is definitely an obvious one, where girls tend to feel self-conscious about their abilities, especially in front of their peers (and the rampant hormones certainly didn’t help either).

    I chose to take the phys. ed class, outdoor pursuits and health & wellness leadership, and I found it to have an interesting distribution of gender in each class. The phys. ed. classes were pretty well split equally, as they were required, but the outdoor pursuits class only had myself and three other girls. The leadership class was mainly girls. It’s so stereotypical that the class where outdoor skills and activities are taught, it’s dominated by males since they encompass the masculine image, and the class where leadership, community involvement, and wellness are taught, then it’s females that are more involved since girls are more likely to be seen as caring individuals, like we talked about in class.

    So to answer your question, I have to say I’m a little torn. I see the benefit to both sides. I don’t think that girls in general will all of a sudden have no body image or self-esteem issues, and will be confident in their physical abilities in a sporting context in the near future, so having a girls only class would definitely help those girls come into their own and hopefully continue on with a sport they found a liking to. On the other hand, I almost find it insulting that girls would be put in another class than boys. Girls can do everything a boy can do, and offer a unique perspective to sports and a phys. ed. class that they wouldn’t get otherwise. Although I’m torn, I’m leaning more towards the latter, as I’m a firm believer that girls (and people in general) should be put in situations that challenge them to make them better, be it in life, or in sport.


  4. Interesting post Molly,

    Your post reminds me very much of school. Where I went to school, there was no gender separation options for PE however, we did have four different “pool” alternatives to select from with a number of sports in each to participate in throughout the year. The variety of activities was great and you ended up doing some sports which were stereotypically masculine and feminine, even if you were a boy or girl. However, in some instances, despite the encouragement and or effort to mingle the sexes, some pools often consisted of solely girls and others boys, and these individuals might not have gained the benefits of being in co-ed sports.

    In my opinion, the option to even have separate over co-ed, looks to promote or acts as a gateway for girls to be self-conscious (regardless if they were already self-conscious). The separate PE class, encourages girls to feel intimidated and accept that they have a negative ability in sport. On the other hand, I do agree that separation can help those already feeling self-conscious or not, to continue an active participation in sport. In England, Netball is one sport that boys are not allowed to play as it is solely for girls and I am unsure why. Netball is a good example of a segregated sport in general and one which is taught in schools.

    Moreover, in relation to sport I have experienced the pressures of being in a co-ed situation. When I trained at the National Volleyball Academy there were only a small number of girls who committed to this program (not enough to make a full team). Therefore, it was proposed that to enable us to be a part of this program that we practice with the men’s England National team on a daily basis.

    From the first to the last day, I was very intimidated to practice with the boys. There were many occasions where I felt embarrassed of my performance as a girl because I was not always able to compete at the same level as the boys and it gave me a negative perception of my own ability. However, I always had to remember I was competing with boys who are physically faster and stronger. Despite the way I felt sometimes along this journey, I learnt a great deal and being exposed to this practice there was an incremental development in my athletic performance.

    I did compete with the boys at times but understandably, I may not have improved their athletic ability. However, I would like to believe I brought about other qualities to training which the boys would not have experienced if we were not a mixed team. For example, training with us developed more respect for female athletes (we committed the same amount of time on and off the court and understanding that we worked hard at each session ). Again, there were many occasions when the boys/girls did not see eye to eye, and made me feel uncomfortable. For example, I found the boys attitude far more aggressive compared to the girls. There were times I felt really bad that I couldn’t get a ball up thus, the guys would shout at me as if I didn’t try. I believe that when in co-ed situations girls need to believe in themselves and know they did their best, and boys to compromise, knowing that girls might not be up their playing ability.

    • …as a natural survival response the deference increased such that hitherto extraordinary social, political, economic, and physical acts of aggressions became acceptable to, or at least did not elicit warranted scrutiny from, those who leadership claimed to reps;rent.&#8221eI think there is a lot of truth to that, Colin.

  5. Great Post Molly,

    Through high school I never had a choice which phys ed class I could be in, so it’s very interesting when I hear that some schools provide students with this option. However, even if the option was there, I don’t think I would ever choose to be in an all girls class. My high school, I would agree that most of the girls in my class wouldn’t ever really put effort in what we were doing in phys ed. For the most part, the girls would either not want to participate because they felt like they would embarrass themselves, or they wouldn’t want to get sweaty. Although there were showers in our high school girls wouldn’t want to shower because they would never have enough time to get themselves looking as good as they did before phys ed class, so instead they didn’t bother trying in class at all. Many of the girls didn’t want to take part in anything because they believed they didn’t have the skill or ability to play a certain sport, and they also didn’t want to learn or try anything new because as I mentioned earlier they didn’t want to embarrass themselves in front of their friends or a certain boy that may be in that class.

    In my opinion, I think by separating the classes it gives girls a better chance to participate in sports because it gives them more time to catch on and learn how to do certain things, whereas being in a class with boys they tend to catch on quicker than girls do. This gives girls a better chance to get to know more about the sport, and may even get them interested to participate outside of a high school classroom. Lastly, I would agree with Aiden if there is going to be an all girls class, or a co-ed class, there should also be an all guys class offered to keep everything gender neutral.


  6. Great post Molly!

    I found this very interesting because I didn’t think this existed in schools. I went to a fairly large high school, and only girl classes or only boy classes were not an option. We could have either chosen Phy’s Ed, Outdoor Pursuits, or Hockey. All these options were coed and in fact, there was only 10 girls in the hockey class so the school implemented a basketball program so more girls would join. I think that the school adding another sport program class is great because its nice to see everyone involved but also seeing girls participating with the guys.

    I wasn’t much of a hockey player so I decided to take the regular phy’s ed class. There were equal numbers of both boys and girls in my class. When we started playing sports, i noticed that some of the girls formed their own group with their friends instead of joining a guys group. Back in high school guys would play aggressively and show off because there were girls in the class (still happens in university). I’m sure many people would argue that there are positives and negatives to gender segregated classes.

    I personally am in the middle and not really sure if its a good idea or not to have only girl classes or only boy classes. The positives would be that having an only girls class would make them more comfortable, boost confidence, and able to learn new skills, as you mentioned. some of the negatives would be that after high school and going to university, you will rarely see an all girls class being available. I think girls should join coed phy’s ed classes because if we want to see girls break some of the stereotypes the society perceives of them, they’ll need to prove them wrong. Not only would it break the stereotypes. but it will allow for more girls to join the class and pursue sports, and more likely to stay in the activities.

    Zoran V.

  7. Nice post Molly,

    This was an interesting read for me personally, because I was raised in the English Education system, unlike most of the class. In my primary and high school we had the choice of what classes to take, but none of them were all boy or all girl class; it was all coed. You made a very good point in that you didn’t get to have split biology or math classes, so why should we have that in PE. I believe that with the push for male and female equality the only option that makes sense is to have coed classes. I also think that it benefits both boys and girls because we bring different aspects and viewpoints toward sport and leisure.

    You raised an interesting point in that maybe all girl classes would help girls who are self-conscious. However I believe that this could and would make their situation even worse. By participating in an all girl class you are separating yourself from the men and putting an even bigger gap between you. I would imagine that if the girls saw the men play they would feel intimidated, looking from an outsider perspective. As Laura mentioned earlier, her experience playing with the boys helped her to develop her game, technique, and mind-set of the game to the point where she wanted to be better than the boys in her class. I can understand why some people believe that all girl and all guy classes could be beneficial, but being brought up in an environment where both boys and girls prospered from coed, I don’t see no reason why it wouldn’t work in high schools around the world.

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