In 2019, Governor Gretchen Whitmer created the Task Force on Women in Sports in the leadup to the 50th anniversary of Title IX with the goal of creating “opportunities in Michigan for girls and women in sports” and increasing the presence of women in leadership positions in the larger economy.
The task force’s final report to Whitmer, published on June 22, 2022, drew a conclusion that many women in sports are all too familiar with: Title IX alone isn’t enough to create genuine equity in sports.
But the task force also did something more. In addition to releasing multiple research reports throughout its three-year existence, it also detailed three ways to close the gender gap in sports, and set the state of Michigan up to lead an increase in sports equity:
- Recommendation 1: “Modernize and expand upon Federal Title IX requirements to increase protections, compliance, and accountability.
- Recommendation 2: “Invest in pathways for Michigan girls and women to play, work, and lead in sports in Michigan.
- Recommendation 3: “Encourage Michiganders to support and invest in future opportunities and access for girls and women at all levels of sports.”
Its advice to expand federal Title IX requirements is intended to increase funding for and support of women’s sports from the government level. The task force hopes this will facilitate improvements in opportunities and facilities for women’s athletics.
While federal Title IX requirements mandate proportional opportunities for men and women in college athletics, the reality is that less than 10% of NCAA Division I schools provide opportunities to female athletes at a rate proportional to their enrollment.
“Only 9% of NCAA Division I institutions (30 of 348) offered athletic opportunities to female athletes proportional to their enrollment,” the task force noted in one report. “In Michigan, participation rates for female student-athletes average 13% of the female student enrollment … compared to a participation rate for male student-athletes that averages 20% male student enrollment.”
At Michigan, despite making up nearly 51% of the student body, women make up only 46.1% of student-athletes. And while it’s difficult to analyze funding disparities due to football generating and receiving the majority of funds, the recruiting budget of women’s teams makes up just 12% of all recruiting expenses.
Across all 27 of the Wolverines’ athletic programs in the 2020-21 academic year, the report showed that the average salary of an assistant coach for a men’s team is 3.5 times the average salary of an assistant coach for a women’s team.
But the task force doesn’t believe that simply matching women’s athletics funding and opportunities at the government level will cause sufficient change. The second recommendation is to create pathways for women in Michigan to lead and work in sports too.
Every Wolverines’ men’s varsity sport has a male coach at the helm. On the women’s side, track and field and cross country, rowing, swimming and diving, volleyball and water polo are all coached by men. Across Michigan’s 27 teams, there are significantly more male coaches than female coaches at the assistant level.
This isn’t a disparity specific only to the Wolverines. One study conducted as part of the task force’s research found that across collegiate athletics in the state of Michigan, women coached just 41% of women’s teams and a meager 4% of men’s teams.
The task force also reported that underqualified men were more likely to be hired for coaching positions while qualified women still faced significant hurdles to earn jobs.
The committee believes that supporting female leaders in sports is crucial to achieving equity. It also recommends that Michiganders give their support to women’s sports at all levels.
This final recommendation, while the most abstract, has the potential to provide the spark that leads to grander changes in college athletics.
Attendance at men’s and women’s sporting events at Michigan isn’t even remotely close to equal. Despite having a significantly stronger win percentage than the Michigan men’s basketball team in the 2021-22 season, the Wolverines’ women’s basketball team rarely received even a quarter of the fan turnout that the men’s team received. In a historic season that saw Michigan advance to its first-ever Elite Eight, its support from students and fans lagged behind significantly.
As the task force noted, efforts to achieve gender equity in sports are more successful when they start from the ground up in youth sports. By the time they get to college, female student-athletes have already faced significant disparities throughout their athletic careers. But a large part of that stems from a lack of female role models that young girls in sports have.
The state of Michigan doesn’t have a lack of strong female athletes, and neither does the University. Rather, it suggests there’s a lack of support — whether intentional or not — from the student body, fans and athletics departments.
Looking back 50 years, a lot of progress has been made toward gender equity in college sports. But as the task force found — and as almost any female athlete can tell you — a lot more work needs to be done to truly level the playing field.