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Volume 23 No. 24
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Gender pay gap is one thing. What about the research gap?

To explain why her work matters, research scientist Georgie Bruinvels asks, “Do we want female athletes to be the best they can be?”

The answer is obvious. Of course we do. It’s the age of enlightenment for women’s sports, right? Fans chant for equal pay. Barclays and Budweiser sponsor women’s soccer. Crowds set records. So do TV ratings. Don’t all the major indicators point to women’s sports getting long overdue respect and investment? Not exactly. The reality looks very different from Bruinvels’ London-based lab.

“There’s been real positive headway in terms of exposure of female athletes into the media eye,” said Bruinvels, who works for the bio-analytics firm Orreco. “But that doesn’t mean that research is getting the same kind of benefit.”

Sports research on male athletes significantly outpaces research on female athletes. Bruinvels took a look at the disparity and found that “women made up 39% of the participants in published work in sports and exercise science.” If that gap doesn’t trouble you, then consider this: When studies do focus on women’s sports, they often look at the psychological and social benefits of participation. “Where we’re really lacking is in the bio-physical space,” said Donna Duffy, a kinesiology professor at UNC-Greensboro who exclusively studies female athletes. “We really need to better understand what affects performance.”

More research around female athletes — on the field and in the lab — can ultimately lead to more fans and coverage.
Photo: getty images
More research around female athletes — on the field and in the lab — can ultimately lead to more fans and coverage.
Photo: getty images
More research around female athletes — on the field and in the lab — can ultimately lead to more fans and coverage.
Photo: getty images

Given the state of research, Bruinvels’ question takes on greater significance. And it demands a more considered, thought-provoking answer, not an obvious one.

If we want female athletes to be the best they can be, then more time and money needs to be invested in performance-related research on female athletes. We should care about research equality for the same reasons we care about pay equality. Both relate directly to the health and well-being of athletes, to career longevity, to the quality of competition, to female athletes being valued and given the support they need to succeed. Think of the untapped potential. Imagine the performance breakthroughs we would see with more research.

What do teams, leagues and companies get with more research? That’s easy: Better athletes and a better product. Need more bottom line benefits? The basic business argument is this: If you’re going to invest big in a player, whether it’s with a multiyear contract or sponsorship deal, don’t you want her playing as much as possible for as long as possible at the highest level possible? Of course you do. Teams, leagues and companies want a competitive advantage and they want their money’s worth. Research can increase the odds of getting both.

But like almost everything else in women’s sports, more research comes down to finding more backers with cash. “There are people who have been working in this field for a couple of decades, but they’ve done small studies because of limited funding,” said Dr. Kate Ackerman, director of the female athlete program at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It’s still hard to get a lot of good funding for this. So, many of us are combining efforts internationally to do this kind of work.” 

Ackerman has partnered with Bruinvels and Duffy on different projects, as well as with scientists in Australia and New Zealand. They rely on money from foundations and government grants. Even then, it’s far from enough, especially since studying female athletes is more expensive and more time-consuming than studying male athletes. Hormone fluctuations related to the menstrual cycle need to be taken into account and require female participants to be tested throughout their cycle.

Best-case scenario: The challenges presented by female participants create a barrier to entry for researchers. Worst-case scenario: They become convenient excuses to focus on male athletes.

Where could scientists find more money to get past the barrier and narrow the research gap? Here’s one potential source: Companies that like to advertise their support of women’s sports and use female athletes as inspiration. You know who you are. And you should step up. Maybe funding research on female athletes isn’t as, well, sexy as sponsoring a team or a league and getting your company name plastered on uniforms or stadium signage. But the same inspirational ad copy works for sponsorships and research — sometimes it actually works better for research.

If companies want to support women’s sports every day, not just when big events like the World Cup draw international attention, then research is the way to go. Nothing affects women’s sports more on a daily basis than how players train and treat injuries. And researchers including Bruinvels, Duffy and Ackerman want to know more about what works best and why.

With an initial investment of $12,000 from Orreco, Bruinvels co-created the FitrWoman app to “get the ball rolling” on public-facing research for female athletes. If the app sounds familiar, that’s probably because the U.S. women’s national soccer team used it to track players’ periods during the World Cup and develop training and nutrition plans that took different menstrual cycle phases into account. Ackerman and Duffy, who directs the Female BRAIN Project at UNC-Greensboro, have been studying how female athletes respond differently to concussions on a neuroendocrine level.

What’s next for researchers? Since there’s so much uncharted territory with female athletes, almost anything goes. Bruinvels suggested researchers work to make it easier and less expensive to test hormone levels. Ideally, that would lead to more doctors and scientists diving in. And women’s sports is always ready and eager to welcome bigger crowds.

Shira Springer (saspring@bu.edu) covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University.

Questions about OPED submission guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com