When one 17 year old girl compares notes with one 17 year old boy who has the same activity level as her, then the male is a little stronger than the female.
But that does not translate into the potential. Girls are penalised at the start, but that doesn’t stop them from reaching any level of strength, fitness and ability they desire.* And I really mean any level.
The muscularity and the results of Ronda Rousey (WWE), Annie Thorisdottir (Crossfit) Simone Biles (gymnastics) and Serena Williams (tennis) exceed those of most men. And there are events, like ultra-running, where women regularly beat men who’ve trained equally hard. It’s a shame this even needs stating!
This has knock-on effects on young girls. As a coach I am disappointed to witness young females failing to fulfil their full potential because they’re held back by low expectations and a lack of encouragement.
Science and culture
Since the onset of puberty, girls and boys start developing greater physical differences. Some are caused by a different mix of testosterone and oestrogen. Teenage girls’ lower testosterone levels mean smaller muscles, but more importantly lower fibre density. Even if the size was the same, a female’s skeletal muscles would have less ability to contract and produce force.**
Most sports require a mix of skills, and this is where girls’ potential is unlocked. They often excel at flexibility. Throw in coordination, muscular endurance, stamina and tactical understanding and boys’ total physical advantage becomes marginal. When male winners deliver better results than female winners in many disciplines, this reflects childhood encouragement, club recruitment and funding – all benefiting boys – more often than inherent physical advantage.
My favourite athlete example is Annie Thorisdottir, a CrossFitter from Iceland. She gave birth less than a year before the finals of the CrossFit games 2021. Everyone thought she wouldn’t be able to compete. As a true Viking she went and conquered third place. Her most notable performances: a 200lbs snatch, 1:16:15 for 1mile open water swim + 3 miles kayak, and freestanding handstand push ups.
Examples like Thorisdottir and science itself show that women can train to exceed male performance in whatever discipline they want, and will only be beaten by men who put in the same effort. This goes against lazy expectations that an average bloke will beat a female athlete. A UK survey from 2019 shows 12% of British men think they could take a point off Serena Williams on a tennis court. Not British club tennis players, just the average dudes you see on the bus or tube.*** That’s a level of male self-delusion which affects how they – as fathers, brothers or coaches – talk to young female athletes.
There are plenty of illustrations which show how girls’ potential is restrained by culture, not physical limitations.
The other gaps
In 2017, 90% of women in the English Super League earned less than £18,000 a year, as opposed to an average of £50,000 a week for men. Many tennis tournaments have offered equal prize money since 1973, but the general gap is still terrible and reflects inferior funding for girls’ sports throughout.
The sad outcome is the huge dropout rate of teenage girls from physical activity. In the UK, a high percentage of girls stop playing sports during their teenage years, and it’s mainly because they don’t see any valuable future in it.**** Fewer athletes lead to lower competition, which in turn produces lower performance, which won’t help sponsoring. The self-fulfilling nature of this negativity is far more significant than the difference in testosterone levels and muscle mass outlined above.
Body image in society
Notions of aesthetics count too. Both girls and boys are prone to express prejudice about strong female bodies. I can’t stress enough the sad conflict that this creates within sportswomen (especially when very young). An exemplary study conducted in 2014 shows that women who play strength sports, traditionally men’s domain, tend to develop an inner conflict. On one hand they feel accomplished and empowered within their sports environment, where people acknowledge their success. On the other hand they try to hide their amazing muscular body when outside that safe context, for fear of breaking norms. Unhealthy norms, I will add, of fragile powerless girls!*****
Now and then I come across negative views of strong and muscular women. My personal opinion is that there is an element of jealousy and fear of the sheer independence and strength of those female athletes. Maybe that’s understandable? When more neo-moms like Thorisdottir lift 200 pounds above their heads then male couch potatoes will feel threatened for sure!
*Lloyd, S. R, Oliver, L. J. (2014) Strength and Conditioning for young athletes: science and applications. London: Routledge.
**Haizlip, K. M., Harrison, B. C., Leinwand L. A. (2014) ‘Sex-based differences in skeletal muscle kinetics and fiber-type composition’. American physiological society, 30, 30-39.
***Mail Online – Hussain, D. (2019) ‘One in Eight British men think they can win a point in a match with Serena!’ [Online] Available from: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7242625/One-eight-British-men-think-win-point-tennis-match-against-Serena.html [03/01/2022]
****Sport England (2020). ‘Women in Sports’ [online] available from: https://www.womeninsport.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Reframing-Sport-for-Teenage-Girls-small.pdf [30/12/2021]
*****Kosteli, M. C., Van Raalte, J. L., Brewer, B. W., Cornelius, A. E. (2014) ‘Relationship between sport type and body image of female athletes.’ Trends in Sport Science, 2(21), 65-72.
Glenmark, B., Nilsson, M., Gao, H., Gustafsson, J. A., Dahlman-Wright, K., Westerblad, H. (2004) ‘Difference in skeletal muscle function in males vs female.’ American Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, 287, 1125-1131.
Liljedahl, M.E, Holm, I., Sylven, C., Jansson, E. (1996) ‘Different responses of skeletal muscle following sprint training in men and women.’ European Journal of Applied Physiology, 74, 375–383, 1996