Physical Education

Physical education (PE) in the UK remains one of the few subject areas in which gender distinctions are officially maintained through a gender-differentiated curriculum from secondary school onwards. At this point, boys and girls are offered different sets of activities in their PE lessons and these distinctions are also reflected in the extracurricular activities on offer to boys and girls at many schools.

Physical education  therefore offers an interesting prism through which to look at the relationship between gender and schooling. Justifications for these gender differences in activities are rooted in arguments around boys’ and girls’ physical capabilities as well as the perceived appeal of various activities to boys and girls. Three different approaches to gender in physical education are outlined below.

First, proponents of such distinctions may argue that boys and girls have different physical capabilities, thus drawing on biological explanations centred on physical development, puberty and physical abilities.

A second status quo justification suggests that boys and girls simply have different activity interests and should therefore be catered for in different ways. This approach usually involves providing activities for girls that are argued to be more appealing to girls. Accordingly, access to ‘girl friendly’ activities such as dance, netball and cheerleading are provided as after-school and curricular activities.

A third approach suggests that physical education can and should act as a site in which gender norms are resisted and critiqued. This would give both boys and girls the opportunity to take part in non gender-traditional activities as well as to question other dominant discourses around, for example, size, physical ability and appearance.

Questions about the provision and form of physical activities on offer to boys and girls are important since they relate to the overall take-up of both PE and after-school physical activities by young people. These patterns tend to continue into adulthood. Concerns around physical activity discrepancies for both boys and girls have most recently been voiced within a dominant obesity discourse in which young people are accused of being increasingly unfit and overweight. Girls in particular may be susceptible within such discourses where they are already positioned amidst conflicting messages around body size and physical appearance.

As they reach adolescence, boys’ and girls’ activity levels begin to differ with more boys continuing to take part in sport and other physical activities as well as more boys continuing to enjoy and to choose PE as a subject. Teachers and researchers widely note that many girls begin to feel disaffected with PE at secondary school, particularly towards the middle and end of their secondary schooling.

Although girls themselves are often blamed for this disaffection, the structure and content of PE lessons has also been seen as central to understanding many girls’ lack of enjoyment. Girls themselves have pointed to issues such as revealing or impractical PE kits, embarrassment in the changing rooms and showers, discomfort in cold weather and the perceived judgmental male (and sometimes female) gaze as girls take part in activities they may not feel confident in.

More recently it has also been argued that achievements in physical education and sport may be taken up as part of a high achieving, well-rounded active girlhood that is particularly associated with young middle class women.

Useful Links

UK Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation

Girls Play Sport Too

UK Fit for Girls

UK Healthy Schools Campaign

UK Sports Framework – Women

Further Reading

Aitchison, C.  (ed) (2007)  Sport and Gender Identities: Masculinities, femininities and sexualities. London and New York, Routledge.

Branham, P. (2003) Boys, masculinity and PE. Sport, Education and Society, 8, 57-71.

Clark, S. (2009) A good education: girls’ extracurricular pursuits and school choice. Gender and Education, 21, 5, 601-615.

Cockburn, C. and Clarke, G. (2002) “Everybody’s looking at you!”: girls negotiating the “femininity deficit” the incur in physical education. Women’s Studies International Forum, 25, 6, 651-665.

Evans, J., Davies, B., and Wright, J. (Eds) (2004) Bodily Knowledge and Control: Studies in the sociology of physical education and health. London and New York, Routledge.

Evans, J., Rich, E., Davies, B. and Allwood, R. (2008) Education, Disordered Eating and Obesity Discourse: Fat fabrications. Abingdon, Routledge.

Hargreaves, J. (1994) Sporting Females: Critical issues in the history and sociology of women’s sports. London, Routledge.

Hills, L. (2006)  Playing the field(s): an exploration of change, conformityand conflict in girls’ understandings of gendered physicality in physical education, Gender and Education, 18, 5, 539-556.

Oliver & Lalik (2000) Bodily Knowledge: Learning about equity and justice with adolescent girls. New York, Peter Lang.

Penney, D. (2002) Gender and Physical Education: contemporary issues and future directions. London, Routledge.

Scraton, S. (1992) Shaping Up to Womanhood: gender and girls’ physical education. Buckingham, Open University Press.

Wellard, I. (2007) Rethinking Gender and Youth Sport.London and New York , Routledge.


Page Author: Sheryl Clark

Updated: 15th January 2013


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