Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

Perceptions of Female Athletes Based on
Observer Characteristics

Amanda R. Hoiness, Bart L. Weathington, and Abigail L. Cotrell
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga







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Over the past several decades the role of females in modern society has expanded and changed dramatically. However, stereotypes do still exist -- especially in areas such as sport. Accordingly, the perceptions of female athletes and the influences that gender, type of sport (masculine vs. feminine), and rater athletic identity (athlete vs. non-athlete) play on these perceptions were evaluated. Results suggest that female athletes competing in sports viewed as masculine were rated as less likeable than those competing in feminine sports. Athletic identity, however, did play a role with athletes providing overall higher ratings of female athlete likeability than non-athletes. Male participants rated female athletes competing in masculine sports as less respectable than those competing in feminine sports, while females rated female athletes participating in masculine sports as more respectable. Participant athletic identity, ratings of female athlete athleticism, and perceived attractiveness demonstrated no significant relationship with perceptions of gender role orientation. Implications and directions for future research are discussed.


       In terms of participation and equality, women have made tremendous strides in the past few decades. Today it is commonplace to see females participating in all levels of the workforce, the political arena, and athletics. However, while it is generally accepted in many cultures that women can partake in facets of life that were once considered male oriented, there are still many stigmas that surround females that chose to do so. This is especially obvious in the area of sports.

       Gender roles are social mores that influence the perceptions and behavior of individuals on a daily basis. They tell people how they are supposed to act, look, and even what one’s interests should be. These roles are culturally dependent and are reinforced from birth (Ozkan & Lajunen, 2005; Williams & Best, 1990). For example, traditional American culture stresses that men are supposed to support the household financially and are not supposed to convey emotions. Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be emotional and fulfill the role of caretaker and mother. In modern society these traditional roles have become blurred but as recently as 1990 two in three people in a United States-based survey supported these roles as the “ideal family situation” (Gallup, 1990).

       Societal and economic considerations have increasingly moved women into areas that were historically dominated by men and vice versa. It has become more acceptable for men to be second to women in the workforce, or even to be responsible for child care and act as a stay at home dad. Due to these changes traditional gender roles have become more androgynous over the years; however, they are still very prevalent in many aspects of today’s society. Accordingly, athletes are often exposed to and evaluated based on traditional gender roles. Although it has become more acceptable for females to participate in masculine sports or males to participate in feminine sports there is still potentially a negative connotation attached to those athletes who participate in “opposite sex” sports.

Role Conflict in Athletics

       When people violate the stereotypes and mores associated with preconceived roles, they are considered to be atypical or “other than normal”. Student-athletes by definition must deal with the role conflict inherent in acting as both students and athletes. In addition, female athletes must balance gender roles. Lance (2004) found that because of this added conflict, female athletes show a higher amount of role conflict than male athletes. Conflict was also found to be more prevalent for female athletes participating in traditionally masculine sports such as baseball, football, soccer, hockey, and basketball.

       Female athletes have a tendency to use more emotion-focused coping strategies which can create more stress (Anshel, Porter, & Quek, 1998). For example, women as a group tend to internalize their anxieties and continually replay or analyze a bad call or error more than their male counterparts. As more and more women and girls across the country are competing in sports and athletic events, the prevalence of those competing in traditionally masculine sports is increasing. Sports such as football, wrestling, and ice hockey are no longer the exclusive province of male athletes.

       Participation in sports that require what are considered typically “male characteristics,” such as speed and strength can present an “image problem” for many female athletes (Knight & Giuliano, 2003). While some research suggests enhanced self perceptions of female athletes participating in cross-gender sports (Schmalz & Davison, 2006) the perceptions of others may not be as positive. Female athletes are often seen as being more like the typical male in terms of characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors (Die & Raye, 1989). Female athletes may also discard typical feminine behaviors after they adopt the masculine behaviors that accompany their sport (Die & Raye). While these changes in themselves do not necessarily represent a negative outcome the negative reaction of others can result in adverse consequences in terms of the treatment of female athletes.

       Krane, Choi, Baird, Aimar, and Kauer (2004) suggested that the paradoxical relationship between masculine and feminine behaviors is also prevalent in everyday life. When in social settings, female athletes often strive to conform to the ideal female image which is often defined by society and culture as being “small, thin, and model-like” (Krane et al., p. 326). Female athletes may have a hard time conforming to this feminine ideal due to the amount of strength, muscle, and “masculine” features that they possess. Conversely, in an athletic setting, female athletes express little desire to conform to the feminine ideal and are often proud of their muscles, strength, and “masculine” features. Female athletes reported that they are constantly reminded by their friends that they are different from the norm, even when performing stereotypically female actions such as shopping for clothing or dining. Female athletes reported having trouble finding clothing that fits their muscular bodies and often eat a larger amount than their non-athlete female friends (Krane et al., 2004).

       Questions are often raised regarding female athletes’ femininity, sexual orientation, and appropriateness as role models. Because of “gender role violations”, female athletes often suffer a great deal of role conflict in other aspects of their lives, including at school, work, and social gatherings which may lead to the experience of high levels of stress (Knight & Giuliano, 2003). The media, as noted by Knight and Giuliano, will often try to circumvent the image problem by emphasizing female athletes’ heterosexual relationships in the news instead of concentrating on their athletic achievements. This “female apologetic” strategy differs from the coverage of their gender-typical male counterparts (Knight & Giuliano). Role conflict is further exacerbated by the attempt of many female athletes to overcompensate for their masculine behavior on the field by acting in feminine ways off the field. Norms for the “female sports world” and the rest of society differ dramatically (Lance, 2004).

       Lantz and Schroeder (1999) examined the relationship between gender role orientation and self-identification with the role of an athlete. It was found that high athletic identifiers (both male and female) reported significantly higher masculine gender role orientations. Those participants who reported low athletic identification reported significantly higher levels of femininity, suggesting that even though many females participate in sports, it is still an area that is dominated by masculine perceptions. In a similar study Harrison and Lynch (2005) found that the sport played by the athletes highly influenced the public’s perceptions of gender role orientations. For example, Harrison and Lynch found that females who played basketball and football were seen as high in agency (a masculine characteristic), while male cheerleaders were seen as highly communal (a feminine characteristic).


       The purpose of the current study was to examine perceptions of female athlete (especially gender role orientation) based on the athletic identity of observers (athlete vs. non-athlete), type of sport played (masculine vs. feminine), and gender of observers (male vs. female).

       Specifically it was hypothesized that:

  1. Males and females would report differing perceptions of the gender role orientation of female athletes.
  2. Perceptions of the gender role orientation of female athletes would differ depending on the athletic identity of raters as either athletes or non-athletes.
  3. The perceived gender role orientation of female athletes would differ based on the masculinity or femininity of the sport played.

       Additionally, although no specific hypotheses were proposed, the relationship between these factors and perceptions of female athlete athleticism, likeability, respectability, and attractiveness were analyzed.



       Participants consisted of 70 college students with a mean age of 20.98 years (SD = 3.08) from a mid-sized university in the southeastern United States. The sample was collected from the university’s varsity wrestling and softball programs, as well as a general education psychology class and an upper level anthropology class. Of this sample, 43 participants were women and 27 were men. Mean ages of women and men were 20.78 (SD = 2.89) and 21.11 years (SD = 2.89), respectively. Exactly half of the 70 participants (n = 35) self-reported that they were currently involved in sports while the other half (n = 35) claimed that they did not currently participate in any sport.


       Athletic Identity Measurement Scale. Athletic identity was assessed using a modified version of the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale (Brewer & Cornelius, 2001). The scale was modified from its original version to utilize a 7-point Likert-type format ranging from 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree. Participants rated nine items based upon how well each described him/her. Item responses were then summed and a median split was used to identify each participant as an athlete or non-athlete. Scores ranged from 9 to 63, with higher scores indicating a higher level of athletic identity (α = .94).

       Athlete Scenarios. Each survey included two scenarios describing an athlete. The first was always a male athlete, and the second a female. Each scenario consisted of a paragraph describing an event of athletic achievement. In total, twelve scenarios were created representing basketball, figure skating, soccer, softball (female athlete only)/baseball (male athlete only), tennis, and track. Participants read the scenarios and answered five questions for each of the two athletes evaluating the athlete’s gender orientation, athleticism, likeability, respectability, and attractiveness.

       All scenarios were based upon actual events with real athletes. To ensure that the athletes were not recognized by participants, the names, schools, and in some cases even the sport involved were changed.

       All source materials are reported in the Appendix. An example of the softball scenario can be found below.

Iowa State’s junior left-handed pitcher Jayme Hines was named the USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Week. She went 3-0 this week with three complete game shutouts including an impressive two consecutive no-hitters over No. 18 Auburn. Earlier in the week versus Nebraska, she passed one of the most impressive milestones in her conference when she broke the Big Ten’s career strikeout record that was previously held by former Oklahoma Sooner, Megan Burns. With 40 Ks in just 18 innings of work, this week she increased her career strikeout total to a staggering 1,401.


       Each participant received a survey packet consisting of an informed consent form and one of two distinct conditions. In one condition the demographic questionnaire and athletic identity measurement scale were given first followed by the scenarios. In the second condition, the scenarios were given first followed by the rest of the materials. Packets were completed and immediately returned to the administrator.


Data Analysis

       To evaluate the relationship between the independent variables in our hypotheses and the perceived gender roles of females athletes, a 2 (participant gender) X 2 (type of sport) X 2 (athletic identification) ANOVA was conducted for each analysis.

       Hypothesis 1. It was hypothesized that the perceived gender role orientations of female athletes would be influenced by participant gender. This prediction was not supported as there were no significant results (F = .56, p > .05) between the variables.

       Hypothesis 2. It was hypothesized that the perceived gender role orientations of female athletes would be influenced by the athletic identity of the participant. This prediction was not supported as no significant correlation (F = .14, p > .05) was found between these variables.

       Hypothesis 3. It was hypothesized that the type of sport portrayed would have effects on the perceived gender role orientation of female athletes. Tests yielded a main effect for type of sport (F = 5.72, p < .05). There was a significant difference in the perceived gender role orientations for the sports of figure skating, tennis, and track (M = 2.94, SD = 1.53) and the sports of softball, basketball, and soccer (M = 4.03, SD = 1.27). Female athletes participating in masculine sports were viewed as more masculine while those participating in feminine sports were viewed as more feminine.

Additional Analyses

       Separate 2 (participant gender) x 2 (type of sport) x 2 (athletic identification) ANOVA’s were conducted to evaluate ratings of respectability, likeability, athleticism, and attractiveness. Significant findings are discussed below.

       Likeability. There was a main effect for type of sport F = 4.55, p < .05. Female athletes participating in softball, soccer, and basketball (M = 4.94, p < .05) were perceived as less likeable than female athletes participating in figure skating, tennis, and track (M = 5.51, p < .05). A main effect for athletic identity F = 5.67, p < .05 was also found. Athletes (M = 5.54, SD = 1.097) rated the likeability of female athletes higher than non-athletes (M = 4.91, SD = 1.1) did.

       Respectability. A main effect for type of sport F = 5.67, p < .05 was found. Female athletes participating in softball, soccer, and basketball (M = 5.34, p < .05) were perceived as less respectable than female athletes participating in figure skating, tennis, and track (M = 5.83, p < .05). There was also a significant interaction for gender by type of sport F = 8.10, p < .05. Men rated female athletes participating in masculine sports (M = 4.54, SD = 1.39) lower than those participating in feminine sports (M = 6.07, SD = .83). On the other hand, women rated female athletes participating in masculine sports (M = 5.82, SD = .91) higher than those participating in feminine sports (M = 5.67, SD = 1.15).


       It was hypothesized that gender, athletic identity, and type of sport would influence the perceived gender-role orientation of female athletes. Neither the gender participants nor their athletic identity related to the perceived gender role orientation of female athletes. Results did find, however, that the type of sport significantly influences the perceived gender-role orientation of female athletes. Both athletes and non-athletes differentiated between masculine and feminine sports. Females participating in softball, basketball, and soccer were evaluated as being more masculine than those participating in figure skating, track, and tennis.

       This result is particularly interesting given the findings of Krane et al. (2004) which suggest that female athletes have a difficult time maintaining a feminine image across multiple aspects of their life. This result may be exacerbated for female athletes participating in masculine sports. Conversely, while on the surface it appears that female athletes participating in more feminine sports should have an easier time fitting in, there may be instance where this is not the case. For example, Crissey and Honea (2006) found that females participating in sports considered stereotypically feminine are more likely than those participating in masculine sports to report feeling overweight and utilize multiple strategies to loss weight. Taken together with the current findings it appears that female athletes are exposed to a double edged sword with regards to appearing masculine or feminine. It cannot be determined from the current study but it may be the case that participants in masculine sports are more accepting of masculine characteristics at least in some situations. Krane et al. (2004) found this to be the case in athletic situations. This has implication not only for current athletes but also for the selection of future athletes. Group characteristics have implication for potential athlete self-selection into sports (Williams, 2006) and there may be personality differences between females that participate in traditionally masculine sports compared with those participating in feminine activities.

       Along with gender orientation, participants were asked to rate the athletes’ likeability, respectability, athleticism, and attractiveness. The type of sport significantly affected the likeability rating of the female athlete. Participants rated females participating in masculine sports (softball, basketball, and soccer) as being less likeable than those participating feminine sports (figure skating, tennis, and track). It was shown that the athletic identity of the participants significantly affected the likeability ratings of the female athletes. Athletes had a tendency to rate female athletes in general as being more likeable than non-athletes did. Athletes in general are exposed to similar stressors (Tinsley, 2007) and this similarity and understanding may explain why athletic participants generally rated female athletes as more likeable.

       The type of sport also significantly influenced ratings of perceived respectability. Women playing masculine sports were rated as being less respectable than those playing feminine sports. There was an interaction between participant gender and type of sport in respect to the respectability ratings. Males rated female athletes participating in softball, basketball, and soccer as being less respectable than female athletes participating in figure skating, tennis, and track. Women rated female athletes participating in softball, basketball, and soccer as being more respectable than female athletes participating in figure skating, tennis, and track. This finding is important because it suggests that women seem to respect other women who challenge gender roles. On the other hand, men see those same women as being less respectable than there more feminine counterparts.

       This difference can be better understood by considering past research that found difference in the methods males and female athletes use to select athletic role models (Giuliano, Turner, Lundquist, & Knight, 2007). Giuliano et al. found that male athletes tended to select other male athletes as role models and to base this decision predominately on athletic performance. Females were likely to select female athletes as role models but were also more likely then males to have cross-gender role models. Unlike males, females also based the selection of role models on both athletic and personal qualities. Accordingly, challenging gender stereotypes and participating in “masculine” activities may be a characteristic that is valued by females.


       Several limitations were inherent in this study that should be accounted for in future research. First, while an effort was made to utilize a generalizable sample the fact remains that participants were limited to students in two college classes and members of two sports teams. Furthermore, not all of the athletes in the scenarios were depicted equally. Some were more accomplished than others, and in a few scenarios, personal information (such as family information and descriptions of physical appearance) was given. Additionally, only perceptions of female athletes were examined. Adding perceptions of male athletes to future studies might improve our understanding of the relationships found. In the future, it would be reasonable to obtain a larger, more random sample, as well as to make the athletes more equal in the scenarios.

Practical Implications and Directions for Future Research

       The current study examined perceptions of gender roles based upon participation in different sports, as well as looking into the effects that gender and athletic identity seem to have on the perceptions of these athletes. In sum, results found that female athletes competing in sports viewed as masculine were rated as less likeable than those competing in feminine sports. Male participants also rated female athletes competing in masculine sports as less respectable than those competing in feminine sports, while females rated female athletes participating in masculine sports are more respectable. Interestingly, ratings of athleticism and attractiveness demonstrated no significant relationship across gender, type of sport, and athletic identity of raters.

       These findings have several applied implications. The growing prevalence of women in sports, especially those that traditionally were male dominated, makes it critical that coaches, sport psychologists, and athletes understand the impact of sport participation on female athletes. From a psychological perspective masculine and feminine characteristics are not tied directly to biological sex and both can be beneficial to individuals. However, a negative stereotype resulting from sport participation can be harmful in terms of increased stress, peer pressure, and influences on behavior. The “image problem” and “sex role violations” experienced by female athletes can lead to problems both during and outside of sport competition. Awareness of the potential negative consequences of sport participation on the perceived likeability and respectability of female athletes is therefore especially relevant. Simply being aware of potential issues is a start in addressing problems that have the potential to undermine the self esteem, motivation, perception, and performance of athletes. Coaches and those advising athletes, however, can be helped by understanding the specific issues faced.

       Sport is often a significant factor in the physical and psychological development of children (Arient, 2007) and the selection of appropriate role models has implications for well-being and adjustment (Giuliano et al, 2007). The role of females in sport and society is continuing to evolve and more research is need on how this is impacting athletics. This has implications for both the well-being of current athletes and the selection and development of future athletes. Society as a whole is sometimes quick to change but slow to adapt to changes. Sports is only one of many areas where women are taking on increasingly significant and visible roles. Changes in business and education have facilitated the recognition of females as equal and valuable participants. Sports as a whole can benefit from the incorporation of the literature from these areas in understanding group perceptions and differences. Future research should expand on these issues by continuing to consider individual differences.

       As a specific recommendation, researchers and practitioners should consider the perception and perspectives of both male and female athletes. The perceptions of male athletes participating in traditionally feminine sports might be quite different than female athletes participating in traditionally masculine sports. Additionally, the scenarios created for this study utilized college athletes. It is not known if the perceptions found here would hold true across age levels or for professional or Olympic-level athletes. The participation of females is growing across all levels of sport and both research and practice need to keep pace.


       Anshel, M. H., Porter A., & Quek, J. J. (1998). Coping with acute stress in sport as a function of gender: An exploratory study. Journal of Sport Behavior, 21, 363-369.

       Arient, J. M. (2007). The impact of role models on the perceived sport competence and gender role conflict of young female athletes (Doctoral Dissertation, Capella University). Dissertation Abstracts International, 67, 5387.

       Brewer, B., & Cornelius, A. (2001). Norms and factorial invariance of the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale. Academic Athletic Journal, 15, 103-113.

       Crissey, S. R., & Honea, J. C. (2006). The relationship between athletic participating and perceptions of body size and weight control in adolescent girls: The role of sport type. Sociology of Sport Journal, 23, 248-272.

       Die, A. H., & Raye, H. V. (1989). Perceptions of the “typical” female, male, female athlete, and male athlete. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 20, 135-146.

       Gallup Organization (1990). April 19-22 survey reported in American Enterprise, September/October, 92.

       Giuliano, T. A., Turner, K. L., Lundguist, J. C., & Knight, J. L. (2007). Gender and the selection of public athletic role models. Journal of Sport Behavior, 30, 161-198.

       Harrison, L. A., & Lynch, A. B. (2005). Social role theory and the perceived gender role orientation of athletes. Sex Roles, 52, 227-236.

       Lance, L. M. (2004). Gender differences in perceived role conflict among university student-athletes. College Student Journal, 38, 179-190.

       Knight, J. L., & Giuliano, T. A. (2003). Blood, sweat, and jeers: The impact of the media's heterosexist portrayals on perceptions of male and female athletes. Journal of Sport Behavior, 26, 272-285.

       Krane, V., Choi, P.Y.L, Baird, S.M., Aimar, C.M., & Kauer, K.J. (2004). Living the paradox: Female athletes negotiate femininity and muscularity. Sex Roles, 50, 315-329.

       Lance, L. M. (2004). Gender differences in perceived role conflict among university students. College Student Journal, 38, 179-191.

       Lantz, C. D., & Schroeder, P. J. (1999). Endorsement of masculine and feminine gender roles: Differences between participation in and identification with the athletic role. Journal of Sport Behavior, 22, 545-557.

       Ozkan, T., & Lajunen, T. (2005). Masculinity, femininity, and the Bem Sex Role Inventory in Turkey. Sex Roles, 52 (1-2), 103-111.

       Pedersen, D. M., & Kono, D. M. (1990). Perceived effects on femininity of the participation of women in sport. Perceptual Motor Skills, 71, 783-792.

       Schmalz, D. L., & Davison, K. K. (1996). Differences in physical self-concept among pre-adolescents who participate in gender-typed and cross-gendered sports. Journal of Sport Behavior, 29, 335-352.

       Tinsley, S. C. (2007). An assessment of gender, sport, and classification of student-athletes on life-stress (Doctoral Dissertation, Texas Woman’s University). Dissertation Abstracts International, 67, 3727.

       Williams, J. M. (2006). Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. McGraw-Hill: New York.

       Williams, J. E., & Best, D. L. (1990). Measuring sex stereotypes: A multination study. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Source Materials for Athlete Scenarios

       Clum earns second big ten wrestling title [Electronic version]. (2006, March 6). The Capital Times, p. D6.

       Dell, A. (2006, March 19). Grace under pressure no problem; Riverview graduate Shantia Grace, a freshman, leads USF at point guard [Electronic version]. Sarasota Herald-Tribune, p. C1.

       Fawcett, L. (2006, March 21). Movement at the top in men’s short program at worlds. U.S. Figure Skating. Retrieved March 27, 2006, from http://www.u

       Fawcett, L. (2006, March 22). Rochette delights Canadian crown at worlds; Hughs third in qualifying round. U.S. Figure Skating. Retrieved March 27, 2006, from http://www.u

       Findlay reaps all-American honors. (2006, March 23). College of New Jersey Athletics. Retrieved March 27, 2006, from

       Isinbayeva looks to add another record to her list. (2006, March). Sports Illustrated. Retrieved March 27, 2006, from

       Kasparek tabbed Phillips 66 co-big 12 pitcher of the week. (2006, March 14). Texas Sports. Retrieved March 27, 2006, from

       Sharapova wins women’s title; Federer cruises into final. (2006, March). Sports Illustrated. Retrieved March 27, 2006, from

       Sports Network. (2005, December). Lilly, Keller named U.S. soccer athletes of the year. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved March 27, 2006, from

       USA Softball. (2006, March).Win over UNLV and Michigan boosts bruins: Abbott named player of the week. ESPN. Retrieved March 27, 2006, from

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