[CUA Office of Public Affairs]

Sports is Key to Success in Science,
Study Shows

April 22, 1998


w.gif (199 bytes)omen who are athletes tend to achieve at higher levels in scientific fields than non-athletic women, research at The Catholic University of America shows.

In the examination of the connection between sports participation and success in science, sociologists Sandra Hanson and Rebecca Kraus unexpectedly found positive effects for women, but none for males. They learned that not all women benefit equally from sports involvement. The researchers discovered no positive effects for African American and Hispanic women or for women who serve as cheerleaders.

The study looks at a national sample of high school students and finds that women who enter sports activities learn to compete in aggressive "male model" domains and therefore find vehicles to develop self confidence. Attributes such as striving, winning and independence are traits associated with success in science.

"Sports participation is so interwoven into the male culture that when men go into science they enter the same traditional aggressive arena they have grown up in," Hanson said.

While African American women often do as well or better in science than white women, the reasons are not linked to their participation in athletics. "They don't feel the traditional feminine pressures that white women often feel, and many grow up with different responsibilities," Hanson said. "Thus sport does not provide the same resource for them as it does for white females."

The study found no advantage for Hispanic women perhaps because femininity remains a strong value in their community and there are few women coaches to serve as role models.

Although cheerleading is considered a sport today, Hanson and Kraus found it tends to have a negative effect on a woman's achievement in science. "There remains an ideology that cheerleaders are on the sidelines," she explained. "Traditionally, girls cheered the teams and supported the competitors. Because of this view, they were less competitive and did not question traditional female roles. Even male cheerleaders do less well in science."

The study is the first look at the intersection between sports and science - two traditionally male domains. "Much research has looked at men and how sports contributes to their lives, but fewer studies have looked at how it benefits women," she said.

The findings could have profound implications for how society views women's participation in sports. "Women continue to be under represented in science programs and occupations," she said. "Much research has been done on family, school, class and work environments that work for or against women's success in science. We have discovered another arena that gives woman an edge in science."

An article summarizing the research is scheduled to appear in the April Sociology of Education.

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Revised: April 22, 1998

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The Catholic University of America,
Office of Public Affairs.