How sports science ignores female athletes

Softball player Grace Lyons of the Oklahoma Sooners tags out JJ Smith of the Texas Longhorns as she slides into the base

Only 5% of baseball and softball studies in the analysis focused on female athletes.Credit: C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty

Sports science research is heavily skewed toward male athletes, a review of hundreds of sports medicine studies reveals1. The imbalance leaves large gaps in knowledge about women’s sports and sports-related injuries.

A review of this kind is long overdue, says Willie Stewart, a neuroscientist at the University of Glasgow, UK, who studies concussion. “It reflects the general neglect of women’s sport.”

Researchers reviewed 669 studies published between 2017 and 2021 in 6 leading sports science journals. They wanted to add some numbers to their observations that there are many more studies on men’s sports compared to women’s sports. “We wanted to quantify these differences in current sports medicine research to demonstrate that there is a need for research focused on female athletes, especially as we continue to learn how women experience injuries differently than men in many sports,” says co-author Meghan Bishop, a surgeon at Rothman Orthopedics. Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

SLOW PROGRESS.  The graphic shows that, although more and more studies are focused on female athletes, they are still underrepresented.

Source: Ref. 1

Only 9% of studies focused exclusively on female athletes, while 71% focused only on male athletes. “Although striking, these results were not particularly surprising,” says Bishop. The starkest comparison between the sexes, she adds, was in baseball and softball, with 91% of studies focusing on male players and only 5% on female players.

The difference, Bishop says, is for several reasons, from financial incentives to the availability of data in public databases and the overrepresentation of male researchers among study leaders. Bishop says more female orthopedic surgeons could help redress the balance.

Michael Grey, a neuroscientist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, who specializes in sports injuries, says he’s not sure the lack of female surgeons is the problem, but agrees that funding is a big driver. “People focus on men’s sports because that’s where the money is. Not only in the sport itself, but also in research,” he says. “And it shouldn’t be like that.”

A small improvement

There has been a slight improvement over the past few years, the study shows. The proportion of studies that focused exclusively on women or girls, or included both male and female athletes, began to gradually increase over the past few years (see ‘Slow progress’). This change is partly due to researchers’ greater awareness of the issue, and partly because some funding agencies, such as the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), require that the clinical studies they fund include gender-diverse data, Stewart says.

“I’m excited to see studies of female athletes represented in the literature,” says Martina Anto-Ocrah, an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. “It will be great to see more rigorous studies linking studies of this nature to women’s injuries, treatment options, interventions and recovery.”

Gray says the lack of data on female athletes leads to inappropriate extrapolation, especially in his area of ​​research. “We know that certainly with regard to concussions, the protective elements of the brain are different in women and men,” he adds. “We have to study women and we cannot extrapolate from men to women. That’s just wrong.”

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