Viewpoint—Gender equity suffers when girls want to join boys’ teams

By Erin Letson

Almost two decades ago, Justine Blainey made headlines when she won the right to play on a boys’ minor league hockey team. It cost Blainey three years in court – and vocal resentment from former teammates – to reach her goal of playing alongside the opposite sex. She didn’t last long on the team, but her contribution, as told on CBC’s Hockey: A People’s History, was to inspire female athletes to play at the highest level possible.

While Blainey had legitimate reasons to want to play on a boys’ team – it had more funding and resources and provided better competition opportunities – it is harder to see these reasons holding up today, especially when it comes to high school athletics.

Since the 1980s, considerable effort has been put into reaching gender equity in sport and most teenage girls are given ample and equal opportunity to play competitive sports at high schools across the country.

The Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations’ states in its bylaw that it is committed to removing barriers for female athletes, and it requires girls’ and boys’ teams be given equal funding and practice time. As such, the association’s policy is that girls are only eligible to try out for a boys’ team if a sport activity is not available for them.

This same policy applies to Manitoba’s high schools, but it was recently challenged in court by twin sisters, Amy and Jesse Pasternak.

The students said they suffered sex discrimination when they couldn’t try out for the senior boys’ hockey team at their Winnipeg high school because there was a girls’ team already in place. An independent adjudicator ruled in their favour, and the girls attended the boys’ tryouts late last month (neither ended up making the team).

Cases like the Pasternaks’ should force high schools to evaluate their programs and continue to look for ways to improve equity in their athletic departments.

If girls’ sports teams are clearly inferior to their male counterparts at a particular school, then team members should speak out and make reference to the bylaws of their provincial secondary school athletics association.

But when students try out for boys’ teams where the girls’ team has been given equal resources, gender equity policy suffers.

While the Pasternaks won their case, they sparked a new problem: after the sex discrimination ruling, the Manitoba High Schools Athletics Association received several requests from boys wanting to play on girls’ teams, either because their school didn’t have a boys’ team for a certain sport, or because they couldn’t make it onto a boys’ team.

This means boys could potentially take up spots on teams that were normally only offered to female students.

For girls who want a more challenging game, there are other options than switching teams.

They can join co-ed or more advanced leagues outside of school.

They can also approach their coaches to discuss concerns that their team is not demanding enough for their skill level.

However, if they choose the route of trying to get onto a boys’ team when their own team offers equal funding, game time and championship opportunities, they – intentionally or not – will do a disservice to high school girls’ teams by discrediting the work being done to promote gender equity in sport.