‘Good Role Models’ or ‘Unwomanly’? Canadian views on gender, sport and the Women’s World Cup

‘Good Role Models’ or ‘Unwomanly’? Canadian views on gender, sport and the Women’s World Cup

Most embrace women in sports, but some activities they wouldn’t choose first for their daughters.


June 26, 2015 – As the FIFA Women’s World Cup takes centre stage across Canada, a new public opinion poll shows a clear divide in Canadian opinion on what are perceived to be ‘girls sports’ and boys sports’.

And while most hold generally favourable views of women’s sports and of female athletes – among sports fans, many gender-related views exist.

The wide-ranging survey from the Angus Reid Institute canvassed Canadians’ attitudes on male and female athletes and sports, their interest in the Women’s World Cup, and the scandals plaguing FIFA, the tournament’s organizer.

Key Findings:Angus Reid Institute poll

  • Almost all agree that “women athletes are great role models for girls” (90% do so) and that “girls should be encouraged to play sports just as much as boys” (92%).
  • Canadians agree that their media don’t pay enough attention to women’s sports (73%).
  • However, one-in-three say that women’s sports are ‘less exciting’ than men’s (34%) and that some sports are just ‘unwomanly’ (33%). Young men and self-identified sports fans are especially likely to hold these views.
  • Roughly one-third of Canadians (32%) say they are following the Women’s World Cup, including one-in-ten (10%) who are following “very closely”. Notably, more men are watching than women.

Everyone agrees women’s sports are valuable …

When asked about women’s sports in general, nearly all Canadians agree:

  • “women athletes are great role models for girls” (90%)
  • “girls should be encouraged to play sports just as much as boys” (92%)

Further, most Canadians say they’d like to see more and better coverage of women’s sports in the media, with 73 per cent of the opinion that not enough attention is paid to women’s sports. Both men and women hold strong majorities views on this point (68% and 76% respectively).

… but that doesn’t mean they want to watch …

That said, while most Canadians seem to view women’s sports favourably, they’re not as convinced that everyone else does.

Nearly half (49%) say “in general, people are not interested in watching women play sports.” This includes:

  • 57 per cent of younger respondents (those aged 18 to 34)
  • Half (50%) of those between the ages of 35 and 54
  • Older Canadians are less likely to agree: 42 per cent of those over 55 do so

The chart below illustrates how gender doesn’t significantly affect opinions on this question – if anything, women are slightly more inclined to take a jaded view of interest in watching women’s sports:

Angus Reid Institute


…because women’s sports are more boring?  

On this Canadians largely disagree. Two-thirds (66%) are not on side with the statement, “in general, women’s sports are less exciting than men’s.” That said, a significant minority of respondents (34%) agree with this sentiment.

Men are more likely than women to think this way (42% versus 26%). Younger people are also more likely to agree (41% of the 18-34, versus 34% of the 35-54 and 28% of the 55+).

Among young men, a slight majority (51%) agrees that women’s sporting events are less exciting. Nearly half of self-identified “avid sports fans” (48%) also agree.

Angus Reid Institute

These findings are perhaps unsurprising, given that the most rabid sports fans tend to be younger and male (see detailed tables at the end of this report).

Men and avid sports fans – and especially those who fit in both categories – are also more likely to agree with another statement about women in sports: that some sports are just ‘unwomanly.’ Among those who express this view:

  • One-third (33%) of Canadians overall
  • Nearly half (47%) of Quebecers – though the French version of the question translates more closely to “unfeminine” than “unwomanly”
  • Two-in-five men (40%)
  • 43 per cent of men aged 18 to 34
  • 47 per cent men who identify as avid sports fans also agree

But they aren’t the only ones: women who say they are “not at all interested” in sports are also more likely to agree that some sports are just “unwomanly.” More than two-in-five (41%) do so, compared to 27 per cent of women overall.

What does this say about interest in the Women’s World Cup?

While organizers of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup expect the tournament to break attendance records, for roughly two-thirds of the host country’s population, the tournament hasn’t made much of an impression.

One-in-ten Canadians (10%) say they are following the Women’s World Cup “very closely.” Another one-in-five (21%) are at least following Team Canada or planning on watching the final.

Added together, this 32 per cent (due to rounding) who are “following” the tournament includes more men than women and, predictably, more sports fans than non-sports fans.

While three-in-ten is by no means a majority, it is a sizeable chunk of the Canadian population (more than 11 million people if one extrapolates based on current population estimates).

For comparison, when asked a slightly different question in a November Angus Reid Institute survey:

  • 40 per cent of Canadians said they closely follow the National Hockey League, the highest total for any league
  • Roughly one-fifth of Canadians said they closely follow the Canadian Football League (21%)
  • Major League Baseball (18%)
  • The National Football League (17%)
  • And just 7 per cent said they follow Major League Soccer

In this context, it’s not surprising that 68 per cent of Canadians are either not following the Women’s World Cup at all (40%) or just scanning the tournament headlines (28%).

Most are skeptical of FIFA

Just two weeks before the Women’s World Cup began, several top FIFA officials were arrested at a hotel in Switzerland in connection with two separate corruption investigations – one Swiss and one American. The scandal led FIFA president Sepp Blatter to announce his resignation, just four days after being reelected to a fifth term.

One-in-five Canadians (19%) say these developments make them optimistic about changes at FIFA, while 44 per cent say they’re skeptical. More than a third (37%) say they either don’t know or care enough to have an opinion.

Among those who are following the Women’s World Cup, fewer respondents are uncertain (16% are), and greater numbers are optimistic (33%). A majority (51%), however, are skeptical that the FIFA scandal will lead to any real change at the organization.

Those who are following would pay more to see the men play

The Angus Reid Institute also asked Canadians how much they would pay for tickets to see the Women’s World Cup final, and how much they would pay if it were the men.

Among all respondents, the answers are strikingly similar for both the men’s and women’s tournaments:

  • 41 per cent wouldn’t go to the Women’s World Cup final even if the tickets were free.
  • 40 say the same for the men’s World Cup final.
  • Most of those who would pay say they’d pay $50 or less for each match.

There is a significant difference, however, at the high end of the scale, especially among soccer fans.

A third (34%) of those who say they’re following the Women’s World Cup would pay $50 or more to see the men’s World Cup final, compared to a fifth (22%) of this group who would pay more than $50 to see the women:


Which sports would Canadians like their children to play?

When it comes to the growth and success of all-women professional and amateur leagues, many argue the name of the game is generational change, and the grooming of girls who will carry their fandom into adulthood. Whether this hypothesis comes to pass may well depend on the attitudes of their parents.

On this, the Angus Reid Institute survey provides remarkable data that could boost the boosters of women’s soccer in this country. Canadians were asked to look at a list of popular sports (or to write in their own) and choose the three they would most want their children to play.

The survey asked respondents to suppose they were choosing for four different children: an eight-year-old boy, an eight-year-old girl, a 16-year-old boy, and a 16-year-old girl.

There are some notable similarities and differences across the top five choices for each hypothetical child:

  • For eight-year-old boys, Canadians choose:
    • Soccer (40%)
    • Swimming (39%)
    • Hockey (38%)
    • Baseball/softball (25%)
    • Martial arts (23%)
  • For eight-year-old girls:
    • Swimming (48%)
    • Soccer (32%)
    • Gymnastics (29%)
    • Martial arts (21%)
    • Figure skating (20%)
  • For 16-year-old boys, Canadians choose:
    • Hockey (38%)
    • Soccer (31%),
    • Swimming (26%)
    • Baseball/softball (22%)
    • Martial arts (22%)
  • And for 16-year-old girls:
    • Swimming (42%)
    • Soccer (28%)
    • Martial arts (23%)
    • Gymnastics/Tennis/Volleyball (20% each)

In general, regardless of the age or gender of the children asked about, self-identified “avid sports fans” are more likely to choose team sports like soccer, hockey, and baseball, while non-fans tend to prefer individual sports like swimming and martial arts.

‘Girl sports’ and ‘Boy Sports’?

Looking at this data a different way, sports might be classified as either “boy sports,” “girl sports,” or “sports for both genders.” Based on respondents’ answers, the sports that fall into these categories are:

  • Boy sports: Hockey, baseball/softball, basketball, and football
  • Girl Sports: Gymnastics, figure skating, tennis, and volleyball
  • Sports for both genders: Swimming, soccer, martial arts, athletics (track and field), and golf (see detailed tables at the end of this release)

Soccer is for everyone, but hockey is still a “man’s game”

For children of each gender and age group, soccer is the first or second most commonly chosen sport, a predictable result given that it’s the most popular youth team sport in the country by participation rates.

Less predictable is the disparity in Canadians’ wishes for their children’s participation in other sports, especially the national game: hockey.

Overall, nearly three times as many respondents say they would want an eight-year-old son to play hockey (38% do so) as say they would want an eight-year-old daughter to do so (13%). This disparity grows to more than three-to-one when Canadians are asked about 16-year-old children (38% choose hockey for boys, compared to 12% for girls).

Angus Reid Institute

Canadians’ desire to see their children play baseball or softball follows a similar pattern to hockey, with roughly twice as many respondents choosing baseball/softball for boys as for girls – regardless of age.

The opposite effect can be seen with figure skating, which is a fairly popular choice for girls, but barely registers with boys.

Though gender clearly has an effect on which sports Canadians would like their children to play, it’s not a particularly noticeable factor when they’re asked what sports they wouldn’t want their children to play.

Football, rugby, and hockey topped the list for both male and female children, with similar percentages of respondents saying they would discourage their children from playing each.

On this question, the same percentage for both boy and girl children (49%) say they wouldn’t discourage their children from playing any sport on the list.


The level of interest in the Women’s World Cup and the broad agreement on the value of women in sports generally should be seen as signs of progress toward gender equity in Canadian sports culture.

However, given the large numbers who find women’s sports less exciting – and certain sports unsuitable for women, generally – it would be premature to say equality has been achieved.

Click here for the full report including tables and methodology

Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey

Image – Andy Macfarlane/Unsplash

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