How sports science fails female athletes

The lack of balance inhibits progress in the prevention and curing of injuries of female athletes.

An analysis of hundreds of sports-medicine papers found that research on the science of sport is strongly bent toward male athletes. The disparity creates significant gaps in information regarding female sports and sports-related injuries.

A review of this nature has been long needed, according to Willie Stewart, a neuroscientist who researches concussion at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom. It illustrates the overall disregard towards female sports."

Researchers examined 669 papers published in six prominent sports science publications between 2017 and 2021. They intended to quantify their observations that there was much more research on male sports than female sports. According to the study's co-author Meghan Bishop, a surgeon at the Rothman Orthopaedic Institute in Philadelphia, they wanted to quantify such disparities in modern sports research to demonstrate the need for female-athlete-centered research, especially as we are still learning how women experience different injuries than men across many sports.  

Only 9% of the research concentrated solely on female athletes, whereas 71% concentrated solely on male athletes. Bishop adds that while the results were dramatic, they were not especially shocking. The most obvious gender disparity, she notes, was in baseball and softball, with 91% of research concentrating on male players and only 5% on female players.

Bishop attributes the gap to a variety of factors, including economic incentives, the accessibility of data in public databases, and the excessive representation of male researchers among study directors. More female orthopedic surgeons, according to Bishop, might assist to correct the balance.

Michael Grey, a neuroscientist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, who specializes in sports injuries, claims he's not convinced a shortage of female surgeons is the issue, but he does think that financing is a major factor. “People focus on men’s sport because that’s where the money is. Not only in the sport itself but in the research. And it shouldn’t be that way.”

Moderate improvement

According to the report, there has been a minor improvement in recent years. Over the last few years, the number of studies that focused primarily on women or girls, or included both genders, has progressively increased. This shift is due in part to increased awareness of the issue among researchers, and in part because certain funding organizations, such as the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), demand clinical trials funded by them to include data on various sexes, according to Stewart.

Martina Anto-Ocrah, an epidemiologist at Pennsylvania's University of Pittsburgh, is excited to see research on female athletes covered in the literature. She admits that more thorough research linking studies of this sort to female injuries, treatment choices, therapies, and recovery would be fantastic.

Grey claims that the shortage of data on female athletes leads to incorrect extrapolation, particularly in his field of study. For instance,  the protective mechanisms of the brain are different in men and women when it comes to concussions. So women have to be studied separately, and extrapolations from males to women are impossible and incorrect.