Gender minorities' experience of university sports leave room for improvement

What kind of experiences do LGBTQIA+ people have of university sports? How could we improve the experiences of gender minorities? In this article, Finnish Student Sports Federation’s Secretary General Niko Peltokangas takes a look into the results of the Student Barometer 2022 survey from a minority sports perspective.


  • According to the results of the Student Barometer, students who belong to gender minorities feel on average that they have fewer opportunities for participating in university sports than their gender-majority peers.
  • Possible causes for this include gendered sports facilities and guidance.
  • Ways to improve the experience include training and new facility solutions, for which expert assistance is available.

Students’ experiences of the opportunities to engage in physical exercise were surveyed in the Student Barometer 2022. Students were asked how happy they were with their current level of opportunities to participate in university sports and what measures for improvement they would suggest. The experiences of gender and sexual minorities were extracted from the survey data for further review using two background variables: gender and minority status.

Belonging to a sexual and/or gender minority, which was included in the survey as a joint category, did not seem to correlate with lower levels of satisfaction with the opportunities to take part in university sports. Of the respondents belonging to the aforementioned category, 38 per cent stated they were satisfied or very satisfied, which corresponds to the average satisfaction level for all respondents. In contrast, 42 per cent of respondents belonging to this group stated they were dissatisfied (compared to 40 per cent on average). The rest reported their level of satisfaction as neutral.

Disability status, appearance-related factors (such as skin colour or style of clothing), learning difficulties or ethnic background appeared to have a stronger association with higher levels of dissatisfaction. There seems to be room for improvement in the communications and guidance offered in connection with university sports, especially in terms of providing students with information in plain language and multiple languages.

Unnecessarily gendered facilities present problems

The clearest differences arose between respondents of different genders. The respondents could self-identify their gender as either male, female or non-binary. They were also given the option to not identify their gender. More than half of the non-binary respondents (57%) were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their opportunities to participate in university sports. The dissatisfaction levels among the male and female respondents ranged from 37 to 42 per cent.

More than half of the non-binary respondents (57%) were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their opportunities to participate in university sports.

What is causing gender minorities to be less satisfied with the sports services offered by universities? A recent thesis on the subject identified unnecessarily gendered spaces and gendered guidance as a part of the problem. Sports facilities usually only offer dressing rooms designated for either men or women, which may place non-binary students in the stressful position of weighing out which dressing room is safer for them to use. Uncertainty about the availability of suitable facilities may prevent non-binary students from exploring university sports altogether.

A blog post by the Finnish Society of Sport Sciences offers a valuable perspective on the subject: Swimming is an important skill that everyone should be able to acquire without difficulty. At the same time, the discomfort of having to undress and shower in front of strangers may prevent non-binary students from taking part in the swimming lessons offered at school, causing them to miss out on learning this vital skill. This observation may be further extended to higher education. It is important that students learn to improve and maintain their ability to study and studying skills by means of physical exercise, for example.

In the context of guided exercise, problems may manifest as both getting misgendered or unnecessarily highlighting a person or group’s gender. For example, if an instructor is in the habit of addressing the group as “ladies and gentlemen” or anything to the same effect, they will at the same time inadvertently misgender any non-binary participants. In general, there are various other factors that affect one’s physical performance more than average male of female characteristics. Many of the people interviewed for the abovementioned thesis stated they would like to see more sports services aimed at gender minorities, but also mentioned that they considered it important that instructors address students in a gender-neutral way.

New solutions from training and spatial planning

How could we improve gender minorities' experience of university sports? One solution is to offer instructors and other staff training on gender-sensitive language and ways of working. Even providing staff with the Finnish LGBTI rights organisation Seta’s rainbow dictionary (only available in Finnish and Swedish) may help to increase awareness and understanding. Based on the results of the Student Barometer, training is also required to ensure that other minorities are taken into account better.

Sports facilities can be improved by offering opportunities for changing and showering in a private location, as well as providing gender-neutral facilities open for all.

Sports facilities can be improved by offering opportunities for changing and showering in a private location, as well as providing gender-neutral facilities open for all. Even a unisex toilet can be a relief, as it provides a gender-neutral space for changing into sports clothes, Ave Valojää and Kajo Rauni mention in their guide on gender diversity in the context of sports services (only available in Finnish). Click the link to open the guide and read more tips!

Pride month is celebrated each June and aims to increase and uphold the visibility of gender and sexual minorities and honour the human rights advocacy efforts to achieve equal rights for these minorities. Even though issues related to equality are highlighted especially during Pride month, our efforts to solve them should continue throughout the year, also in the field of university sports.

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