Girls in the boat: Sex differences in rowing performance and participation

Kevin G. Keenan, Jonathon W. Senefeld, Sandra K. Hunter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Men outperform women in many athletic endeavors due to physiological and anatomical differences (e.g. larger and faster muscle); however, the observed sex differences in elite athletic performance are typically larger than expected, and may reflect sex-related differences in opportunity or incentives. As collegiate rowing in the United States has been largely incentivized for women over the last 20 years, but not men, the purpose of this study was to examine sex differences in elite rowing performance over that timeframe. Finishing times from grand finale races for collegiate championship on-water performances (n = 480) and junior indoor performances (n = 1,280) were compared between men and women across 20 years (1997–2016), weight classes (heavy vs. lightweight) and finishing place. Participation of the numbers of men and women rowers were also quantified across years. Men were faster than women across all finishing places, weight classes and years of competition and performance declined across finishing place for both men and women (P<0.001). Interestingly, the reduction in performance time across finishing place was greater (P<0.001) for collegiate men compared to women in the heavyweight division. This result is opposite to other sports (e.g. running and swimming), and to lightweight rowing in this study, which provides women fewer incentives than in heavyweight rowing. Correspondingly, participation in collegiate rowing has increased by ~113 women per year (P<0.001), with no change (P = 0.899) for collegiate men. These results indicate that increased participation and incentives within collegiate rowing for women vs. men contribute to sex differences in athletic performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0191504
JournalPloS one
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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