Women in sport: we have to do something different!

By Professor Leigh Robinson

On October 8th, the Students Union at the University of Stirling held a Women in Sport Conference, at Stirling – Scotland’s University for Sporting Excellence. The event was well attended, well organised and brought together a great range of speakers including Shona Robison – Cabinet Secretary for Sport, who opened the event setting out the mantra ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. This was in reference to the lack of women in positions on the Boards of sport governing bodies and to a general lack of visibility of women in sport.

However, as the day went on I began to feel a sense of ‘deja vu’…a sense of ‘I’m sure we’ve been here before’ and although I agreed wholeheartedly with much of what was said – much of it was very familiar. Despite decades of programmes and initiatives aimed at improving both the participation of women in sport and their role in the leadership of sport, we are not winning. The statistics associated with participation and leadership have barely changed during the past two decades, despite initiatives, interventions and programmes designed to change the situation. Indeed, Sportfirst – the magazine of sportscotland – reported that between 2008 and 2011 that participation in sport increased without any narrowing of inequality. Participation figures in 2008 were 54% for men and 43% for women – in 2013 they were 60% for men and 48% for women. Great to see an increase in participation – but nothing seems to be breaking down the inequalities that women face. We are still facing the same barriers, talking about the same issues and seemingly unable to do anything about it. Running like a girl is still an insult!

Things need to be very different and for me this requires a very different solution and some radical thinking. The two problems – inequalities in participation and leadership – are intertwined. A lack of participation means that the pool from which women can be selected for leadership positions is much smaller than that of men. The lack of female role models leading sport continues to promote the image of sport as a masculine domain..suggesting it’s not really a world for women to be involved in.

So…what’s the solution? First, I think we need to focus funding on participation and on the participation of young girls and accept that we have a couple of decades of work ahead. Participation is the key to this – those who lead sport come from those who are/have been involved in sport – more female participation underpins more female leadership. To support this, we should limit funding to initiatives that do not focus on building participation in young girls – not a popular things to do – but we need to stop spreading the resource too thinly. And then we need to:

  1. Don’t leave it too late: We need specialist PE teachers in primary schools….teaching physical education in a manner that does not put girls off sport for life is pretty technical and it seems a little unfair to expect classroom teachers to gain these skills with short CPD courses or by using on-line materials. I am sure that some excellent teaching happens this way, however, PE needs to be given the profile that is given to understanding society, science and IT. Sport is a lifestyle choice – …and education about that choice needs to happen as early as possible. Teaching sporting habits in secondary school is just far too late…girls who decide then that sport is for them are playing ‘catch up’
  2. Keep them at school: it needs to be easy for young girls to access physical activity and the need to leave school to take part in sport provides too many point where girls can just opt out. ‘The weather’s too bad to go back out again’…difficulties in getting dropped off close enough to the venue to be safe…all provide girls and their parents with the opportunity to choose alternatives to sport. Keeping them at school, in what is a familiar and safe environment for many girls removes these decisions. Delivery of sport and physical activity by clubs, local authorities and commercial providers out of the School stock not only provides opportunities, but will reinforce the important of participation as ‘obviously things done at school are important, part of education leading to a good future’”
  3. Mix it up: Sport should be mixed. If we want to tackle the ‘run like a girl’ belief, we need to show girls and boys (and men and women) that running like a girl looks pretty much the same as running like a boy. Why should there be sports that girls play and sports that boys play? I understand that there is a point where physical difference may make it tricky for girls to play with boys….but that point, in many sports, comes after potentially years of mixed play where kids ‘run like kids’.

These are somewhat radical solutions, which if implemented would change the face of how School sport is delivered. But we are at the point where radical is needed or in 10 years we’ll be back to discussing the same things as we did last Wednesday.

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