Women's Sport Week is upon us, a week dedicated to celebrating the amazing achievements of women in sport and inspiring more women to get active. It's about raising awareness of opportunities for women in sport, encouraging more people to watch women's sport and triggering debate to help more women reach their potential through sport.
In the UK fewer women than men participate in sport (Active Lives Survey, 2017), and there has been a plethora of research and campaigns in this area, not least Sport England's flagship This Girl Can campaign. However, while gains have been made, and the gap between men and women in terms of participation is narrowing, progress is still slow. So what's going wrong?
Having spent the last couple of years obsessively reading about this issue the best I can say is that there are no easy answers. The relationship between women and sport participation is complex, underpinned by deeply embedded ideologies and still something of a hot potato when it comes to sexism and gender roles. Sport isn't always an easy choice for women, particularly not in a society obsessed with body image, and it is not enough to tell women that sport is an option for them - you are still telling people to cross a pretty major threshold in terms of gendered behavioural norms.
Exploring the rhetoric of choice and inspiration which statutes campaigns such as This Girl Can and #WePlayStrong, Simone Fullager and Jessica Francombe-Webb challenge us around the idea that while on one level these campaigns are fantastic and inspiring, on another they detach personal choice and freedom from the gender norms that pervade our society. It's fine to say 'ignore the patriarchy', but ideas about what roles men and women fulfil are deeply embedded, and for many women they will affect how they see their capacity to participate in sport and the level of inclusiveness they experience. We need to go beyond inspiration. We need to change the story.
One of the reasons I think running has been so successful in attracting women and helping them build active lifestyles is that it isn't a feminised version of a 'male' sport. More often than not men and women run alongside each other, 'women's running' isn't a watered down version of the 'male' sport, we all run the same miles, we all run for ourselves and at the level most people participate there isn't any competition. We're inspired by our mates who've run marathons, we find tribes in all sorts of places and we push forward together. Yes, many of us ran our first miles alone and in the dark (I know I did), but confidence comes quickly in running, before we know it we're pushing our limits and our bravery grows. I would argue that we need to look at the success in this area and see how we can make it grow more widely, that we need to drop the ideas that women want or need certain things to participate and think differently, to remove gender from the conversation and normalise movement for everyone. To reach out and support those who are being brave and cheer them on, and lead by example as people who are open, honest and love life.
I make it sound easy. It isn't. There are deeply ingrained barriers in society that need to be overcome, and it's unlikely those are going to shift in our generation, but let's chip away, let's be pioneers. There isn’t a route map. Instead ‘we need to be guided by women’s voices, and analyse how their experiences are shaped by the many depends of contemporary society’ (Fullager and Francombe-Webb, 2014) paying close attention to how physical activity is gendered if we truly want to engage more women in sport.
*image courtesy of RunnersNeed*