sport watch

In defence of sport for girls and women – only!

My colleague Susie East has written an uplifting plea for the importance of Mixed Sport: Stirring in Tolerance and Equal Opportunities.  I do not wholly disagree with the importance of sports played together, across the genders – and indeed advocate strongly for the principle that all sport until the end of primary learning to be mixed, as well as non-competitive and multi-sports/ skilled focused.  I do, however, believe fundamentally in the criticality of delivering, funding, supporting and prioritising sport that is only for girls and women – at this time and in the context and world in which we currently play this sport.

I am not dealing here with the physiological, particularly strength based arguments for the separation of the sexes in sport.  These are fundamental in my view in many circumstances.  So much so that we have agreed that we will host a separate discussion and piece on this topic – Susie and I are in serious training for this intellectual head to head so watch out for the results coming to a blog near you soon!

So, if you can bear with, and imagine the physiological or physical issues did not exist but all other factors remained the same I would still be arguing for sport focused solely on girls and women, and investment in this as a priority (I am fully conscious that this is a very naïve device – it is different physiologically which is so much at the root of our gendered hierarchy in the world, as Susie pointed out – however, park it!).

Sport for girls and women is needed as positive action to get more girls and women taking part in sport, believing that they can and do normalise sport as an activity that women are just as likely to take part in as men.

It’s needed because we are, unfortunately, currently a long way from achieving equality in sport, as with so many other areas of women’s lives.  Women are less likely to take part in sport than men. Negative attitudes to sport as ‘appropriate’ activity are setting in for girls at an alarmingly young-age. And women’s sport coverage continues to be minuscule compared to that of men’s sport and the percentage of funding and sponsorship to elite women’s sport remains laughably small.

Allayed with this we have a dominant narrative about the role of women and their bodies that is about sexualisation: via The Fawcett Society we are aware that the 2014 Social Attitudes survey tells us that 77% of people consider that society puts too much pressure on women to have a sexualised appearance.

Girls and women-only sport presents an opportunity to develop an alternative narrative about the place of women in sport, the role of women’s bodies, and to develop a safe place for individual women and women collectively to take part in and challenge the inequality in sport.

When asked why they do not take part in sport, women will give a wide range of reasons covering the lack of time, access, role models, motivation, knowledge of what is available, poor experiences of sport at school, childcare, skills or knowledge etc.  And in essence, much of this comes down to men.  That is not to blame individual men, or even men collectively in groups, but to identify that so much of the current structure and system that we know of as ‘sport’ is constructed around men, and not the realities and experiences of women’s lives, and this is what excludes so many girls and women.

If you invest time, energy and, importantly, cash in constructing a different view, a space that specifically creates opportunities for women that they can lead and own, it works – as Sport England are demonstrating in Bury with their ‘I Will if you Will’ pilot and British Cycling have shown with their Breeze programme.

The popularity of a sport such as Roller Derby, which we have covered on Sport Watch, is for many women because it was a sport started by and around the lives of women. This faces new and different challenges now as men take up the sport.  I am a Breeze ride leader and I know first-hand how many women state that cycling in a women-only environment that is designed around their needs was key in deciding to get out on their bikes, what they tell me they get from this space includes:

  • New, supportive and welcoming relationships
  • A realisation that ‘women like me do this’
  • New women role models – and often the realisation that they can be a role model for someone else
  • A safe learning environment in which they can ask questions, try new things
  • Fun, enjoyment and plenty of chat about other non-sport stuff

Often, women ‘move on’ to other non-single sex sporting activities or clubs.  This is important because I am not advocating separatism – but girls and women only sport as one part of a coherent system, part of an overall strategy that engages them in sport.

Single-sex is not the right option for lots of girls and women but for many, and the evidence increasingly supports this, it is an important step on a journey of participation – for some women, it is the only step they wish to take.  Equally I am excited about the future prospect of welcoming men into sporting environments that are built around the realities of women’s lives and experiences, but that men want to take part in – and then we may be closer to achieving actual equality in sport.

So, this week and for the months ahead I will be celebrating and being inspired by ‘single-sex’ sport by following the progress of the SCA all-women race team in the Volvo Ocean Race – and yes, as a woman, I personally find this more inspirational than a mixed race team!


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