This week in the UK it is Women’s Sport Week 2016, an initiative driven by broadcasters like the BBC and Sky, groups like Sport England and Women in Sport, and even the Department for Culture, Media and Sport aka the actual government.
From interviews and guest columns on the BBC (there was something good on Radio 4 either this morning or sometime last night…falling asleep and waking up to the radio gets a bit confusing) to local events getting girls and women involved this week is a celebration and promotion of all things women and sporty.
Big pushes like this are fantastic, and make such a huge difference in the public perception of women’s sport, particularly with events like the BBC’s Women’s Sport Trust discussion about how women’s sport and athletes are represented in the media and by brands, and have a great deal of impact on the overall perception of women’s sport, but, as with all forms of social and cultural change, flagship events alone are not enough.
1.4 million fewer teenage girls participate in sport than boys in the UK, and for years this has basically been accepted as the norm. Of course girls don’t want to play sport; why would they choose to get hot and sweaty when they could go shopping and buy makeup and things to make them look nice?
An exaggeration obviously, but only a slight one. From my own school experiences and from talking to my friends who play sport now, and those who don’t, there isn’t a particularly quantifiable reason that so many of us drifted away from sport as teens, but the feeling that girls weren’t really ‘supposed’ to take sport seriously is a recurring element of all our reasoning.
And that is the key concept that needs to be dealt with – girls aren’t supposed to play sport. You can see traces of this dangerous and outdated mentality across sport, from its highest level where female international players are still amateurs and the men are pros, right down to kids, who are so affected by social norms without really being aware of them, and sisters not being taught to play football alongside their brothers.
It’s part of a much wider cultural expectation which is undeniably damaging young girls, and sport is only a small aspect, but its precedent and ripple effects shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s well proven that people who are more active are healthier both physically and mentally, and learning skills like teamwork, leadership, and decision making under pressure come naturally on the pitch. It is, frankly, ridiculous that girls are still prevented from enjoying the benefits of sport because of cultural pressure. Bend it Like Beckham is 14 years old for god’s sake – we moved past Ugg boots and denim miniskirts, we can move past this!
There are, of course, positive signs of change creeping through everywhere. My old school, driven by Headmistress Lucy Pearson, ex-England Cricket international, started a girls’ cricket club because why the hell not. In September, I watched eight or so old rugby players be given blue stripy shirts in front of a couple of hundred people. In December, I’ll be watching fifteen girls in blue stripy shirts take on fifteen girls in dark blue shirts in Twickenham, in front of thousands of people.
It may only be one university rugby team (well, two…but we don’t talk about The Other Place), but it’s a symbolic, and significant, step in developing true equality between men’s and women’s sport. When a few optimistic women started CUWRFC (as it was) in the 80s, they played their first Varsity Match in pink shirts because the boys wouldn’t let them play in the same colour as them. Even three years ago the women weren’t allowed to play on the university pitch, and it was down to the medic students to act as pitch-side first aid. Amongst all of this there was the undercurrent that women shouldn’t really be playing rugby, that the boys were indulging our weird whim by letting us even get that much.
Now, after the merger in 2014, the women have four coaches, dedicated physios, and a new name: CURUFC Women. There are still far too many urinals in the changing rooms, but the fundamentals are changing, or have been changed. The women play in light blue hoops just like the men, and subtle differences are evident everywhere – now the season fixture lists have ‘women’s’ and ‘men’s’ matches, rather than the implicit ‘real’ rugby and ‘women’s’ rugby as a sideshow.
Women’s sport is increasingly being respected as its own entity, undercutting the ‘justifications’ that women aren’t as fast, or as strong as men, and therefore their matches aren’t as interesting to watch. Men’s hockey is slightly speedier and more brutal than women’s for sure, but I defy anyone who watched GB claim victory over the Netherlands this summer in the Olympics to genuinely believe that the men would have provided a more interesting match.
It will take years of flagship events and grassroots effort but we are moving in the right direction. I fully expect that every girl who plays football or rugby, or who climbs, or who does any sport that isn’t traditionally ‘girly’ (and even that is a load of rubbish) to continue to face the question, “but why”. But the tide is turning and people are starting to realise what we’ve known for years, that #thisgirlcan do anything she wants to. And it’s about bloody time.