Women and Sport - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. It is widely acknowledged that one of the major health issues facing the UK is the decline in physical activity by the population, leading to a rise in obesity and associated conditions. Physical activity also promotes mental well-being, and both participation in and viewing of sport are important parts of the UK's culture. It was widely hoped that the London Olympics and Paralympics would renew interest in participation in sport, leading to a growth in activity at the grass roots and encouraging the more talented to aspire to competing at an elite level.

2. Although the reasons for participating in sport apply equally to men and women, there remain stark differences between men's sport and women's sport. At the elite level, women's sport gains much less sponsorship and media coverage, and prize money is lower; at the grassroots level, participation by women is significantly lower than by men. We therefore decided to launch an inquiry into the barriers to women's participation in sport and how to overcome these. In particular, we focused on:

·  The availability of facilities for training and playing sport, for both girls and women, at elite and grassroots levels;

·  finance, including sponsorship and prize money;

·  media coverage of women's sport; and

·  the variety of sports on offer to girls at school.

We later added to this the importance of female role models, as elite sportswomen, coaches and managers.

3. We took oral evidence from a number of women involved in sport, Lottie Birdsall-Strong, a young footballer, Joanne Herbertson, a coach, and Chrissie Wellington, a triathlon champion; from organisations seeking to increase participation by women in sport, such as StreetGames, the Muslim Women's Sport Foundation and the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation; from a selection of sports governing bodies (England Netball, the Football Association, the Lawn Tennis Association, the Rugby Football Union) and from Premiership Rugby; from the media, the BBC, BT, Channel 4, Sky, the National Union of Journalists and the Sports Journalists Association; and from the sports authorities, Sport England—which has responsibility for promoting sport at grassroots level—and UK Sport (which is responsible for funding elite sport), and from the Minister for Sport, Mrs Helen Grant MP.

4. Many other organisations and individuals submitted written evidence to us. Both the written and the oral evidence that we received are published on our website.[1] We are very grateful to all who provided evidence to our inquiry.

5. During the course of our inquiry, there were frequent reminders that men's sport is accorded a higher status than women's, ranging from the comparatively unreported triumphs of women footballers to the extensive commentary on the make-up worn by some athletes at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, with a particularly unpleasant example of prejudice in the abuse on Twitter of the Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle.


6. For the year to April 2014 more than 7.2 million women and girls (aged 14+) took part in regular sport, which is 31.4% of the female population.[3] Whilst Sport England's Active People Survey (APS) measured some gains in women taking part in sport and exercise between the start of the survey in October 2005 and April 2014, the gap between men's and women's participation in sport remains, and there is growing concern about the participation of young women. The last full year of data (Active People 8) was for the year to April 2014, and this showed that 40.9% of men play sport once a week compared to 30.3% of women (nearly 2 million more men than women).

7. While about 590,000 more women have played sport once a week in 2013-14 compared with 2005 when London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, there are specific concerns about the younger age cohorts: at the age of 18 twice the proportion of women as men take part in no sport at all each month. Also, 16-25 year old women registered no growth in participation for several years, one of very few groups to show no growth, though the latest figure shows a small increase on October 2013.[4]

8. The more detailed analysis provided by our witnesses showed that women's participation is significantly lower among the lower socio-economic groups. In the higher socio-economic groups, about 35% of women play sport regularly, whereas this figure is just 23% for those in the lower socio-economic groups. The pattern is the same for girls aged 16-25, where—although the overall participation rates are higher than for older women—49% from the higher socio-economic groups take part in sport at least once a week compared to 36% from the lower socio-economic groups.[5]

9. The research also identified that location is an important factor, and women in the most deprived areas play sport the least. In the poorest areas of England (local authorities with the highest levels of deprivation), 27% of women play sport regularly, compared to 33% in the wealthiest areas. With over 5 million people living in the most deprived areas of England, and with 98% of these deprived areas being located in urban areas, there is a strong case for focusing investment in women's sport at these areas in an effort to get more women in the low income groups playing sport.[6]

10. The following graph (taken from Active People 6) shows that participation in sport and physical activity at least once a week declines with age amongst both men and women, but men (as represented by the top line) participate more than women in almost every age group.

This is not just a problem for the sports sector: it has been estimated that inactivity represents £8.2 billion of direct and indirect costs to the NHS,[7] and individually many women and girls miss out on all the positive health and well-being benefits that an active lifestyle provides.

11. The relative inactivity of women and girls, especially those in poorer communities, is not a result of lack of interest in sport and fitness. Recent research from the WSFF points to greater demand for sport from women than men, with 12 million women wanting to play more sport, over half of whom are currently 'inactive'. We were told that 74% of 15 year old girls would like to be more active.[8] British Cycling told us that over 64% of people said they would take up cycling if it were safer.[9]

12. The Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) argued that the gender participation gap is so persistently large that the Government (including the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Department for Education, Department of Health and Sport England) should produce an over-arching strategy to increase women and girl's participation in sport and physical activity; and that sport National Governing Bodies should be required to show how they would help deliver the strategy in return for public investment.[10]

13. Research by the WSFF shows that the drop in girls' participation levels begins to occur before the transition to secondary school. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that only 38% of seven year-old girls were achieving the recommended amount of physical activity, compared to 63% of boys.[11] Girls' activity declines between Years 4 and 6 at primary school, with this decline becoming more pronounced in Years 8 and 9. The same is not true for boys, meaning that by the age of 14 only 8% of girls meet recommended activity levels of one hour a day.[12] This has fallen since 2008, when 12% of girls met this level compared to 32% of boys.[13] By the age of 16, less than a quarter of girls, compared to 37% of boys, play sport three times a week (Active People 6); [14] and by 18, 65.9% of men play sport at least once a week, compared to 41.0% of women.[15]


14. Sport England has identified the main barriers to participation by women in sport as:

·  Practical/lifestyle barriers (such as having children, changing jobs, moving house; time and cost—including childcare costs; family responsibilities)

·  Personal/emotional barriers (Not knowing anyone/wanting to exercise with a friend; belief that muscular and sporty bodies are not feminine, not wanting to look silly)

Sport England found that the personal and emotional barriers were just as important as the practical ones, and would deter many women if not addressed. Poor body image and fear of not being fit enough to take part were significant issues, so it was important for women to experience exercising with people like themselves—in age, degree of fitness and competence—led by trainers with realistic expectations.[16] Lack of information was also identified as a significant barrier, compounded by a lack of time to look for information. Findings from Sport England's Active Women programme[17] show that word of mouth is the most important channel for raising awareness, with 40% of the women who took part hearing about the sessions through word of mouth, 80% recommending them to friends, and 60% bringing friends along with them. Other witnesses added to this list of barriers: lack of access by public transport; the cost of facilities and/or the equipment and clothing needed to participate; a lack of confidence or poor body image; peer pressure; cultural restrictions; the absence of positive role models (including among coaches); competitive or intimidating environments; the perception of clubs as cliquey and unwelcoming to new members.[18]

15. There is no shortage of information about the incentives and disincentives to women's participation in sport, and both the Government and other interest groups are well aware of them. Given the variety, inter-relatedness and complexity of the disincentives, however, there are no simple solutions, and tackling the problem will require imaginative approaches and concerted effort by a number of bodies, including government agencies, sport governing bodies, schools, the media and potential sponsors.

1   At http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/culture-media-and-sport-committee/inquiries/parliament-2010/women-and-sport/  Back

2   Most of the data in this section of the report is taken from Sport England's Active People Survey, which is now in the eighth year of operation. This is a survey of over 160,000 people in England. The data is robust, collected by expert survey companies, and is regulated by the UK Statistics Authority. Results are released every six months, and the figures are official statistics. The latest data is for the twelve months to April 2014 and is available from http://www.sportengland.org/research/who-plays-sport Back

3   Until December 2013, those surveyed were aged 16 or over, but from December 2013 14 and 15 year olds were included. At present, the APS is publishing two sets of results: one including 14 and 15 year olds, and the other just those aged 16 and over, to enable comparisons with earlier years. 14 and 15 year olds have a significantly greater likelihood of taking part in sport (not least because of sports lessons at school) than the older population. Back

4   WSFF (WAS0031), para 12 See also Q 240 On the latest small increase, see 'Sport England relief over rise in participation after the falls', Guardian, 13 June 2014, p 18 On the decrease in the gender gap as people grow older, see Q 241 Back

5   Sport England (WAS0039), para 13 Back

6   Sport England (WAS0039), para 14 Back

7   WSFF (WAS0031), para 7 Back

8   WSFF, Changing the Game for Girls, cited in DCMS (WAS0037), para 12 Back

9   Q211 Back

10   WSFF (WAS0031), Recommendations A and B. See also Qq34, 38-40 and 79 Back

11   Griffiths LJ, Cortina-Borja M, Sera F, et al, 'How active are our children? Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study'. BMJ Open (2013), cited in Youth Sport Trust (WAS0027), para 4 Back

12   Qq 8-9 and 264 Back

13   NHS Information Centre: Health Survey for England 2008, cited in Q7 Back

14   WSFF (WAS0031), para 27 and Q8 Back

15   DCMS (WAS0037), para 6 Back

16   Sport England (WAS0039), paras 16-19, Q 249 Back

17   Described in Sport England (WAS0039), paras 33-35 Back

18   Chrissie Wellington (WAS0024) plus BT (WAS0025), para 17 Back

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Prepared 25 July 2014