Health barriers for girls and women in sport – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Women and Equalities Committee

Related inquiry: Sexism and inequalities in sport

Date Published: 5 March 2024

Download and Share


UK women’s sport is experiencing a surge in media coverage and public interest. Breakthrough events such as the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 football championships, so memorably won by England’s Lionesses, and the FIFA Women’s World Cup last year are translating into a sustained increase in the profile of women’s sport, not only in football, but across a range of sports, including cricket’s Ashes series and The Hundred and Six Nations rugby.

This increased attention has brought into the spotlight the inequality of support for, and lack of understanding of, the health and physiological needs of women and girls across sport.

Scrutiny of the ongoing anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee injury issue in women’s football has shown that there is systemic gender inequality in sports and exercise research, which is still overwhelmingly conducted by men, looking at issues affecting men. The sports science sector’s response to the ACL issue has been disparate and slow. We have no doubt that a health issue of similar magnitude affecting elite male footballers would have received a faster, more thorough, and better coordinated response.

While female footballers in the UK have enjoyed great success at club and national level, they have done so wearing ill-fitting footwear. Few football boots designed for women are available, and those that do exist are rarely stocked or promoted by the UK’s leading high street sports retailers.

The Government must convene a taskforce, including UK Sport, the UK Sports Institute, women’s health and fitness experts, sport and exercise research institutes, and the UK divisions of leading sportswear and sporting goods brands, to develop a long-term strategy to tackle sportswomen’s health and physiology-related issues, including those related to sportswear and kit.

In schools, teaching about girls’ health and physiology, including the menstrual cycle and periods in the context of sport and physical exercise, must be drastically improved, and delivered consistently by trained teachers to girls at a much earlier age. There is overwhelming evidence that school PE and sports kit can have a devastating impact on girls’ confidence to participate in and enjoy school sport. There must be strong and clear guidance that schools should offer the widest possible choice of kit. There needs to be an increased focus not only on girls’ participation in school sport but also the enjoyment they derive from it.

Our inquiry has shown that the level of knowledge of and support for female health-related needs varies between individual coaches and coaching teams. There must be a coordinated, cross-sector effort to share best practice, to ensure that all girls and women receive adequate support from appropriately qualified coaches. Coaches at all levels must be educated in female health, including through mandatory qualifications.

Deplorable instances of harmful coaching practices that have disproportionately affected girls and women, such as public weighing, fat-shaming, and bullying in swimming and wider sport have damaged trust in sports governing bodies. We expect Sport England to continue to oversee Swim England’s attempt to restore trust until it is fully achieved. We expect to see tangible results from the Government’s call for evidence on integrity in sport.

A long-overdue culture change is taking shape in sport around pregnancy and maternity but there is a long road to travel, both in maternity pay and leave and the wider culture of supporting pregnant women and mothers. A sector-wide working group must be established on achieving equal access to leave and funding/pay in line with statutory maternity rights, across all international sports.

Physical exercise is particularly important for women in midlife, with substantial physical and mental wellbeing benefits, but women in this age bracket face specific barriers to participation, including perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms, gendered caring responsibilities for children and elderly relatives, and the time pressures of work when many women are at the peak of their careers. There has been far too little attention paid to the needs of this group. Current initiatives, including the Government’s Get Active strategy need strengthening. The Get Active strategy should be updated to include an analysis of barriers faced by women in midlife, measurable targets to increase their levels of activity, and specifically tailored interventions.