As I sat down to work the other week on an ordinary Tuesday morning, the small print in my diary announced that it was International Women’s Day. This year’s theme was #BreakTheBias which focuses on not just acknowledging gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping but advocates actively calling it out every time we see it. I couldn’t help thinking that this year’s theme couldn’t be more apt as it is simply not enough to only think about these issues on a dedicated day. In fact, after reading the results of a recent survey by the charity, Women in Sport, it left me in no doubt that our girls and young women need our support to excel every day.
Women in Sport found that over 1 million girls in the UK who had previously felt they were sporty in primary school had lost interest in sport once they became teenagers. And the explanations why this is so will be stubbornly familiar to many women who remember taking part in PE at school more than a decade ago. The report cited that the main reasons why girls had left sport behind were a fear of being judged and a lack of confidence in their own abilities. Some of the main barriers also identified that put girls off doing sport included the fear of leakage and feeling self-conscious whilst on their periods, a lack of incentive to do the limited range of sports activities on offer that they enjoyed, the belief that they didn’t have the right body shape to play sports and the widespread dislike of wearing uncomfortable sports kit. Worryingly, even the teenage girls who were still actively participating in sport at school and outside clubs suffered from a lack of confidence, felt that they were negatively judged by others and didn’t feel good enough.
Clearly there is a lot more that needs to be done to encourage girls from a young age to become active in the first place and to continue to keep them engaged in sport as they go through school. As the report categorically identified the increase in disengagement once girls become teenagers it is vitally important to look at how we can support them to keep playing sport during the critical time of transition from primary to secondary school overlapping with puberty. Of course, many of these challenges must be addressed at a higher governmental level to attract enough attention and crucial funding to make an effective change. After all, schools and sports bodies alike cannot possibly carry out ambitious new initiatives on the ground on sheer goodwill alone. But as parents, we can’t wait for things to change while our daughters quickly grow up. Women in Sport has shown there are already too many unnecessary barriers based in underlying sexism that are putting off our daughters from playing sport. Therefore, we must encourage our girls to stay active by following the lead of #BreakTheBias and teach them from a young age to call out sexism wherever they see it while also leading by example.
But knowing what you should be doing more of to support your daughter doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy. In fact, it can often feel like you are entirely on your own. Speaking for myself as a parent of 3 sports-loving children, I have to say that I was quite shocked to discover how much more difficult it was for my daughter to participate in the sports she liked than it ever was for her two older brothers. Essentially, my daughter learned from a very young age what sexism and inequality were because she had the audacity to want to play a sport that is traditionally taught to and played by boys in school. Despite there being no legislation in place preventing girls and boys from playing on the same sports teams whilst in primary school, there is still unquestionably more than a reluctance to allow them to play ‘boys’ sports such as rugby, football and cricket. Instead, they are limited to playing netball, hockey and rounders.
Now, some readers may be wondering what exactly the problem is when both boys and girls get 3 choices of sport each. Surely that is the definition of fair. Or do I actually expect the masses of hardworking undervalued PE teachers to teach all 6 team sports to every young child?! It would cause a huge amount of upheaval for the sake of political-correctness-gone-mad at the expense of having significantly less time to teach each sport well. Admittedly, there would be less time but what about some of the positives? It would mean that all children would benefit from getting an early exposure to sports that they may have never tried before. Wouldn’t that help more children to become more engaged in the sports they liked? I also question why PE even has to be segregated in primary school? Surely it is more conducive to promoting equality in sport if boys and girls learn them together.
For example, consider what sports the majority of all children play every day at school during their break time and lunch hour. All parents will know the answer to this from the poor state of their children’s school shoes. Unmistakably, it is football and sometimes rugby. The reason why these sports are so popular among children is because they are relatively simple for anyone to play and they only require a ball and a couple of jumpers to mark out goals. Yet even though girls are able to get a look in by playing these sports during their break times they still don’t get the chance to play on a team during PE to develop their skills further alongside their classmates. Consequently, boys get more access to training and practice to develop their skills in a sport than girls and it becomes a very effective way of ensuring that a ‘boys’ sport remains for the boys.
In my daughter’s case, she faced constant barriers to playing a boys’ sport while at primary school despite playing for an outside ‘mixed’ club where she was the only female player. Not that clubs that welcome girls don’t also present their own unique challenges. You have to be prepared for the occasional unhelpful and unintentionally insulting comments from other parents who mostly tried to rationalise why your girl is so good at a ‘boys’ sport. I cannot count the number of times I have heard my daughter being described as being a bit of a ‘tomboy’ or worse, that she was a good player because her older brothers were. Calling out and challenging lazy assumptions and stereotypes can be very awkward but if you don’t #BreakTheBias from the start, no one else will. You have to say it out loud almost like a mantra for your daughter and her teammates’ parents to hear. Your daughter is good because she is strong, fierce and fearless. And you have to keep saying it because you are going to need more people on her team to parrot it when it comes down to the matches. Because unless your opposition also happens to have a female player it takes a great strength of character to put up with some of the negative comments from the other team. That is, until the opposition is stunned into silence when their star player is outmanoeuvred and outrun by a girl.
Nonetheless, even if your school knows that a girl plays a sport for a mixed club, the chances being allowed to play in a rugby or football fixture in school is still minimal. One of the excuses often given to the girls who want to play is that they would be taking up a boy’s place on the team, regardless of whether they are a better player. The effect of this whether it is intended or not is that girls who may be amazing players are not recognised for their skills at school and are given the message that they do not belong and that they are not good enough for the team.
When this happens it may seem futile to even try to challenge the perceptions of your school’s sports teacher or principal. But it’s really important for every parent to routinely call this out in order to #BreakTheBias. It may take many uncomfortable conversations with your child’s school and you will likely be made to feel like a thorn in a teacher’s side but do not give up. Because whether you finally manage to change their mind and your daughter is allowed to play her favourite sport at school almost becomes a side issue. Ultimately, you have to call out sexism if only to teach your daughter two important lessons; first, that they matter in this world and second, that unfairness and discrimination is always wrong and must be challenged.
Once a teenager, it can become trickier to know where to start to help support your daughter to play sport. First, sports are more strictly segregated by sex in secondary schools and even mixed teams in clubs are pretty rare. But this doesn’t mean that there are more girls’ sports teams to join to replace the sports that are no longer mixed. In fact, things get harder as there are far fewer league teams for girls in all sports compared to the choices boys have. Which means that in order to play a sport not offered by your school, girls often have to join a team based much farther away. In my daughter’s case, the lack of girls’ teams meant that as an under 13yr old she had to play on a team made up of young women who were 2 years older than her. As any parent will know, the difference in body size between a girl who has or has not gone through puberty is significant. It then becomes even more crucial to continue to support them and motivate them play sport by committing more hours to taxiing them to training and fixtures whilst cheering them on from the sidelines. Feeding and supplying them with healthy food and drink also becomes another essential source of support because match teas served after games are rarely sufficient.
But back to secondary school sport, things also get worse in terms of opportunities and flexibility to play because girls’ sport doesn’t seem to be given the same importance or taken as seriously as boys’. To start with, it is pretty standard for boys’ PE classes to be streamed by ability whereas this is not the case for girls. But treating all girls as if they have the same homogenous skills and interests in the same sports doesn’t help anyone. Having to spend too much time on the basics of a sport only frustrates any more experienced sportier students and does nothing to encourage them from progressing their skill sets further. Nor does forcing students that are less sporty or interested in playing something they dislike help them to appreciate and value the important and far-reaching benefits of doing physical exercise. Streaming PE classes offers students a chance to try out different sports that meet their needs and interests which helps them to find something they truly enjoy. Obviously this would be far more likely to encourage exercise as a lifelong healthy habit. Surely it is just as important for our girls to take sport and exercise as seriously as we wish our boys to, if we want them to grow up and develop into strong, healthy adults. But try asking your school why girls’ classes aren’t streamed and you will be given a woolly answer around inclusion which apparently only applies to girls’ PE.
However, even if your daughter’s PE class is not the least bit inspiring, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still try to support her to help #BreakTheBias. By recognising the inherent unfairness and questioning the status quo of a school you are already planting a seed. You can encourage her to speak to her classmates and together ask to take part in some of the different sports and activities that they enjoy. If the PE class simply cannot accommodate anything that diverges from the curriculum there may still be merit in calling for more sports clubs of the type girls want. As all parents know, teenagers can be incredibly organised, creative and pretty stubborn when they really want something and sometimes it’s just a matter of finding a willing teacher or class assistant to support whatever they want to do.
The same goes for supporting your daughter when it comes to the contentious issue of sports kit. Probably since the dawn of time, secondary schools have been known as being notoriously inflexible about their school uniform rules. However, Women in Sport has only reaffirmed what every adult woman remembers. What girls are allowed to wear at school to play sport has a direct effect on how they feel about participating and should never be underestimated. As girls go through puberty it seems perfectly reasonable to believe that they should be able to wear sports kit that they find is comfortable and allows them to exercise confidently. Yet girls are often restricted by unnecessarily stringent school uniform guidelines which do not allow for anything different. Leggings and even thermals are a particular bone of contention in most schools because they are deemed to be too ‘revealing’ despite their ubiquitous presence in the wardrobes of women of all ages worn to exercise. Curiously, wearing these clothes exposes even less skin than girls’ regulation school kit and boys somehow have a free pass to wearing ’skins’ made of exactly the same materials.
All this does is to send out a clear message to girls that even when they are completely covered up, they are revealing a body that is somehow inappropriate and wrong. Many young women will undoubtedly feel more comfortable at times covering up rather than wearing an ill-fitting short skort. Is it really too much to allow them to have a little flexibility and choice in what they wear? At a time in their lives when their bodies are changing rapidly in shape and size there is already a lot of emotional upheaval and pressure related to body image. Therefore, it is not in the least bit helpful for schools to be so rigid. Needless to say, you cannot possibly keep young women engaged in sport if what they are having to wear to do it makes them feel uncomfortable and extremely self-conscious.
But how are you supposed to support your daughter to #BreakTheBias when not following a uniform guideline will only result in her detention? Following the axiom that there is safety in numbers, encourage her to speak up with her friends and try to come up with a compromise of the dress code. Can they find a sympathetic teacher to share their concerns with? Can they negotiate for a little more flexibility in the rules so that they can wear leggings under a regulation skort in school colours? Can there be any leeway for when they are doing sport in the winter months? Can the school supply more types of kit that they consider to be appropriate but that also meets the need of students of comfort and covers up?
Ultimately, as parents it is up to us to do everything we can to ensure that all of our children grow up to be strong and healthy and this carries on into adulthood. And an important part of this is making sure that exercise is a part of our family’s daily lives. Clearly Women in Sport has shown the extent to which our daughters need even extra support to keep involved with sports and activities as girls and teenagers. It may not be possible to magic away the structural disparities and sexism in PE classes and sport in schools, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep trying. Because the more that we can #BreakTheBias by calling out sexism and inequality wherever we see it, the sooner our girls will feel more supported and welcome to thrive on any pitch.
As any parent knows, doing sport works up an appetite so here is a recipe for a healthy after sport snack. With Easter just around the corner these Hot cross bunnies will go down well but they also happen to make a nice breakfast.