Sport’s fantastic isn’t it? Even girls think so! Well… Er, actually… Girls do think so, yet the older girls and women get, the more uneven their participation in sports seems to be compared to men, with more blokes continuing (or even taking it up anew) their competitive games, but fewer girls (and I’m excluding the gym from this – I’ll come on to this later). Given the well known and publicised benefits of sport and exercise, and given the great psychological benefits of sports, particularly competitive and team sports, it seems a great injustice that such a gender gap exists in this age of onward marching equality. But never fear, for solutions there are! And, if we’re feeling cynical, there are some easy wins for the government, were it so inclined to claim big credit for little effort…
Sport boosts health, it boosts productivity, it boosts mental function, it boosts mental wellbeing, it boosts lifespan, it boosts social skills (even if it’s just how to hide your anger at losing), it boosts calculated risk taking, it boosts instinctual feel… it’s pretty good for you. Not only do all of the above benefit the individual, however, they all benefit society and the state (including lifespan, before you say anything – for example through longer working lives, assisting with the childcare of grandchildren, imparting wisdom to younger generations). Who wouldn’t want sharper, more energetic, affable, team playing, go-getters circling around the workforce, setting their healthy minds to business’s and government’s biggest challenges, having the drive to get things done and the energy to see them through?
Now I hear you all saying, “but my gym is dominated by women”. True, gym usage by both genders has shot up in recent years. But this isn’t sport. It’s just exercise. The gym is boring as hell, no matter what its defenders say (propped up on some weights bar, body relaxed in as far as their stiff muscles will allow them, telling you in their drowsy monotone of how the gym has made them a better person, sounding for all the world like a member of some cult led by a sex-starved egomaniac). In fact, it’s actually depressing. What’s more, it doesn’t offer some of the most important benefits of sport – competition (competition with yourself only goes so far), team ethic, the same level of psychological well being, actual enjoyment… In short, it seems unfair that we find ourselves in the situation in which girls clearly want to exercise (as evidenced by their presence in gyms), but feel that their best means of doing so is to only go to the gym, rather than to play an sport. How do we help this to change?
The turnaround has to start in schools. Even the gym-going female population only really start around he time they reach professional age. Before that, there’s very little encouragement for girls to get into sport. True, there are sports teams and activities available (more at girls’ schools than at mixed schools, in general), but the motivation and encouragement isn’t there. More extra-curricular sport is on offer for boys than it is for girls at secondary school. There are arguments to be made about a less natural interest among the female population, but that is exactly what needs to be addressed. In their manifesto, the government pledged to put more focus and money into primary school sport. They should ensure that this is spread evenly across more traditional girls’ sports as well as boys’ sports – yes, at that age girls are just about able to compete with boys directly on a sporting level, which is good for their development psychologically as well as physically, but as they get older and they cease being able to compete, there’s all too much danger that they just see themselves as being not made for sport. Give girls their own sports from the off (and be clear that this is not an inferior form of sport), as well as a sense of excitement at playing such sports, and when they come to secondary school the appetite, fingers crossed, will still be there. The task then is to make sure that there is enough on offer in secondary school to carry this interest through.
Then another aspect is related to this point of motivation – women’s sport needs a more prominent role in the national consciousness, and this role needs to be treated seriously and without mockery. The last few years have seen an increase in coverage across the mainstream media, both print and broadcast, and such efforts should be doubled down on as time goes on. Yes, women’s sport isn’t as physical, isn’t as much of a spectacle, is at a slower pace, blah blah blah and all that. But that is to miss the point. Young girls take an interest when they see older girls and women doing sport, an interest they don’t necessarily take in hairy men running around in short shorts and long socks. Seeing grown-up women on the screen not only gives them role models and heroes/heroines (choose correct noun depending on your sensibility) to emulate, but it also begins to demonstrate to them that sport can continue even as they get older – something they may not have seen from the women around them.
Broadcasters (particularly national ones) and newspapers clearly have a role to play in this, by first showing the matches and then by covering them with enough of a degree of interest to allow for a following to develop. But more crucially the government has the ability to make a huge difference to the popularity of women’s sport. In their manifesto, the current government pledged to continue bringing and running world class sports events to and in the UK, such as the UEFA European Women’s World Championships. They should make women’s sports events a key part of this pledge. Most other countries across the world have not yet begun to give women’s sport the focus it is beginning to enjoy in the UK. As a consequence, there is less interest in hosting women’s events. We therefore find ourselves in a position where, with very little competition (for example, no other country even bid to host the women’s world championships), we can bid to bring these events to Britain’s shores. Hosting these events would raise them high in the national consciousness, as they appear both on the TV and actually physically around people as they go about their every day life. Women’s sport would be demonstrated to be valued, respected, and encouraged in British society. The message would not be lost on the young girls of Britain’s future.
So it is within the government’s power to take a huge step forward for the girls of this country. And it is not very hard for them to take the steps they need to in order to achieve this. Girls need sport and exercise just as much as boys, and they deserve better than being relegated to the sweaty, dungeon-esque torture chambers that are gyms. Two steps. One – ensure the already promised funding is distributed equally across the genders. Two – enthuse about hosting women’s sports events. A long-lasting legacy for the government. Very little trouble for the ministers. And with an energised, happy, healthy workforce, the government will be contributing to its goal of “turbocharging” the economy. So let’s turbocharge girls’ sport!