Rosemary Butler – Barriers to women in sport

Why is it that fewer women than men take part in sport, in both the professional and amateur arenas? This was the question posed at the National Assembly for Wales on 8 March, at an event organised to mark International Women’s Day.

The Assembly’s Presiding Officer, Rosemary Butler AM, outlines why she thinks this situation is unacceptable….

Kelly Smith, Hope Powell or Rachel Yankey are all leading figures in the women’s game, and have media and public profiles that make them household names in many homes across the country. In many cases they outperform professional male sportsmen in the recognition stakes.

But according to research, when Kelly played for Boston Breakers in the Women’s Professional Soccer league in the USA, there was a salary cap that limited the average wage to $32,000. It has been reported that, at the same time that Kelly played for Boston, David Beckham’s annual salary at LA Galaxy was around $6.5m.

I’m not necessarily saying that women footballers should be paid the same as men, that would be a far too simplistic analysis. Men’s football draws in huge worldwide television revenues which filters down through the top clubs to the players.

But I highlight these stark figures to point out the chasm between the profile of professional sportswomen and their male counterparts, particularly in the media. Of course there are the exceptions, such as Jessica Ennis, Laura Trott, Nicola Adams and Wales’s very own Jade Jones, who had massive media coverage during last year’s Olympic Games.

But when you look closely at the amount of television coverage that is dedicated to women’s sport, the reality hits you. According to the Women’s Sport & Fitness Foundation (WSFF), only 5% of sports media coverage is devoted to women and 0.5% of commercial investment. There are debates going on in many sports about this issue, not least whether there should be parity of prize-money in tennis.

But when you look at the low media profile of many women’s sports, and sportswomen, it’s not surprising that there’s a knock-on effect on women’s participation in sport in general.
Here in Wales 62 per cent of men take part in sport compared to 51 per cent of Women (Source: Sport Wales). Participation in sports clubs is also male dominated, 22 per cent of men compared to 11 per cent of women. That’s why on International Women’s Day the National Assembly for Wales put this issue at the top of the agenda. Laura McAllister, chair of Sports Wales (Wales’s sporting umbrella body) led a discussion with female athletes, including five-time Olympic Rhythmic gymnast and 2012 Olympian Frankie Jones, about the barriers to sport that women face.

One of the main points to be raised was that figures reveal that girls drop out of sport mostly between the ages of 11 and 16. But discussions also focussed in on issues such as adult women struggling to get back into sport after not participating for a number of years. Delegates pointed to the media taking more responsibility to ensure the profile of women’s sport is increased, whether that be coverage of sporting events or more documentaries pointing women in the direction of sports they’d perhaps never thought of trying.

Laura McAllister raised a very interesting point about the NHS playing a far bigger role in the promotion of physical activity amongst women as part of its prevention campaigns against ill-health. We called it physical literacy, but it was just one of a series of suggestions that came out of this very positive meeting.

Everyone agreed that there are barriers including a lack of role models, a need for a more diverse range of activities on offer to women of all ages, unsupportive authority figures in school or the wider community and simply the poor profile in the media. 

Things are beginning to change but I believe it is happening too slowly. It was good to see so many women with positive stories to tell and my message to you all is to look at these examples and get involved, because perhaps the biggest barrier in sport is the fear of having a go – that should never stop any of us.

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