Adapting sports to lifestyles of girls and women is key

25 July 2014

Culture, Media and Sport Committee expresses concern about the long-term health and social care implications of  low participation rates in sport by women and girls. In a report published Friday 25 July the Committee urges a more imaginative approach to engaging women in sport.

The Committee is especially concerned that many girls are put off sport by their experience of school games lessons, and it focuses a number of its recommendations on making school sport more appealing to girls.

Women's participation in sport

Almost without exception, whether the comparison is made by ethnic group, income status or age, women and girls are less likely to participate in sport than men. Women’s sport has for too long been seen as an add-on to men’s sport, of less interest to both male and female spectators, and even, among some people, as unfeminine.

Girls give up sport at an earlier age than boys, and are less likely than men to sustain participation into adulthood, as other responsibilities reduce leisure time. Even for those who do want to continue to participate, there are problems of accessibility, availability of suitable facilities and cost.

Women's sport and the media

At elite level, there has until recently been a reluctance in the media to cover women’s sport, which arguably has dampened potential interest among spectators and possible commercial sponsors, which in turn has led to low interest amongst the media. This situation was already changing before the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, but the successes of UK sportswomen in 2012 have given an impetus to the media to cover women’s sport.

However, more work is needed to entrench the virtuous circle of good media coverage/higher spectator or viewer engagement/greater sponsorship and a more attractive product/greater media interest.


  • In schools, the Committee recommends co-operation with other providers to make a wider range of sports and fitness activities available, better training for PE teachers, a more equitable distribution of finance between boys’ and girls’ sport and better facilities—especially changing facilities.
  • While recognising the strain on budgets and the huge task in, for example, updating changing rooms and installing all-weather facilities, the Committee is concerned about the potential further losses of sports facilities, whether through closure or simply as a result of lack of maintenance. The Committee suggests that provision of some basic facilities—pitches, swimming pools, sports halls—at low cost should be seen as a contribution to public health rather than a leisure programme.
  • Even where facilities are available, insufficient thought is often given to the needs of women or groups of women: for example, sports halls are built with public viewing galleries or women-only swimming sessions are patrolled by male lifeguards, which means that Muslim women and others with similar cultural restrictions cannot participate.
  • The Committee supports Sport England’s approach of reducing funding to National Governing Bodies (NGBs) whose performance is lack-lustre and giving other bodies the opportunity to invest imaginatively in local schemes for boosting participation in their sports.
  • The Committee believes that there should be an additional target in the Government’s Youth and Community Strategy for increasing the participation of women and girls, but—to avoid over-burdening sports with too many potentially conflicting requirements—it should be imposed only on those NGBs that are not seriously addressing the potential for growing women’s participation in their sport.
  • As far as elite sport is concerned, the Committee noted a number of initiatives by NGBs to attract greater media coverage and/or commercial sponsorship, some of which involved linking women’s sport to the men’s game (for example, holding women’s Six Nations rugby matches just before or just after the men’s equivalent), some to marketing the sport in a completely new way (such as netball), some to moving fixtures to a time when it was easier for broadcasters to cover them more extensively (such as the women’s FA Cup Final). The Committee believed there was scope for more sports to adapt in this way, and also to promote their sportswomen and to provide commentary and narratives in a way more likely to engage the media and therefore public attention.
  • However, efforts also needed to be made by the media and commercial sponsors, who—the Committee considered—were missing a comparatively underdeveloped marketing opportunity by failing to engage with women’s sport. The Committee urged national newspapers to publish the results of women’s matches alongside the men’s, and called on journalists and commentators to refrain from making gratuitous derogatory remarks about  the sportswomen. 

Senior level positions

The Committee argued that while having more women journalists or in senior management and board posts is not an end in itself, it may serve to increase understanding of women’s views and needs at the levels where decisions on the future strategies of sports are made, and it also helps the image of sport in general to become less masculine.

The Committee welcomed the progress that has been made in opening leadership positions in sport to women but noted that some sports are lagging badly behind, and that the FA appears to have made little progress in this regard since the previous Committee’s report in 2006. 


One area where the presence of women makes a great difference to sportswomen is coaching. It was strongly argued, on the basis of both surveys and the experience of elite sportswomen, that women would be encouraged to take part, and persist, in sport were there more female coaches. The sporting authorities are trying to encourage more women to become involved in coaching.

However, not only are women deterred from becoming coaches by the low pay and long and inflexible hours, but also it appears that some at least meet with sexism and lack of respect among both players and fellow coaches. If sports governing bodies are serious about encouraging greater participation by women, then they must take action to drive this sort of behaviour out of their sports.

John Whittingdale MP, Chair of the Committee, said

"Sport still has too male an image, and it will require efforts from sport governing bodies, the media, schools and government departments and agencies to encourage us all to view sporting activity as a normal activity for women, which should be encouraged and facilitated.

Good habits are learnt early, and it is a sad fact that many girls are put off sport by school games lessons. Many of our recommendations therefore are aimed at increasing the variety of sports on offer, and making it easier for girls and women to participate in locally available, affordable activities adapted to their lifestyles. Some sport National Governing Bodies have been more inventive and quick to adapt than others.

We urge Sport England to continue to pressure the under-achievers to learn best practice from others, and we look forward to the outcome of Sport England’s imaginative initiative in Bury which aims to adapt sport to women’s lifestyles rather than expecting the reverse.

As far as elite sportswomen are concerned, we must build on the very positive exposure given to them by the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. There is scope for greater, and better, media coverage and more commercial sponsorship, but again NGBs must be prepared to put effort into presenting and marketing women’s sport in interesting ways."

Further information 

Image: iStockphoto

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