Women and sport: Why we must stand up for the disadvantaged

Photo of Jane AshworthJane Ashworth, Chief Executive of national sports charity, StreetGames, argues that the DCMS Inquiry on Women and Sport must not forget those who stand to benefit most: disadvantaged young women.

Last week, the Culture, Media and Sport select committee's call for evidence on Women and Sport in the UK closed. The committee is investigating what barriers remain to women’s participation in sport and how to overcome them.

I am delighted to see government taking this issue seriously and look forward to reading the full findings. We hope the committee will take into account the specific needs of young women from disadvantaged communities.

All members of society would benefit from participating in sport more often but those from disadvantaged communities – where health inequalities are greatest and where participation in sport is lowest – would benefit most from more people taking up an active lifestyle.

Today, disadvantaged young people can expect to live almost eight years less than their more affluent peers. Sport is a key way to address this.

Yet, young people from disadvantaged areas participate in sport far less than their more affluent peers and this gap is even greater for young women from disadvantaged areas.

This issue was highlighted by the latest data from Sport England’s Active People Survey 7 which showed that 49% of females aged 16-25 years from the top 20% highest socio-economic groups take part in sport at least once a week – while only 36% do so from the bottom 20% lowest socio-economic groups.

Part of the problem is that the current sporting offer does not always appeal to young women who have limited experience in playing sport. We also know that women who have limited or no previous sporting experience are unlikely to visit traditional sport settings and venues.

If you make a sports offer sound rough and sweaty, then, the not-very-sporty woman will be turned off. Tie in the sport with fitness, health, lifestyle and a strong social aspect, and then she might join in.

Photo of Us Girls logoIt’s just over two years since we created Us Girls, a programme supported by National Lottery funding from Sport England and designed to engage with disadvantaged young women. In this relatively short period, we have generated a wealth of knowledge and insight into how these young women want to engage in sport.

We have consulted with tens of thousands of young women across the UK which has shown us that there are many psychological/confidence related barriers to women participating in sport.

We have found that interventions aimed at engaging females are much more likely to succeed if they include elements aimed at raising confidence, self-esteem and body image as well as tacking physical barriers.

The young women are telling us that they want sport that is less formal, relaxed and is based on friendship groups and fun. We have therefore created programmes that combine these factors plus other elements our target audience want from a session including: delivery by an empathetic coach or leader, sociable and non-pressured sessions which showcase multiple activities, incorporate music and are female only.

Adapting the sporting offer to meet the preferences of this hard to reach group of women has returned positive results. Over the last two years Us Girls has engaged more than 34,481 young women (aged 16-25) in sport and an additional 8,800 under 16s/over 25s. Around 40% of the girls were not doing any sport or fitness before joining the Us Girls programme.

Yes, we have made positive strides there is much more to learn and achieve.

Our work with the national governing bodies is an example of how learning can be shared to successfully engage more women in sport. We have been working closely with The FA and England Handball to help them increase female participation within their sports.

For example, Us Girls has delivered training to The FA's regional management staff and to 200 football development officers that deliver the sport locally.

It’s critical that all organisations involved in, or that have an interest in women and sport, collectively work together to keep this issue on the agenda and get more girls in this country engaged in sport. We await the DCMS committee's findings with a great sense of anticipation.

Find out more about Us Girls.

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