All Party Group considers the future of women’s sport

On 17 May members of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sport considered the state of women’s sport and the opportunities presented by major events such as the London 2012 Games and the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Members were joined by guest speakers Gail Emms MBE, Sue Tibballs and Kelly Simmons and the meeting was chaired by Baroness Grey-Thompson DBE.

There is a clear challenge ahead when it comes to female participation in sport. Women hold just one in five top jobs in sport, investment in women’s sport lags far behind men’s and as little as two per cent of sports media coverage is devoted to female competitors and teams. According to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), only 12.8% of women take part in sport regularly, while over half say they would like to play more sport than they currently do.

Kelly Simmons, the Football Association’s Head of National Game, told all-party group members that women’s football had progressed healthily in recent years. The sport overtook netball in 2002 as the most popular female participation sport in England – where there are now over 150,000 FA affiliated female players. Members were updated about the Women’s Super League and the upcoming World Cup – two important opportunities to showcase women’s football and promote female role models in the sporting arena.

The Chief Executive of WSFF, Sue Tibballs, highlighted the discrepancy between recent successes at the elite level of women’s sport and declining participation at the grassroots. Of the forty-six sports funded by Sport England, only three are seeing rising levels of female participation. Members heard that while some schemes such as ‘Back to Netball’ were effective in encouraging women into sport, boosting participation ultimately requires a significant cultural shift.

Olympic Silver Medalist Gail Emms highlighted the importance of school sport, citing her own experiences as a Youth Sport Trust Ambassador. Schools have a role to play in allowing young people to experience a range of sports, she said, and should provide a comfortable environment to try new activities if the Olympic Legacy is to be protected.

During the discussion, members considered the role of national governing bodies and local authorities, the challenges of funding cuts and the nature of social attitudes towards women in the sporting arena. It was suggested that participation in sport has more to do with commercial initiative and popular culture than it has to do with physical education or government legislation. Members considered the extent of government involvement required to make a difference to women’s sport, and a number of positive initiatives – such as Wolverhampton Wanderers community programmes and the ECB’s ‘Chance to Shine’ programme – were cited as useful examples for others to follow.