A sporting summer?

By Heather Smith

Heather Smith is the Head of UK Programmes at Plan International UK, leading the strategic development and delivery of Plan International UK’s domestic work.  Ensuring the excellent delivery of existing programmes and working with the team to develop new programmes and relationships, with a focus on the long-term sustainability of the charity’s work through fundraising.

The Olympics

With a number of nations around the world entering more women than men in their national Olympic squads for Tokyo 2021 it feels a good time to pause and reflect on the gender balance we see in so many sectors across the UK.

Of the 613 athletes on this year’s US Olympic team, 329 are female – the most women any country has ever sent to the Olympics and of the 376 athletes selected, Team GB took 201 female (53.5%) and 175 male athletes (46.5%) to Tokyo.  

Mega and Major sporting events, such as the Olympics, are an incredible platform for inspiration, and we know role modelling can play a significant role in the development of young people’s identity and understanding of societal norms. For example, the FA attribute much of their success in hitting the target doubling participation and getting 3.4million women and girls playing football by 2020 to the Women’s World Cup in 2019.

Participation levels

Yet despite these positive steps being made in elite sport, we are still seeing a disconnect with overall participation levels in sport and physical activity. With the latest Sport England statistics (active lives survey 2019-20) telling us  boys are still more likely than girls to get active at every age. This suggests that despite the best efforts of sports and athletes to demonstrate to girls that sport IS for them, the message simply isn’t getting through.

Having been personally involved as a player, coach, volunteer, professional administrator and even an early years business owner in sport for my entire life, I have felt the impacts of stereotyping first hand. On sharing that I was a rugby player, almost without exception the first question back would always be ‘oh, as in touch rugby’, assuming that as a woman I wouldn’t be taking part in something as unfeminine as a contact sport, and as a coach often overlooked next to male counter parts or given younger or less experienced teams to work with – you know because women and more nurturing so good for the little ones. 

Sport and gender

Sport is a fascinating area to consider gender and gender equality, the physical differences in men and women (which for note only really becomes significant after puberty) lead us to a place of unfair comparison. While there is no disputing the physical differences in male and female physiology, there is evidence to show that at a younger age where the physical disparity doesn’t exist on average, it is the socialisation of children that sets girls back. With lower expectations and fewer opportunities for them to take part all under pinned by the stereotype that sport is something men and boys do.#

Experiences of girls

Looking more broadly and into spaces where gender gaps are often less visible or easily demonstrable, we know that gender is playing a role in the lives of young people and disproportionally it is girls that are feeling the negative impacts. In Plan International UK’s State of Girls Rights in the UK report, through a survey we conducted in 2019, we found that six in 10 girls aged 14-21 think males are treated better than females in the UK. These girls noticed this difference in the media (72%), at school (41%) and even at home (22%). Girls are facing issues like sexual public harassment (including online), they are being oversexualised, dealing with constant pressure to look a certain way due to the constant bombardment of distorted images and ideals of femininity, they still face a culture of shame and silence around periods and with some girls facing further marginalisation due to their race or geographical location with a lack of representation and a whole host of negative gender and racial stereotypes. 

Gender stereotyping

When we start to explore why this is it is hard to escape gender stereotyping as a root cause for these broad and varied symptoms. Often unconscious and socialised into us from a young age stereotypes if left unchecked, can be harmful and constraining for boys, girls and all young people. They lead to societal norms that encourage difference in genders and young people to behave and interact in ways that ultimately lead to harm.  

From gender reveal parties which label boys as blue and girls as pink before they are even born through the subtle cues children’s clothes give us – boys hard wearing and practical and girls focused on being aesthetically pleasing at the expense of practicality (if you have ever watch a child try and ride a bike in a long dress that will resonate!), then through school and education boys being, unconsciously given more attention in the classroom asked to carry the heavy things, and girls being told sport, science and practical subjects aren’t for them both directly and sub consciously. Young people have an uphill battle to break free of these.

The binary nature of these stereotypes is also problematic in themselves, as young people become increasingly aware of gender and as a generation are questioning gender identity the more harmful, they become.

Plan UK

In the UK Programmes team at Plan International UK we are looking for ways to give young people the understanding, skills and experience to critically analyse the world around them and make informed choices for themselves about what is and isn’t for them. Working alongside organisations like Lifting Limits and others in the sector we hope to bring awareness to the institutions, organisations and care givers that surround young people so we can start to create whole system change for young people and start to prevent these harmful norms we subject them to daily.

It is so important that we all become aware and whether in big ways like Team USA and Team GB signal equality in opportunity, or personally in small ways by checking our language and own bias start to take conscious steps to challenge stereotypes.

Heather graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2007 with a degree in Sport Science and before joining Plan International UK, Heather was the Head of Partnerships, Programmes and Public Affairs for Women in Sport, following a career in community sport via British University and Colleges Sport (BUCS), the Rugby Football Union and Rugby Football League.

Utilising her leadership skills in a voluntary role for British American Football Association Heather is a non-executive director for the board and member of the inclusion and diversity committee.

Heather was part of the Sport Industry Group’s NextGen Leaders in 2017. In 2016, she launched Half Backs, a fun and engaging rugby-themed activity business for young children ages two to six. She has since sold Half Backs but is still actively involved in rugby union as a volunteer, having retired from a 20-year playing career.