This girl can, and she will

The fight for equality in sport is not over

Athletics varsity 1500m 2018

The ‘This Girl Can’ campaign was launched by sport England in 2015, with the goal of promoting women’s involvement in sport. Since then, the initiative has been incredibly successful and is credited with inspiring nearly 150,000 more women to take part in sport within nine months of its launch. Additionally, the gender gap in sport closed in England by half a million people after two years of the campaign.

The ‘This Girl Can’ website continues to offer inspiring and interesting stories from a variety of women taking part in sport and a multitude of suggestions for how others can get involved. This week Oxford is supporting the campaign as it does each year through the BUCS ‘This Girl Can week’, with a series of events and activities being put on for women to try new sports and find out more.

The chief success of the campaign to me is its focus on a large proportion of women who feel uncomfortable with exercising due to feeling intimidated, being worried about their appearance and getting sweaty or are insecure about their ability or body type. Anxieties over exercising and physical insecurities hold back so many women from exercising, and it is was refreshing to see the campaign take on more issues such as beginning exercise again after pregnancy or whilst having a busy job, partaking in sport at any age, exercising in your own home or on a budget. The campaign also offered up a wide range of activities from dancing to walking or skateboarding.

The campaign is now also focusing on building up confidence through sport and the mental health benefits of exercising, an issue which has long been overshadowed with women often working both in the work place and at home as carers or parents and having to deal with high levels of stress.

As someone who has been running competitively since I was eight years old, played in nearly every sports team available at primary school and then started to swim for my club before school in secondary, I consider myself a girl who loves sport. Running and exercise is something which contributes to my happiness, physical health, and social life. I am very excited by the effect of this campaign, its increasing diversity and the upward trajectory of women in sport, but I also feel that there are significant barriers which we need to overcome and problems which need to be illuminated.

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Sport can give women a sense of self-worth beyond achievements in academic or creative realms. By being a winner, an important participant or simply feel strong in their own bodies, women can break down traditional gender roles and hierarchies. However, girls are often pushed to breaking point, with competition becoming too intense and creating paralysing fears or a desire to strive for perfection which can lead to mental health problems and eating disorders. I have seen far too many girls in sports teams suffer from such issues. We need to build up support networks and a dialogue around women’s sport to reduce the risk of problems such as dealing with stress, failure and body insecurities, and effective and healthy nutrition.

In speaking to some Oxford university students about issues which they have experienced in sport it became apparent to me how broad ranging this problem is. A PPE student told me that she feels that there is a point in our adolescence in which girls can no longer just play sport for fun and only have an excuse to continue if they are very good or made the team, with PE lessons often becoming sharply divided between sports stars and a rising number of girls sitting out.

Another expressed that she felt many girls don’t want to join sports like judo, which she enjoys, due to fears of getting too bulky or being intimidated by male participants. She said that for her this fear also extends to the gym where the weights section feels like a ‘no-go zone’ as a masculine domain. In order to break down these fears in women’s sport, we need to bring sport into the wider debate around gender and try to reduce forms of ‘lad culture’ or predatory behaviour that put off women.

A second year English student told me of her experiences, “I shut myself off from sporting opportunities and associated sport with a type of person I distinctly was not. It has taken me years to learn that the benefits of sport, being part of a team, committing to exercising frequently and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, are not exclusive to a particular elite group.

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“You are allowed to commit to things you are bad at; and by committing to them you get better. This has pushed me to join both touch rugby and rowing at university. I am constantly surprised by the progression you make when you consider yourself to be valid, no matter where you start from.” It is this fear, which is tied into both physical appearance and not appearing ‘good enough’ at sport which can shroud exercise in negativity for so many women and which will take systematic changes to undo.

Men’s sports fixtures continue to dominate our screens and our newspapers. Women’s sport won’t be taken as seriously as men’s sports, unless radical change is implemented. We know from the dramatic impact of the 2012 Olympics on sports participation in Britain that representation matters and seeing a woman performing at the highest level can draw girls into sports. If we are committed to equality then we need to extend this commitment to the field of sport.

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