Given that Britain has no shortage of inspiring female sporting role models such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Lizzy Yarnold and Nicola Adams you would hope that there would have been significant progress in narrowing the gender gap in grassroots participation in sport. Unfortunately as our recent Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report highlighted, there remains a consistent gap of female participation compared to men across all age ranges and ethnicities.
Since the Olympics, 590,000 more women are taking part in sport. However, 2 million more men than women play sport every week. A further worrying development is that girls aged 16-25 has shown little growth in participation over the past few years.
Sport helps develop a healthy lifestyle. Getting people to be more active is the best way of combating the obesity crisis which Britain faces. Investing time and money in encouraging increased physical activity more than pays for itself in savings to the NHS budget.
So government should help tackle the barriers women face. These range from the practical like lack of information and cost/distance of local facilities– to the personal, with poor body image and a lack of positive female role models frequently cited as concerns which are discouraging women from getting involved in sport. Some men might still put up with changing facilities that consist of the car park or the side of the pitch, but women quite rightly do not.
Most people know that I have been a season ticket holder at Manchester City for 31 years. I am proud to say that City have been playing a leading role in promoting women’s football by investing in and supporting our women’s team. It sets a good example, and has raised the profile of women’s football in the community. So far the same cannot be said about our near neighbours at Manchester United, who remarkably do not have a women’s team.
I have written to both David Moyes and now Louis Van Gaal to encourage them to form a women’s team. Top clubs need to show more leadership on this issue, as they have a crucial role to play in encouraging the grassroots growth of the women’s game.
Next month, I am hosting an event in Parliament with Heather Rabbitts, who leads on this for the FA, to discuss how they can help.
The media must also play its part. The insulting, sexist, coverage on the looks of athletes such as Beth Tweddle and Rebecca Adlington only serves to reinforce the body insecurities which are stopping many from getting involved in sport, particularly those in the 16-25 age group where the gender gap remains most significant.
The issue is wider than just competitive sports. What matters is enabling sporting activity women feel most comfortable with. Evidence presented to us found that many girls were being put off taking part in sport at school by a lack of choice and overly competitive environments.
Our report found that exercising with people like themselves—in age, degree of fitness and competence— encouraged women to take part. It also seems that word of mouth is the most important channel for raising awareness, with many encouraged to take part by friends and peers.
As such, encouraging participation in sport is a virtuous circle: the more women who get involved in sport, the healthier they are. That is why we need to tackle the issue now.