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Women and Sport: priorities for participation, leadership and commercial investment



Charlie Macey, 30 January 2015


A wide-ranging group of sponsors, media professionals, policy makers and key stakeholders from across the sports sector gathered in London to highlight the priorities that lie ahead for women's sport in the UK.

The event was chaired by Barbara Keeley MP, Co-chair of APPG on Women's Sport and Fitness, and Tracey Crouch MP, Vice-chair of APPG on Women's Sport and Fitness and also a member of the DCMS Women and Sport Advisory Group set up in 2013 by then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Maria Miller.

Lisa O'Keefe, Director of Insight at Sport England, initially provided a stark picture of women's role in the sports sector and highlighted the need for understanding, in the wake of Sport England launching its This Girl Can campaign earlier this year

In particular, the European Inactivity Index highlighted that women living in the UK were among least active on the continent and recent surveys have suggested the gap between male and female participation in regular physical activity is rising, now at over 2 million.

She highlighted a tendency for sports programmes to be planned, delivered and evaluated too quickly, before taking time to define audiences. In order to do this, she said, 'we need to ask the different questions which revolve around the lifestyles, attitudes and barriers for participants.'

Sport England are unsure of when clear results of the innovative campaign would be realised, noting that the This Girl Can YouTube video has had over 5 million views since it was uploaded two weeks ago, along with a TV advert broadcast on free-to-air television. However, Lisa O'Keefe stressed the need for the campaign to be visual in order to generate a behavioural change that leads to a change in attitude, along with consistent messaging.

Throughout the morning, well-document schemes such as the Back to Netball, Parkrun and Breeze projects have had particularly positive effects on boosting participation. Helen Davey of Sport Coach UK also noted that Project 500, a pilot study across a few CSPs in South East England aimed at recruiting 500 coaches has also been a success.

A panel session on boosting girl's participation in school sport followed, with notable contributions from Dr Laura Hills, Senior Lecturer in Youth Sport at Brunel University and also Shaun Dowling, Head of Sport at United Learning. There was general consensus and advocacy for a cross-departmental approach (Department for Education, Department for Health and Department for Culture, Media and Sport) in order to tackle the barriers and the alarming drop-off in school sport participation of girls when they reach 13.

In her speech, Liz Nicholl, Chief Executive of UK Sport, highlighted the value of having women in high-performance sport for 'making the nation proud'. Recognising UK Sport's delivery sits at the top of the sporting pyramid, she highlighted that in order to achieve success, both school sport (through the Youth Sport Trust) and traditional community sport provisions (Sport England) needed to be world class.

41% of the 1300 athletes that receive funding from UK Sport are female, but she regarded this as adequate due to the number of events open to female participants across the major worldwide championships. Team GB's women has rapidly achieved a growing medal success at the Olympic Games, but the results are somewhat inconsistent in Paralympic sports. Despite the successes, only 10-15% of coaches at the top level are female. Liz Nicholl regarded this as "untapped potential" for women to get involved.

Sharon Hodgson MP, Shadow Minister for Women & Equalities, said that it was good to see role models at the top level, but in order to get women involved in elite sport we must also consider the backgrounds they come from.

A second panel session opened up a discussion on the role of elite female athletes, coaches and board members. Among others, Ruth Holdaway from Women In Sport emphasised the need to promote the role of women in leadership positions within the sports sector. Sport England are actively encouraging national governing bodies to have 25% of their board members composed of women, but WIS goes further to call for 30%. According to McKinsey (2011), this is the level that is required in order to generate a meaningful impact in a group and encourage sustainability.

Leading voices from the world of broadcasting, including Barbara Slater from BBC discussed the importance of promoting the role of women in sport in the media, one of the key objectives for the DCMS Women in Sport Advisory Board. For the year ahead, ground-breaking events such as the Women's Boat Race will be broadcast for the first time and the Women's Football World Cup will be shown on the BBC. Alex Kelham, managing associate & head of Sports Group at Lewis Silkin LLP, referred to the glaring low levels of sponsorship and commercial investment into female sport, which accounts for 2% of all deals. Tracey Crouch MP, chairing the debate, noted that she has raising this issue in Parliament in recent years, in particular in her role as a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.