Bird’s Eye View: Gender Inequality In Sports

For the first time this year, women will compete in every competition at the Olympics. Surprised it’s taken this long to get on an even footing? Well think again, we’re far from equal when it comes to both participation and coverage.

By the age of 14, girls are dropping out of sport at twice the rate of boys and with only 12% of those 14 year olds meeting official guidelines for physical activity, this trend has worrying consequences for the future health and wellbeing of our gender.

We all know the teenage years can be tricky to navigate but just why do girls drop out of sport during adolescence when it’s so crucial that they’re kept engaged? Studies by the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation found that many young females are put off by the idea of sports being perceived as unfeminine which is hardly surprising when you consider the images of supposed female beauty they’re bombarded with. From the size zeros of the fashion mags to the overly sexualised images of botoxed, boob jobbed women like Katie Price, it’s really no wonder that girls develop skewed ideas of what it means to be feminine. With girls maturing faster than ever and developing body and image issues at an ever earlier age, surely it’s important that these are not the only images on their radar? So where are the images of strong, confident female athletes?

In the run up to the Olympics, we’ve seen female Olympians such as Victoria Pendleton celebrated and featured in magazines, adverts and on television which will go a long way in encouraging our youngsters to get involved. But will this coverage continue after the Games? In general women’s sports make up only 5% of all sports coverage meaning it’s doubtful young women will come across an image of a ripped and toned female athlete over a photograph of a continually dieting celeb once the Olympics have passed. Without coverage and positive female role models, it’s unlikely that women in their formative years will chose to break away from what is now perceived as ‘the norm’.

In a struggling global market, women’s events and coverage are often the first to be axed and with a lack of investment in women’s sports we have a real battle on our hands in order to make a change. I’ve often heard the argument from even my most enlightened male counterparts that the level of female participants (in skateboarding usually) is far below that of the men’s and therefore less deserving of both coverage and investment. But currently only 0.5% of commercial sponsorship is in women’s sports so we’ve hardly got a level playing field and when you’re battling against centuries of being held back, that argument just doesn’t hold with me. It seems obvious that the chronic lack of investment in women’s sports makes it harder for ladies to reach the top of their game which coupled with the fact your have to fight your way onto the pitch past decades of bias before you’ve even started makes things more than a little tricky.

So how to boost participation, investment and coverage? Here in the UK, the Women’s Sports And Fitness Foundation is taking things seriously after commissioning a series of reports into women’s participation and attitude to sports. Join their GoGirl campaign to shine a light on women’s sports.

Stateside, the Women’s Sports Foundation set up by Billie Jean King have a website dedicated to reversing the trend of young ladies dropping out. Recognising the need for role models to encourage young people, Keep Her In The Game boasts a huge roster of advocates including motocrosser Ashley Fiolek and skateboarder Lyn-z Adams Hawkins who are all onboard to give women’s sports the boost it needs. Lyn-z Adams Hawkins won X Games gold at the tender age of 14 so could not be a better role model, combining a devil may care attitude with an sunny, approachable personality which is sure to appeal to young teens.

But really, the best thing you can do is to get out there and get active, get involved, start changing things. Let’s flood the football pitches and the skateparks with women! I can only imagine how fantastic it would be if a girl could walk up and start playing or riding without even considering whether it’s appropriate or whether everyone is watching. I’ve spoken to countless mothers who are determined to raise their girls as active participants in many sports and they often ask me for advice and encouragement and quiz me as to why I’m ok with being one of only a few women hucking myself around on a motorbike or a BMX. For me it was luck and bloody mindedness; I was fortunate enough to have been raised not to question whether I can or can’t do something plus I seriously won’t let anything get in the way of my desire to have fun. I’m not a mother yet but I’d say that the best way to keep girls interested is to expose them to a large variety of sports which will help them grow in confidence, unlock their potential and develop a can-do attitude. Plus don’t act horrified when you see your girls take a tumble and come home with bloodied knees!

With a huge roster of incredible female athletes today it’s high time that events organisers and brand managers get on board and support these women and help make things happen.

For more on women in action sports, check out the Editor’s list of action sports websites to bookmark in her weekly Red Bull column.