Denise Lewis - need extra encouragement to participate in sport.
“I always wanted to play football. When I was 11 I captained the local boys’ team, Ripon City Panthers. But when I turned 12 I wasn’t allowed to anymore. The FA stipulated that girls couldn’t play with boys from that age. So I was basically disenfranchised from then onwards.”
Lucy Mills, now 29, plays for Tower Hamlets Women’s Football Club and has a vital place on its committee organising pitches, kit, coaching and funding. She says of a lack of school and local girls teams, coupled with FIFA and FA regulations banning gender mixing from the age of 12, led to an exile from the beautiful game that only ended when she moved to London from North Yorkshire to study at Queen Mary’s where she joined the college team.
“I missed out big time on my football development during my formative years,” she says with more than a tinge of regret.
Statistics released last month show that Mills’ commitment to sport is atypical for women her age but the story of her teenage years isn’t. According to the figures only one in eight women, compared to one in five men, play sport regularly. The statistics also revealed, to the shock of many, that this gap between the sexes is widening.
The results come from the annual ‘Active People’ survey commissioned by Sport England – the arm of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that invests lottery and government funding – which asks around 113,000 women about their relationship with sport. This year’s feedback showed that since 2008 the number of women regularly participating in sport – as defined by 30 minutes at moderate intensity at least three times a week – has fallen by 61,000 to 2.727million, while the number of men doing the same has risen by 176,600 to 4.203million.
Sue Tibballs, Chief Executive of Woman’s Sport and Fitness Foundation described the increased divide as “worrying” and urged all sports to “become much better at understanding the barriers preventing women from taking part and then developing an offer which suits their individual needs.”
WSFF campaign to make “physical activity an integral part of life for women” and have highlighted numerous disparities which at present prevent the sexes from becoming engaged in sport in the same way. As well as differences in access to facilities, financial capabilities and the need for childcare, WSFF point to a cultural perception of sport thatinhibits women from taking part. Issues with body image, clothing, and parental influences are all concerns that contribute to an environment where it’s easier for females to slip out of sport than to take it on.
Sport England recognised this gender imbalance in November by offering up a £10million cash pot open to sports clubs and initiatives, which specifically target females and make it easier for them to become involved. The fund is primarily aimed at groups which help women who have children to care for or come from deprived backgrounds with crèches and ‘pay as you play’ options recommended as potential money winners.
Denise Lewis, heptathlon gold medallist at the 2004 Olympics, said: “As a mum, I know how difficult it can be to prioritise yourself and find that personal time to play sport and be active
Lewis’s words ring true for Mills who says the few mothers who train with the club can’t play every week due to childcare responsibilities. As well as time, the club also requires a financial commitment from its members in order to pay for running costs thus creating a rather narrow (and, for Tower Hamlets, unusual) definition of a typical player. “Our members are typically white, middle-class women.”
Mills explains that funding of the kind Sport England is offering would be crucial in keeping costs for members down and enable the volunteers to go out into the community to promote their team to people who might be unaware they even exist. “Keeping committed players and making the club sustainable is our biggest challenge. We want to encourage a younger age group, 16 to 20 year olds, and young mothers. It would also be great to encourage more Asian women to participate.”
The gender inequality in sport participation is recognised as a priority issue at Croydon council too. Last week the borough announced it would extend the range of women-only swimming sessions to include Purley and New Addington leisure centres while next month Croydon stages a festival of sport called LOVE2, deliberately designed to coincide with Valentine’s Day.
Last year’s inaugural event reached over 800 women (and a handful of questionably-motivated men) and this year’s version includes free ice hockey lessons, a golfing week, and Tai chi sessions for mums and daughters.
David Gentles, the project’s partnership manager, says the series of events aim to “encourage organisations in London to not just help women and girls take part in their sport on a one off basis but to make it part of their plans to increase female memberships throughout the year.”
Community events such as LOVE2 demonstrate that support for women is mobilising at a local level but, as Tibballs says, a change of attitude at the top of sport is essential if this hive of activity is to be harnessed.
“We need to look at wider factors which impact on the state of play for women’s sport and influence grassroots participation,” she says, highlighting the startling fact that only four per cent of sports news coverage focuses on women. “Without the profile, the money won’t come in. And without the role models, women won’t feel inspired to take part.”
With the success this year of Jessica Ennis, Beth Tweddle, the women’s England cricket team and co, it is hard to imagine the landscape of female sports stars will remain barren for much longer.
Successful applicants for the Sport England fund will be announced sometime in June.