This past week has seen Edinburgh University Sports Union run the This Edinburgh Girl Can campaign for the second year running, in the hope of encouraging increased female participation in sport across the university.
Based on the success of Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign that started in January 2015, it has seen a reported 2.8 million women inspired to take up physical exercise as a direct result of the movement, according to The Huffington Post, with the Sports Union’s goals ultimately being the same.
The original campaign came about in order to address the fact that around two million fewer women in England were playing sport compared to their male counterparts, a statistic that is mirrored at the university level.
According to research carried out by British Universities and College Sport (BUCS), around 53 per cent of women students are participating in some form of exercise each week, compared to 63 per cent of men. Furthermore, over 520,000 women students are doing no form of physical exercise every week, while this number is just 316,000 for men.
This Edinburgh Girl Can is not looking to uncover star athletes or turn everyone into a superhuman sporting machine, but merely to provide an opportunity for more women around the university to participate in something they might otherwise have overlooked.
But aside from the disparity in participation levels, why is such a campaign still needed? The answer to this lies not only in the innumerable health benefits of physical exertion – both mental and physical – but also the stigma attached to sport and women athletes that ultimately needs changing.
From a young age, participation has been an issue. In secondary school I found that, for some girls, it was a fear that to play sport was to be subscribing to traditionally masculine gender roles, much in the same way that boys would fear doing ballet would be interpreted as overtly feminine and ‘girlish’. This stigma is what needs to change, and part of what This Edinburgh Girl Can is attempting to do.
Playing sport does not make you masculine, it makes you healthier and happier. However, sport is still plagued by these issues. Following the victory of Serena Williams at Wimbledon this year, some felt the need to diminish her achievement, with one Twitter troll saying that the “main reason for her success is that she is built like a man”. These outright sexist comments highlight the derogatory notions that some still attach to women athletes, diminishing their hard work, dedication, and talent in favour of lambasting them for not conforming to a perceived body ideal, thus creating feelings of insecurity about the effects of physical exercise.
This Girl Can campaigns look to combat this by encouraging women to embrace these anxieties and remember that, regardless of gender, doing something is better than doing nothing at all. This Girl Can’s advert reminds us of this with the image of a cyclist and the tagline: “I’m slow but I’m lapping everyone on the couch”.
The rising participation levels of women in general is encouraging in breaking down the stigma that women cannot compete on the same level as men, which erroneously stems from a claim that women’s sport is of lesser quality. Those who share this sentiment argue that women cannot produce the same skill levels compared to their counterparts, but this ignorance is often rooted in a lack of knowledge about said sports.
A lack of regular coverage of women’s sport hides it from the spotlight of the masses, but for those who follow devotedly it is plain to see that these athletes are still at the top of their game, demonstrating skill and ability well beyond the capabilities of most. With major news corporations such as the BBC and Sky giving greater coverage to the Women’s Super League and Netball Superleague respectively, there is an apparent change in the air, although not enough to consider the problem solved.
Recent prominent cases of sexism remind us that issues surrounding sexism in sport never far from the surface, even at a professional level.
Last month, British Cycling’s former technical director Shane Sutton was found guilty of using sexist language to Jess Varnish, telling her to “go and have a baby” and that she should “lose some timber” if she wanted to qualify for the Olympic Games. Following Varnish’s initial allegations, Olympic Champions Nicole Cooke and Victoria Pendleton have both claimed that there was a culture of sexism and bullying surrounding the organisation.
Varnish has stated that there were a plethora of comments made about her physical appearance during the 10 years she was with British Cycling, showing how deep-rooted these issues still are. The worry is that it has taken so long for something to be done.
While men may well be told that they would benefit from more weight sessions, it is unimaginable that they would be told that their “ass” was too big to perform a certain role, as was the case with Varnish, in quite the same way. Messages might be the same, but the disparity in how they are delivered, and the issues attached to that are undoubtedly different.
Fans too have a role to play, and are also part of the problem. Last week, Kathryn Smith of the Buffalo Bills – the first full time female NFL coach – was subject to abuse from a rival fan with chants of: “Hey waitress. Can I get a Pepsi please?” Athletes and coaches are often subject to abuse from fans, something that comes with the territory of being in the public eye, forcing many to develop a thick skin. Sexist abuse however is one that only enhances the issues already faced by society and is far removed from the ‘good natured banter’ that some fans will pass it off as.
There is no knowing how or what will create the change needed but an increased awareness is undoubtedly key; alerting society to what it can do to help fight the issues that still plague it. This Edinburgh Girl Can is but another battle in a much wider fight to combat sexism in not just sport, but society as a whole.
The media, meanwhile, play an important part in sculpting how society views the world and determining what is seen as important and relevant. Stories are spun, elections are won, and victories are contextualised by shaping how groups are perceived. Naturally, when the news outlets perpetuate a misleading reflection of events, whether that be intentionally or tacitly through the prioritisation of certain stories over others, a moral and ethical boundary is crossed. The media is not immune to socially constructed prejudices and discrimination but has a responsibility to guard against bias in all circumstances.
The prioritisation of men’s success over women’s in sports journalism is particularly dangerous and sadly commonplace. This has an impact on the sponsorship and funding women’s athletes receive, causing a vicious cycle that damages the perception of women’s sport. The sad fact is that the sporting provision directed specifically at women is woefully inadequate. In many clubs that do have women’s teams, the focus remains on the men’s team, both in terms of economic benefaction and media spotlight.
The problems the sporting world faces with regards to women’s engagement runs deeper than institutional competition at club level and LGBT+ communities across the gender binary are particularly marginalised, according to research done by Pride Sports for Sport England in 2016, with few specific mechanisms in place to target this issue.
While physical activity is mandatory in most schools for all, statistics show a more substantial gender divide in those taking part. Inactivity can appear in higher education when taking part in sport becomes a voluntary part of life.
Edinburgh University Students’ Association Women’s Liberation Convener Chris Belous sees the media as playing a role in the long term improvement of this worrying trend. “There is plenty of research to suggest that the role models children are exposed to are really important, and so is their portrayal – so we need to make sure that the portrayal of women in sport in our media is positive, accurate and also more widespread. This way, the idea of women playing sport, and being good at sport, can be normalised for all genders.”
In our printed Sports round-up entitled ‘Hare and Hounds grab silver in the latest BUCS round-up’ (Page 32, Tuesday 1 November 2016), aspects of the full story were omitted due to miscommunication, thus the headline in the printed edition did not accurately reflect both teams’ achievements (the online edition has since been amended). At the Scottish XC Relay Championships at Cumbernauld on Saturday 29 October, the women’s team won gold, while the men’s team won silver. It was an historic result for both teams as previously the women’s team have won bronze medals but never gold or silver, while the men’s team have never placed top three. Additionally, the photograph featured was taken at a different race in Livingston, which was not a BUCS event.
Illustration courtesy of Duhita Das