Hounslow Harriers, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ • photo Uli Weber

Here We Come A-Cheerleading?

24th April 2015

Despite the legacy of the Olympics, plenty of research studies suggest a decline in female participation in sport, with girls preferring cheerleading to athletics, for example – not, of course, that they need be mutually exclusive. Jennifer Lipman finds out what does, and doesn’t, get women and teenage girls interested in sport…

Remember ‘Bend it like Beckham’? The salt shakers. The fretting parents. The airport scene. And Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley as Jess and Jules, talented footballers who could and did beat the boys at their own game.

Fast-forward 13 years, and a West End musical adaptation of this iconic movie is about to open. The intervening period has – in theory – been stellar for women in sport. At the Olympics, star athletes like Jessica Ennis and Nicola Adams dazzled the nation. As I write, the England Ladies footballers are training for the World Cup, having attracted a record 33,000 spectators at Wembley last year. And there’s been a jump (no pun intended) in women participating in physical activity, with Government figures for 2013 showing a rise of more than a million since records began in 2005. According to Sport England, nearly a third of women now play sport weekly.

Yet that’s only half the story. With the exception of pensioners, explains Sport England’s Chris Dowsett, the gender gap has remained stubborn. “By almost every measure, women are less active than men.”

“You see the Jessica Ennises at the top of their game, and that can tell people all the work is done,” adds Jane Dennehy, founder of Gender Hub. But as she is aware, that's far from true.

And while many pursuits aren’t evenly divided down gender lines, sport is one where it really matters, not least for health reasons. “Young people should be participating in 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each day,” points out Dr Rebecca Duncombe of Loughborough University’s Institute of Youth Sport. Needless to say, many girls are not.

Then there are the opportunities sport can offer. “They say business is done on the golf course. If you play sport you can push at places that you wouldn’t if you didn’t know that space,” points out Dennehy. “And women who play sport talk about camaraderie, emotional support. It’s an equalizer.”

Crucially, it isn’t that women don’t want to play sport. It’s just that they’re not. “There is a definite problem with participation,” agrees Chris Scott of the charity Women in Sport, “but there is a real appetite to do more sport.” So what's stopping these would-be Jesses from picking up a racquet or joining a netball team?

Some say it's about ‘body confidence’. It's true that female participation tends to drop off around puberty, when girls are invariably fixated on their self-image and wary of the 'tomboy' label. “Our culture rewards males for being confident, competitive and strong,” says Lottie Birdsall-Strong, a former Arsenal Ladies player. “We tend to look negatively upon females who exhibit such traits, all of which lend themselves to success on the sports field.”

Adolescent girls “have a lot to deal with,” says Dennehy. “To get confident in your body and then play sport, it’s a lot of pressure,” she points out. Yet if at 13 you decide sport isn’t fun, you don’t necessarily have the skills to return later.

Post-Olympics, hopes were pinned on star athletes inspiring a new generation. But Dennehy is wary of placing too much emphasis on glamorous celebrity role models, arguing that whether a girl’s mother plays sport can be equally influential. “There’s this glamorisation of sport and then there’s the reality, which is where most people live. You're sweaty and your body sometimes doesn’t work, and sport puts a microscope on every flaw.”

Nor do these issues disappear after the teenage years. Sport England recently launched This Girl Can, a campaign to tell ‘the real story of women who exercise’. Speaking to women of all ages, they discovered fear of being judged was prevalent. “Some issues, like time and cost, were familiar, but [this] was one of the strongest themes,” says Dowsett. “Whether it’s fear of judgement about appearance, ability, or for spending time on yourself, it can outweigh women’s confidence to exercise.”

The campaign has been a success, attracting 17 million views for the videos, and over 200,000 social media followers. But it's still only one part of the solution. “I get the feeling that sometimes ‘body confidence’ is a too-simplistic answer to deeper societal issues,” says Dr Carrie Dunn of the University of East London’s Sports Journalism programme. She says time, money, and facilities are just as important. “Women are still not encouraged to participate in sport from an early age, and elite women’s sport still gets scorned.”

Rather than girls not wanting to bend it like Beckham, “maybe it is a case of them not being able to,” agrees Dr Duncombe. Taking football as an example, she suggests that if like boys, girls were brought up in an environment “where they were expected to play at home and in school and for teams”, more women might decide to participate.

As things stand, womens’ sports attract just 0.4% of sponsorship and only 7% of media coverage, while schools don't have to offer girls and boys the same opportunities. “Many of the problems derive from a lack of equality in sports at school,” says Birdsall-Strong, who is studying gender equality and sport at Cambridge. She notes that in the US, where the playing field is more level, there are laws requiring equal provision in schools.

That tallies with the experiences of Natalie Dew, who plays Jess in the musical. “The girls at school tried to play football but were not encouraged,” she recalls. Having spent time with female footballers to prepare for the part, she thinks there is more awareness of women playing sport now. “But I know from the women I’ve been training with that it is still very hard to get it out there and get funding.”

And unless we get it right at primary school level, we’ll be hard pressed to narrow the participation gap later. “Girls are turned away from sport at an early age,” says Scott. “By year four, girls start being less active – but boys start playing more.”

And it’s a Catch 22 situation. “There are enough boys all the time to have a team, but because you have big drop-off rates, you don’t always have enough girls,” says Dennehy. “So the infrastructure doesn’t work for them to enter competitions and start that progression.”

Creating the infrastructure is a major part of the challenge. Unquestionably, investment is needed; more money for girls’ teams, better education of primary school teachers, and more female coaches to support female athletes, local leagues and even county and national competitions. The experts also want to see provision designed with women in mind. Dowsett refers to a school in Hull that has encouraged more girls into PE by providing hairdryers. “It’s about thinking about what it is that women really want,” he says. Dennehy emphasises the importance of telling teenage girls about sports bras. “Having one can make a huge difference to their confidence,” she says wryly.

And rather than making it about creating the next generation of star athletes – hardly most people’s dream – Dennehy says it’s time to talk to women about the idea that sport is fun and stop suggesting certain sports are more legitimate than others. A few years ago the Sports Minister Helen Grant found herself in hot water having suggested that if women didn’t want to feel ‘unfeminine’, they could try cheerleading and roller-skating. But for all that gender stereotypes are unhelpful, neither is snobbery. Obviously, says Dr Dunn, if we want to support a new generation of top-level players, it makes sense to focus on certain sports. “If we’re looking just to get them to exercise to combat obesity,” she says, “it probably doesn’t”.

For now, the priority is getting women to see the benefits of sport and then convincing them to take the leap and join a team or sign up for a class. None of this is going to happen overnight, but it’s clear that campaigns like Always’ Run Like a Girl initiative, or the FA’s ‘Game Changer’ strategy for female footballers, represent a positive step.
And perhaps Bend it Like Beckham can play a part. “Ultimately it's about a girl with a dream in the boys’ side of the world,” says Dew. “I hope girls will see it and say I could do that.”

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