written by

Michael Woods (He/Him)

Tips for including women and girls in sport

Women's sport, in Australia particularly, is experiencing considerable growth. Female participation at a grass roots level is on the rise in a number of major sports. There are new elite and professional options available to female athletes. Media interest is on the rise and many people are seeing the benefits and value of female sport at all levels.

However, there still remains an imbalance compared to men's experience in sport. So, what do you need to know and what can you do? In this post you will get the key information to understand the issue and tips on how to take action to change things for the better.

Read on to discover what barriers prevent female participation in sport, what motivates and encourages female participation in sport plus what steps you can take to make sport more inclusive for women and girls.

Overall, gender differences exist when it comes to the rate of participation and range of opportunities to get involved. Women remain less represented in leadership and coaching roles and face continued challenges in terms of equal pay and coverage in the media. This imbalance is magnified among some sub-segments in the community such as among people with disability, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) groups, and Indigenous populations.

There are many reasons for this and most relate to social and cultural factors. In our sporting environments it is suggested that gender bias may be limiting female participation on and off the field of play.

What barriers do females face in sport participation?

There have been many studies conducted in Australia and around the world examining the barriers faced by women and girls when it comes to getting involved and staying involved in organised sport. Below is a list of some of these identified barriers. Think about whether these might be an issue in your club or sports organisation.

  • Concern about appearance and body image
  • Self-conscious in sports uniforms
  • Social stereotyping and harassment
  • Limited role models due to poor media coverage
  • Lack of skills or perceived lack of skills
  • Male dominated sports culture
  • Peer pressure
  • Lack of girls-only groups
  • May prefer to be non-competitive
  • Family commitments
  • Study and work time pressures
  • Lack of childcare
  • Costs

What motivates and enables female participation in sport?

Understanding and even addressing barriers is only part of the story. We also need to understand the reasons why women and girls might chose to get involved with sport.

Women’s participation in sport and physical activity is influenced by many different things and this changes over time.

A study out of England showed there are 1.9 million fewer women than men playing sport regularly (at least once per week). This report also explored what motivates women to get involved in sport by focusing on the impact that 'influencers' and 'role models' have on female sporting participation.

The study found six key spheres of influence that sport providers can use to leverage greater participation among women:

  1. Possibilities – opening her eyes to what she can do. Inspiring women with real stories they can relate to can help to prime participation.
  2. Togetherness – sharing her intentions increases commitment. A friend’s invitation makes sport participation more attractive and there is also greater safety in numbers. Socialising with friends is rewarding and bonding becomes a strong external motivator.
  3. Support – ensuring she has behind the scenes support. Support from the people in her everyday life (particularly family) is critical to sustained participation.
  4. Progression – giving her a sense of direction. Progressive improvement, positive reinforcement and setting realistic goals help sustain participation.
  5. Belonging – making her feel included and valued. Participation in sport must be enjoyable and provide an experience worth repeating; personalised contact that underlies respect and recognition.
  6. Internalise – helping her reflect on her achievements. Focusing on feeling good about oneself and the sporting experience, internalising her own behavioural journey.

Similarly a Canadian study explored the factors that influence women’s participation in sport. This report found there are a number of factors that enabled participation, they include;

  • perceived and demonstrated value of the activity;
  • positive perception of one’s own skills and ability;
  • progress in the successful mastery and refinement of skills;
  • high self-esteem and positive perceptions of physical competence;
  • positive self-perception of physical appearance;
  • experiences that are enjoyable and satisfying;
  • acceptance of one’s actual or perceived sex, gender identity and/or gender expression;
  • acceptance of one’s socio-economic status, race, culture, disability;
  • feelings of cohesion, belongingness, emotional support from peers and others;
  • effective conflict resolution; and
  • a sense of security.

How can you make your sport more inclusive of female participants?

As sports administrators, club committees and even coaches it's important to have an understanding and awareness of the barriers and motivations related to female involvement in organised sport. This allows you to then identify ways you can make changes to the culture, environment and activities you offer to encourage and increase participation.

Whether your goal is to increase female membership in your club, increase female participation in your programs or get more women into leadership roles here are some handy tips you can take action on straight away.

Advocate for equal representation

If a girl’s or women’s competition doesn’t exist start asking for it. Advocate and petition your sport organisation to get new pathways opened up for female participants. If your club doesn’t have female teams or options that include them start setting it up!

Create a safe and welcoming place

Create an environment where women and girls feel comfortable, safe, valued and involved. This might mean changes need to be made to social, cultural and even physical aspects of the environment.

Emphasise and support social aspects

Research suggests female participation is influenced by a sport experience that encourages socialising and fun. So make sure this is part of the experience. If your culture is only about winning and competition you may need to re-evaluate things.

Offer alternative formats

Offering options that are less competitive or non-competitive could encouraging increased participation by women and girls. Also less traditional forms of sport are attractive to female participants. But, there should also be avenues to develop skills and progress. So think about way you could offer things in new ways that focus on health fitness and fun as well as competition.

Ask for input and feedback

When people are involved in determining what their sport participation looks like they are more likely to engage and stay engaged. So include the opinions and experiences of female participants in devising the planning and design of sport activities. Plus provide the opportunity to receive feedback from female participants and importantly listen and take action to meet their needs.

What about women off the playing field?

While recent studies show that rates for men and women participating in sport or physical recreation are pretty much equal, when it comes to the board room, club committees and coaching ranks thing are far less equal. According to Sport Australia:

  • just 23.4 per cent of all National Sporting Organisations (NSOs) directorships are held by women;
  • 17 per cent of NSOs do not have any women on their Board; and
  • although some women have managed to reach senior positions in sport, they represent only 11 per cent of Presidents and 19 per cent of CEOs.

For more on this I highly recommend you read Women on Board, by Play by the Rules.

Did you know?

March 8 is International Women’s Day.

Right now is a great and important time in history to do everything possible to help forge a more gender-balanced world. Women have come a long way, yet there's still more to be achieved.

You can use sport as a vehicle to help contribute to this change.

Visit IWD to find out more and get involved.

Learn more

Here is a list of resources that will give you a deeper understanding of this issue and provide additional tools, tips and information to help you take action.

What are you doing to increase involvement of women and girls in your club or sport activities? Share in the ISD Community Group.

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