Understanding the Gender Gap in Sports Participation

It was announced last week that Scotland will benefit from a new Sporting Equality Fund, which has been set up to increase participation, engagement and the promotion of women in sport.

The £300,000 fund will be used to narrow the gender gap that has been identified in early teenage years when 71% of boys compared to 51% of girls in Scotland say they are active participants in sport (Sports Scotland, 2016). With this in mind, does the gender gap change over time? And what other factors influence the gender gap?

In England, research indicates that the gender gap has narrowed in recent years. Sport England's Active People Survey measured gains in women taking part in sport and exercise between the start of the survey in 2005 and the latest report in 2015. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaking at the Ladies Scottish Open Forum: Leadership in Business and Sport, acknowledged a similar upward trend in Scotland, but highlighted a growing concern about the participation of young women:

“We’ve seen some good progress in recent years, and it’s encouraging that activity levels amongst teenage girls are increasing. However, there is still a gender gap in sports participation and physical activity levels. There’s also a shortage of women involved in sport from grassroots right up to elite level”.

In the U.K. more broadly, by the age of 14, only 1 in 10 girls are doing enough physical activity to benefit their health, compared with roughly twice the number of boys of the same age (NHS, 2008). The trend continues as children move into adulthood, at the age of 18 twice the proportion of women as men take part in no sport at all each month. Most worryingly, 16-25-year-old women registered no growth in participation of sport for several years, one of the only categories monitored to show no improvement (The Guardian, 2014).

Young female participant on the Play for Change Slam Dunk basketball and inspirtation programme

Young female participant on the Play for Change Slam Dunk basketball and inspirtation programme

So, what is holding women and girls back? Research has revealed that there are a number of obstacles preventing women and girls from participation in sport and physical activity; the cost of participating, lack of childcare options, lack of role models, body image issues and cultural attitudes can all contribute to lower female participation (Women in Sport, 2015).

If circumstance is factored alongside gender, on closer inspection there exists even greater disparity in women’s participation in sport along socio-economic lines. In the higher socio-economic groups, about 35% of women play sport regularly, compared to just 23% for those in the lower socio-economic groups. The disparity is the same for girls aged 16-25, where 49% from the higher socio-economic groups take part in sport at least once a week compared to 36% from the lower socio-economic groups (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2014).

Research has identified that as well as age and circumstance, location is also an important factor in preventing women and girls from participating in sport. The trend is that women and girls in the most deprived areas play sport the least. In the poorest areas of England (local authorities with the highest levels of deprivation), 27% of women play sport regularly, whereas the figure is 33% in the wealthiest areas (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2014).

The numbers behind the gender gap in sports participation prompt the question where should the money be spent? In England 98% of the most deprived areas are urban, which are home to over 5 million of the population (Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2014). Therefore there exists an obvious need and obligation to focus investment in women and girls’ sport in those areas.

Understanding the figures behind a lack of participation for women and girls is important, it allows us to map the inequality of participation, but more importantly it should provide us with a checklist of where any future funds should be spent.

Written by Rory Anderson

To learn more about how Play for Change are tackling the gender gap in sports participation in urban deprived areas, read about the Slam Dunk programme. Slam Dunk is a basketball, life skills and upskilling programme targeted at disadvantaged and vulnerable girls in South East London who are susceptible to downward social mobility, poor academic attainment, low skill levels and low aspirations.

External article links:

Culture, Media and Sport Committee - First Report Women and Sport, 2014: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmcumeds/513/51303.htm

NHS, 2008: http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB00430/heal-surv-phys-acti-fitn-eng-2008-rep-v2.pdf

Scottish Government, 2016: http://news.scotland.gov.uk/News/Fund-for-sporting-equality-274a.aspx

Sports England, 2015: https://www.sportengland.org/research/who-plays-sport/national-picture/

Sports Scotland, 2016: http://www.sportscotland.org.uk/media/1886385/Equality-and-Sport-Research-Final-Report.pdf

The Guardian, 2014: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2014/jun/12/sport-england-figures-15m-adults-play-sport

Women in Sport, 2015: https://www.womeninsport.org/resources/barriers-to-benefits/