Why do girls play less sports than boys - and can the Women’s Euros success of the Lionesses change that?

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Nuffield Health says 48% of girls feel embarrassed when participating in physical exercise

Despite women’s sport being recently thrust into the spotlight by the Lionesses’ success at the Women’s Euros, new research warns that only 12% of young girls plan on participating in sports this summer.

The report, carried out by healthcare charity Nuffield Health, also revealed that 48% of girls feel embarrassed when exercising - compared with 28% of boys.

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Behind these figures lie a variety of complex reasons, with barriers to girls’ participation in sport ranging from social stigma, to harassment and safety issues, to a simple lack of access.

But experts have warned that without action these barriers will remain in place, and young girls will feel the effects to both their physical and mental health as they enter adulthood.

Just 12% of girls will play sport this summer Just 12% of girls will play sport this summer
Just 12% of girls will play sport this summer | Images: Getty

Why do girls participate in sport less than boys?

A survey of 27,867 girls conducted by children’s charity Youth Sport Trust found that, between 2018 and 2021, the biggest barriers to sport for girls included:

  • lack of confidence (33%) 
  • not wanting to be watched by other people (33%) 
  • periods (37%) 

This is consistent with research conducted by Sport England in 2022, which listed fear of judgement, lack of confidence, and not having enough time as the primary practical and emotional pressures that stop women from being more active.

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The report also found however that a barrier which has become more prevalent in the past year is women’s fears for their own safety.

One in five women reportedly worry about threat of sexual harassment in relation to doing physical acticity or exercise, which rises to 38% amongst those aged 16 - 20.

More than a quarter of women also worry about ‘personal safety’ excluding sexual harassment (such as exercising in the evenings in winter) - making this one of the key contributors to the gender gap in physical activity.

Tim Hollingsworth, Chief Executive of Sport England, who helped launch the This Girl Can campaign, wrote on the issue in March: “What this research tells us is that women are being denied their right to participate fully in public life - which is undoubtedly contributing to the gender gap in activity.

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“As a man I find this shameful and am fully committed to doing what I can to help us all deal with it head on.”

He said Sport England will be examining the root causes of women’s safety fears and will aim to challenge the culture that causes women to feel intimidated.

Mr Hollingsworth continued: “Our goal is for all women to feel safe in any space they’re getting active in - be that going out for a run in their local park, a city walk, using their local pool or leisure centre.

“Facilities that are accessible, welcoming and, above all, safe, are key to participation.”

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This echoes a July 2021 report by non-profit organisation Plan International UK which found that two thirds of girls changed their everyday behaviour to avoid public sexual harassment.

This included 24% of girls who decided to avoid exercising.

Eva, 19, from Liverpool, told Plan International UK: “I’m currently training for a marathon, which means that I experience public sexual harassment on an almost daily basis while running - like being shouted at and honked at by cars.

“When I was much younger, I didn’t exercise at all in public after a man in a van shouted about my breasts while I was running.”

Eva was 11 years old at the time of the incident.

She continued: “This meant that I was severely restricted during my teenage years and both my mental and physical health suffered.”

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Nuffield Health’s research reported that parents anticipate their daughters will spend between four and seven days at home every week during the summer holidays.

What impact has the Women’s Euros had on girls’ sport?

The Lionesses made history when they took home the elusive trophy, as England Women had never before won a World Cup or Euros.

This victory also secured the first major football tournament title for England since 1966, when the men’s team beat West Germany 4 - 2 in the FIFA World Cup final.

But the records didn’t stop there - 87,192 fans watched the Women’s Euro 2022 final at Wembley Stadium, a turnout which became the highest ever reported attendance in both men’s and women’s editions of the tournament.

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The Lionesses made history when they won the Women’s Euros 2022The Lionesses made history when they won the Women’s Euros 2022
The Lionesses made history when they won the Women’s Euros 2022 | Getty Images

Women in Football CEO Yvonne Harrison told NationalWorld: "The Lionesses’ amazing triumph is a historic moment and the start of the next phase for women’s football.

“With a combined TV and online audience of more than 23 million enjoying an atmosphere of dreams, this result will help to change perceptions for years to come.

“The legacy of the Women’s Euros was planned from the outset, and with that comes a move for girls to have equal access to football in school - and for more women to qualify as coaches and officials.

“Role models on and off the pitch are so important, and that includes roles in football leadership and administration, which is why we at Women in Football do what we do and strive for gender equality right across the football industry.”

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The Lionesses themselves echoed these sentiments in an open letter they wrote to the Government, calling for all girls to be allowed to play football in school.

The team wrote: “Throughout the Euros, we as a team spoke about our legacy and goal to inspire a nation.

“Many will think that this has already been achieved, but we see this as only the beginning.

“We want every young girl in the nation to be able to play football at school.”

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The letter pointed out that only 63% of girls can currently play football in lessons at school, which means England Women are “inspiring young girls to play football, only for many to end up going to school and not being able to play.”

The team said: “This is something that we all experienced growing up.

“We were often stopped from playing, so we made our own teams, we travelled across the country and despite the odds, we just kept playing football.”

What actions can be taken to improve girls’ access to sports?

Nuffield Health is hoping to fill the gap in activity over the school holidays through its new ‘Move Together’ programme, which offers fun, inclusive, and free exercise classes at 114 sites across the UK.

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Classes will be offered in a range of disciplines - including boxing, pilates, yoga, dance, Zumba, and circuits - and will be hosted in local parks and community hubs.

Vicky Fitzgerald, Health Improvement Lead at Nuffield Health, told NationalWorld: “Physical activity shouldn’t just focus on PE in school, it is so much more than that.

“Any movement is good movement, and it is important to highlight that taking part in physical activity can be fun - it doesn’t have to be competitive to be worthwhile.”

Sport England has launched its 10-year ‘Uniting The Movement’ strategy, which aims to transform lives and communities through sport and physical activity.

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A key focus of the campaign will be breaking down barriers - and tackling gender inequality in sport.

Meanwhile, Plan International UK are still focusing on their #CrimeNotCompliment campaign with Our Streets Now, which calls upon the Government to introduce legislative change to make public sexual harassment a criminal offence.

The hope is that this will enable women to return to everyday activities with confidence - including exercise and sport.

Ultimately, experts are calling for a variety of things to improve girls’ access to, and participation in, physical activity.

These include greater encouragement, safer spaces, more role models and better opportunities - and only then can we hope to see more gender equality in sport all the way from childhood to adulthood.

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