Sunday, February 23, 2014

Women, Don't Do Sport!

Conservative MP Helen Grant, speaking to the Telegraph in this interview, has made a unique contribution to the ongoing debate about the number of women participating in sport. 
“For example some girls may well not like doing very traditional hockey, tennis or athletics, others might, so for those who don't want to, how about considering maybe gym, ballet, cheerleading? It's not just schools, it's clubs, it's being innovative. Actually looking at our women and our girls and asking, what do they want? "You don't have to feel unfeminine … There are some wonderful sports which you can do and perform to a very high level and I think those participating look absolutely radiant and very feminine such as ballet, gymnastics, cheerleading and even roller-skating."
Oh, where do I begin? Well, for starters, it’s hardly the most intelligent thing for the Minister of Sport, Equality and Tourism to be saying and further proof, as if it were needed, that Tories shouldn’t do talking out loud. According to Grant, women are so concerned at staying “absolutely radiant” that they’re put off sport altogether. Not to worry though, because there are plenty of inherently feminine ways to get your weekly dose of physical exercise. As gender stereotypes go this is Mr Cholmondley-Warner territory. She may as well have said, “Women! Are you worried that running around will ruin your hair and make-up? Why not try a game of ludo or cribbage? Or if you’re feeling particularly energetic, there’s always hopscotch!” To be honest, I’d expect better from someone who was once a junior judo champion, even if she is a Tory.

Women’s relative lack of participation in grassroots sport is a real issue. The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) estimate that, between 2007 and 2011, 2.2 million fewer women than men were participating in at least one session of sport or physical activity each week. The government now claims that this figure has fallen to 1.8 million; still a massive disparity. Even the much vaunted Olympic legacy has proven to be nothing more than a myth, just as many had predicted.

A similar pattern emerges among girls at school. According to the latest research carried out by the Institute of Sport at Loughborough University for the WSFF, only 12% of 14 year old girls are reaching the standard level of fitness. Large numbers of those interviewed reported negative experiences of sport at school and complained that there were too few role models. Worryingly, 48% believed that sweating was “not feminine”. It was in this context that Grant made her statements about ballet and roller-skating.

There are two things that strike me about this. Firstly, what a sad indictment of society! We live in a world which has made 12-year-old girls so worried about their body image that they would choose to abstain from playing games. Secondly, does Grant really know nothing of the sports that she recommends? If girls really are put off sport by the likelihood of sweatiness, is an hour of intense cardio, Zumba-style, really the answer? Does she really believe than gymnasts, cheerleaders and dancers don’t sweat?

The problem is that the evidence is slightly more complex than Helen Grant is prepared to admit, and far removed from the ‘dainty girlies eschew masculine competitive sports’ narrative. While it is true that non-competitive physical activities such as keep-fit, swimming and cycling remain most popular, women are increasingly playing what might be considered traditionally ‘male’ sports. Women’s football was the growth sport in the first decade of the twenty-first century, women’s rugby continues to grow in popularity, and the fastest growing sport for women post-London 2012 is boxing. Perhaps Grant should go chat with Nicola Adams.

Of course no one is against women choosing from the widest possible range of sports and physical activities. But by couching her intervention in terms of “choice”, Helen Grant claims to be speaking on behalf of women, while neatly sidestepping the structural problems that prevent them from participating in sport. Women still bear responsibility for childcare and housework but are now expected to hold down a job as well. The macho image of sport may deter some women, but how many more are precluded from participation by the demands of contemporary life and a lack of time and energy?

It isn’t helped by a sports industry so dominated by male athletes and sports stars. At the elite level women’s sports have always placed a distant second behind men’s. It is such a truism that Grant herself is forced to acknowledge the fact:  “I think we need to get to the point where women’s sport is looked on and regarded as equal to the men’s game. When we get to that point that’s when we get the balanced coverage.” Yet the likelihood of this is minimal. Given a straight choice between advancing the cause of equality and raking in advertising revenue it’s obvious that Sky and BT are not going to be at the forefront of a fourth wave of feminism.

Also, let nobody forget the role of successive governments – including the one in which Grant serves - in limiting the chances of sporting participation for women and men alike. The two most popular forms of exercise amongst women are keep-fit and swimming yet both have become victims of austerity. The BBC reports that: “annual prices have gone up by £100 at two-thirds of public gyms since 2010, a survey of 95 English councils found.” With so many baths being sacrificed in the name of budget cuts, Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington has asked, why are we closing so many swimming pools? And this coalition sold off playing fields in the middle of an Olympics that were meant to inspire a generation. The provision of space and equipment for physical exercise and sport lies ever more with the private sector, a result of a neo-liberal attack on the ways in which we are allowed to use our own bodies.

Perhaps, if Grant were prepared to challenge rather than reinforce the stereotypes, to break down the ridiculous divisions between men’s sport and women’s sport, to establish affordable opportunities for anyone to enjoy physical culture, then she could speak with credibility. Until then she'll continue to sound as though she's cribbed her views from the 1950s..