Women were excluded from some sports until very recently: the FA banned women’s football between 1921 and 1971. Women were only allowed to run in the Olympic marathon since 1984 and to participate in pole vault at the Olympics from 2000 and women were not allowed to compete in all sports on the Olympic programme until London 2012. Even now in 2023, 22% fewer girls than boys in England are playing team sport. That’s 860,000 girls missing out, the equivalent to the capacity of every Premier League stadium.
This history is clearly unjust. In 2023, few in the UK would actively and openly seek to deny women and girls access to sport. But our concern is that if we continue to ignore the biological differences between men and women, and girls and boys, we are inadvertently doing just that. It’s impossible for anyone to make amends for the injustice, lost dreams and memories of past generations, but we can’t let another generation of girls down today.
Why sport matters to the lives of women and girls
We know that access to safe and fair sport can give girls and women resilience, courage, self-belief and a sense of belonging. It can bring happiness, joy and a sense of fulfilment too. Being involved in sport at a young age is a formative experience for so many. The impact of winning a race at a school sports day or representing a local team can be huge. Many of us will still remember the feelings of pride and accomplishment of these achievements, even if they happened years or decades ago. The gendered health inequalities women face, that sport can help tackle, include disproportionate rates of anxiety, self-harm, and eating disorders amongst teenage girls, and of depression, arthritis and osteoporosis in adult women. Sport really matters to girls and women.
Fairness matters too. Girls are not born uncompetitive: it is a myth that girls and women don’t like competition. On the contrary, girls and women enjoy fair competition just as much as boys and men do; and a level playing field is integral to this. This is true whether that competition is at elite, professional, grassroots, or amateur level. A girl taking part in her team at a school’s tournament or a woman playing in a local amateur league is just as much a competitor as a professional athlete representing her country. Competing, fairly, matters deeply to women and girls and they deserve to be able to do so just as much as men and boys do. This means there needs to be a protected category for natal girls or women in competitive sport.
This is not just about prize money or medals; it is about pride and joy; the fundamental principle that sport must be fair and safe for everyone.