We all know that gender biases exist and persist in today’s society, but it is difficult to understand how we can tackle these ‘baked-in’ biases. Our research found that gender norms and stereotyping were present in children as young as seven years old. These biases can affect children’s relationship with sport for the rest of their lives and even dictate which sports they feel are acceptable to take part in. Some young children said that women should participate in sports such as ‘gymnastics’ or ‘dance’. On the other hand, men were seen as ‘strong’ and should play sports like ‘football’ or ‘rugby’.
I think this boy [doll], looks like he likes to play football every day and on the weekend he watches football. And I think he would like bike riding because his legs are really strong, and men are really strong. And this girl [doll], she likes to go to gymnastics, and she likes to think because her head is looking to the side. I think she would do cleaning too because she likes making her house clean and tidy for her children.
Girl, age 7 – London
Even among adults, we found that particular sports continued to be viewed as ‘girls sports’ or ‘boys sports’. This view of gender specific sports is passed on to their children; resulting in a negative cycle or reinforcement that is difficult to break. For example, parents are significantly more likely to take their sons to play football (45%) than their daughters (14%). The same behaviour takes place in traditionally female sports, with daughters significantly more likely to be taken to gymnastics (19%) than sons (5%).
Our education system further reinforce gender bias in sport by failing to challenge adequately the traditional perception that boys play football and girls play netball at school. Partnerships such as the FA and Youth Sport Trust recognise this gender bias and are campaigning to grow the value of girl’s football within schools. The FA has promised to ensure that all girls have the opportunity to play football at school through enrolment schemes across the country. But is enough being done?
Through our qualitative research we learnt that for young girls, we begin to see the biggest disengagement from sport in their first year of secondary school (aged 11-12), due to factors such as body image, confidence and lack of encouragement. In contrast, young boys are encouraged to participate in and watch sport both for ‘fun’ and competitive development.
My daughter played girls football up until Year 7 and then stopped at secondary school. It just wasn’t cool, it wasn’t encouraged in the right way. It’s a real shame because she trained all through primary school and then quit because she thought she was being judged or laughed at by the boys.
Mum of 12-13 year old girl – London
When watching sport, the story is similar. The norm for young boys tends to be to watch in their leisure time – typically alongside a father or alternate male figure. However, this isn’t the case for young girls. In general, young boys are conditioned to watch sport from a young age whereas girls are encouraged to do other things. Of those girls who are encouraged to watch sport, the sports that they watch are predominately sports dominated by men.
It’s apparent to me that by the time children start school at five, most girls already have a negative picture of sport or a neutral image, whereas boys have a positive image of sport. […] It’s very easy for girls to get sucked into lower participation and lower participation means that girls will not be in an environment of consuming sport.
Laura McAllister, Deputy Chair of UEFA Women’s Football Committee
It is, of course, not just young girls and women who face sporting prejudice. In the world of sport where girls can be discriminated against for playing football, men who do ballet can face the same level of prejudice. Only recently, US reporter Lara Spencer came under fire for her insensitive remarks about Prince George’s love of ballet.
Changing long-standing attitudes and breaking down cultural barriers takes a long time, but we know it is already happening. Sport has come a long way since the Olympics in the 1900s, but by recognising the barriers we have the opportunity to accelerate this change and create a space for women’s sport to stand in its own right.
I do gymnastics after school on a Friday with my best friend. We do handstands.
But there aren’t any boys there, just girls.
Girl, age 7 – London