January 10, 2020 Caitlin Rees

Chapter 5 – Competitiveness

Another avenue Populus explored when trying to understand women’s lack of engagement in sport is the idea that women find sport too competitive.  Our research found that 47% of women believed that sport gets too competitive, compared to 33% of men. This was even higher among young women, with 51% claiming that sport gets too competitive. We also found that women typically didn’t like the challenge inherent in sport, with only 19% of women claiming they enjoy challenging themselves in sport, compared to 39% of men.

Looking at competitiveness more broadly, our research agrees with wider research which demonstrates that men are more competitive and enjoy the idea of competition more than women. The idea of women shying away from competition has even gone as far as explaining the gender pay gap in most workplaces across the UK today. In 2014, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman coined the term ‘confidence gap’ to explain how women are held back by self-doubt compared to men in competing for the best and most highly qualified jobs.

But, if you see the likes of Serena William on the tennis court, or Steph Houghton on the pitch; it’s quite hard to believe that women tend to shy away from competition.  So what is it?

When we begin to unravel the complexity of competitiveness you are left with one thing – confidence. It’s a common misconception that women dislike competition, when, in fact lack of confidence is the underlying cause.  We know that women lack confidence compared to men and worry about being judged. It’s therefore no surprise that women should avoid competitive sports, worried about making a fool of themselves or not being good enough. Populus found that 62% of women who lacked confidence in sport, claimed they found that sport gets too competitive.

Reframe what we mean by competition

It’s wrong to blame women’s apparent lack of engagement with sport on a disinterest in competition. Take Strictly Come Dancing, a programme that typically averages 7 million viewers an episode and skews towards a female audience, strip out the glitz and the glamour and you are left with a sporting competition at its core. In fact, it’s the same across most popular reality TV programmes, such as Love Island, X Factor and the Voice. All these programmes are competitive shows, watched by millions to see who wins and who loses.

Reality TV has been able to take the core competitive element inherent by sport and elevate it by adding an entertainment factor, emotional backstories and insight into normal peoples’ lives. Reality TV has overtaken sport in terms of viewing figures.

In fact, shows like Strictly have given people a sense of belonging and connection often experienced when watching sport. Catching up with your co-workers first thing on a Monday morning about who got voted out that previous evening has become commonplace. Just as we develop a connection with our favourite football team, we develop a connection with our favourite contestant; waiting with anticipation to watch our favourite baddies or goodies fight over the winning prize.

With women’s sport, we have the opportunity to re-frame competitiveness with the focus on what women want in order to appeal to a wider audience. Through taking learnings from programmes that pull in a wider audience of women, women’s sport can begin to highlight the collective human element of team spirit and move into the ‘entertainment’ space.

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