Helen Beighton’s Guest Column: The vicious circle that keeps female sport in the dark

Helen Beighton
Helen Beighton

FLICK through the sports pages of any newspaper, or switch your TV onto any sports channel, and you may be forgiven for thinking that women in this country have little or no involvement or interest in sport.

While it cannot be denied that more men participate in sports than women do, millions of women take part in both individual and team sports every week. So why do we not hear more about them?

According to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, only five per cent of sports media coverage is devoted to women’s sport and just 0.5 per cent of commercial investment goes to women-only sport.

This lack of publicity and lack of investment does nothing to encourage more girls to play or watch sport and so the vicious circle continues.

That is not to say that things are not beginning to change... slowly.

The England netball team’s recent series victory against Australia, the world number one team, was televised live on Sky Sports, there was commentary on BBC Radio 5Live Sports Extra and there were even small write-ups in national newspapers.

Even more surprisingly the captain, coach and some of the players were interviewed live on BBC Breakfast, something that has been almost unheard of up until now.

Though it is not quite on everybody’s radar yet, that was a big step towards getting netball, the sport all women will have played at school, some relatively major attention.

It is just a shame that the coverage was not continued for the start of the Superleague season earlier this month.

Other team sports also suffer a similar fate, especially when compared to their male counterparts.

Women’s football is the number one female team participation sport in the country, but you wouldn’t know it.

While some male players in the Barclays Premier League earn hundreds of thousands of pounds a week and the matches are watched by millions of people around the world, it is a very different story for the Women’s Super League (FAWSL).

Few people seem to even know about its existence and the England women’s team has recently had to fight for a pay rise for playing for the Three Lions - they now earn a meagre £20,000 a year, up from just £16,000.

The successes of British female athletes are helping to raise the profile of women’s sport, but one of the key issues that will continue to hinder its progress is a general lack of interest, or at least perceived interest, in sport from women in this country.

Figures from the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation state that over 80 per cent of women do too little physical activity to benefit their health.

Plenty of women would say that they like sport when asked - so why do women not get more involved with sport?

Reasons include a lack of time and money, especially if they have a family to look after, while another is that they are too self-conscious.

Many women will not do any kind of sport because they do not like the way they look when they get red, sweaty and their hair is all over the place.

The pressure to look good is deeply felt by many women and if a woman wants to get in shape, the majority will still turn to dieting before thinking about putting a pair of trainers on.

Accepted gender stereotypes in society also have far reaching consequences for participation. Boys will be given a ball to play with and taken to football - girls are given dolls and taken to ballet.

That is fine if that is what they want to do, but are they really given a choice?

If girls were encouraged to take part in sports from a young age, then it would become second nature.

This would not only build their confidence in basic skills such as catching and throwing - skills that many women simply do not possess - but if they are properly coached and nurtured, they would develop a passion for their sport and sport in general, that would last throughout their lives.

This would lead to wider participation by women in sports of all types, would further drive up the standards of female sport and, hopefully, would mean that more women would have happier and healthier lives.

But maybe the first step to getting more women and girls into sport is seeing more women’s sport on TV...and so the circle continues.