On International Women’s Day, we asked a group of leading female athletes where women’s sports have been over the past five years, what change they would like to see by 2025 and how to keep young girls active.
Perception and professionalism are two essential advances for some of our athletes over the past five years. But what about the future of women’s sports? What should be done or changed to further develop women’s sports?
England and Manchester City captain Steve Houghton, WBO middleweight champion Natasha Jonas, England cricket captain Heather Knight, England rugby captain Sarah Hunter, British No. 2 tennis player Heather Watson, and two-time WBO champ Jimmy Chadwick reflect on their esports development and determine what needs to happen to maintain development.
And with a recent “Women In Sport” report indicating that more than a million girls who consider themselves athletes in primary school are losing interest in physical activity in their teens, what message will our leading sports send? To the girls who are thinking of quitting the sport? ?
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in women’s sports in the past five years?
Steve Hutton: Perhaps the biggest change is the perception of women’s sport as a whole. I think now people see us all as athletes and as people trying to excel in their sport and compete instead of our gender.
Natasha Jonas: With the support of major platforms, companies and a change in attitudes, there has been a positive change in women’s sport at all levels for the better. It’s visible, approved, and returned and supported by fans/audiences. Governing bodies do an amazing job of maintaining their relevance and recognizing the need for change. Women (and in male-dominated sports) support, encourage, motivate, empower, reinforce and celebrate each other.
Heather Knight: I think women’s view of sports in general has changed dramatically. People accept it better now, it’s more natural. It’s definitely more professional, which I think contributed to this shift in perception.
Sarah Hunter: Probably the biggest change I’ve seen is my professionalism. We are seeing more and more women working in sports getting paid to play the sports they used to do for free. It’s something I’ve experienced myself. I’ve been playing for England since 2007, but it wasn’t until 2019 that I received my first full-time professional contract. Young girls who play sports now can think “I can become a professional athlete when I grow up”, which is what boys have always had and now girls too.
Heather Watson: I feel that team sports are becoming more and more popular, which is great to see because most of us, when we’re younger, start out with team sports. You see a lot of promoting sports like basketball and women’s soccer from their leagues and in the media, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Jimmy Chadwick: I would say the biggest change I’ve seen is the number of major brands and supported partners that get involved in women’s sports. The biggest is Visa which matches the same amount of investment they invested in the men’s World Cup title partnership as they do the women.
What is one thing you would like to change in women’s sport by 2025?
Houghton: The only thing I would like to see in all sports is more fans to watch all the sports live. We need a wider audience to make our sports more sustainable.
Younis: Fairer pay scales, continued support for growth and development, inclusion of women in the board and decision-making levels, and increased media exposure.
Knight: I’d like to see more media coverage outside of major events. It’s less than 10% at the moment, especially in the print media, and to make that change I think there is a need for more media coverage and coverage of other events outside of the World Cup and the Olympic Games.
sniper: I would like to see women’s sports on equal footing with men’s so we can stop talking about changes or what we need to do more to help support women’s sports. We will have equal visibility on television and in the media. Commercial sponsors will invest in teams, sports, individuals and competitions as they do in men’s sports and we have created fan bases to sell games, matches and events.
Watson: I have the opportunity to play tennis, which has always paved the way for women’s sports. However, despite this, even in tennis, we still don’t see the same levels of coverage for women’s sports as they are for men. Sports have always been seen as a predominantly male activity, so what I would most like to see changed is for women’s sports to be as respected as men.
Chadwick: I would still like to see higher participation rates – more girls participating in grass-roots sports and more participation at a young age.
How do you make sure that young girls don’t drop out of sports and what message will you give to those girls who drop out of their sports?
Houghton: If we can continue to promote the health, self-esteem and relationship benefits of being active and playing different sports for young girls, whether in schools or through clubs, we have more opportunities to keep girls in sports.
We have a chance as role models in many different sports that are shown on live TV to prove that too and the more we show up, it might become an option for girls to pursue that path in the future.
Younis: Make access to a wider range of sports more accessible, while removing as many obstacles as possible. I don’t know how to do it. Celebrate and give a bigger platform to popular sports, encourage and promote a highly funded positive body image, highlighting all the different shapes, sizes and body types in sports.
There is a sport for everyone, whatever level you want. The fun is trying as many as possible and finding what works for you.
Knight: I think a lot of girls leave because other things are happening and because there’s this awkwardness that little girls feel sometimes. Sometimes getting into sports isn’t what you were supposed to do when you were a teenager, so whenever we can make a shift in perception and do a little different thing to make girls feel included and maybe even keep them with a group of friends [is important]. If girls drop out of sports, I will ask why and what we can do to bring friendship groups together and help girls maintain this active lifestyle.
sniper: I think we have to make sports fun, diverse and available to young girls to prevent them dropping out of school during adolescence. We must make sports attractive and ‘cool’ to make young girls want to keep playing it. We need to get involved and bring sport to life the way young people interact with each other. For example, how do platforms like Tik Tok make young girls want to keep playing sports? We need to think outside the box about the way we’ve tried to keep young girls in sports in the past.
The message I would like to send to girls who are away from sports is to stay and keep playing. You started playing sports because you loved it; Try to give her another chance to let her return the favor to you and make you realize why you started her in the first place. It will be the best decision you will make. You can become the next Olympic champion or world champion, you can turn that hobby sport into a full-time professional job, you can travel the world doing something you love, but above all you will meet and do great people. Make friends. Because life and sports will help guide and develop you as a person in a way that nothing else can.
Watson: I think the most important thing is to encourage girls to think that sport is fun, social and part of a healthy lifestyle. Sport is so wonderful and can provide a lot of valuable opportunities and experiences that will benefit you greatly in the future – you have been fortunate enough to have a career in sport, but there are many other benefits to health, society and wellbeing that sport can bring to anyone. I would definitely say stick with it – you won’t regret it!
Chadwick: I would say it’s important to have positive role models that bring more attention to women’s sports and more media attention and exposure to show access to sports. We must also inspire girls to continue to advance in sports. It’s an old cliché, but “you have to see it to be that.” If you love doing it and have the opportunity to do it, don’t let anything hold you back from doing it, because there are many other opportunities in sports at all levels besides being an athlete. There are many opportunities in sport – now more than ever.
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