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26 Mar 2021 | 14:14

The Chief Executive of Women in Sport has called on women and their male allies to “keep challenging” gender inequality in the weeks and months which follow Women’s History Month. 

Speaking in a powerful blog published by the charity to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th, Stephanie Hillborne OBE describes how “pervasive cultural behaviours and expectations continue to hold girls and women back from sport and exercise.”

The theme of IWD 2021 was #ChooseToChallenge and, although it is only one day in the calendar, Stephanie believes it should “challenge us to do more every day” throughout the year – especially now the Covid-19 pandemic has created “unavoidable exposure to the whole range of inequalities that blight our society”. During the month, Women in Sport also published research into the impact of the pandemic on teenage girls' lives and exercise.

Women in Sport

The contributions from Women in Sport headlined a series of impactful events, initiatives and stories produced from across the Sport for Development Coalition, to highlight International Women’s Day, and Women’s History Month. 

In a blog entitled ‘Addressing inequality in sport and the work place’, Street League described how it has worked to redress the gender imbalance amongst participants on its employability programmes. The national charity uses sport and fitness to help unemployed young people get into work, training or back into education. 

Until 2014, its participants were 97% male with only 3% female. Since then it has taken steps to make its programmes more inclusive and now, across the 12 regions where Street League works, average female participation has increased to 30%. 


Managing Director, Lindsey Macdonald, who is a Board member of the Coalition, revealed the charity aims to achieve full gender equality within five years. 

“Your gender shouldn’t mean you’re less likely to take part in sport, gain qualifications, or move into secure employment,” she said. “That’s why we have set ourselves the target of achieving 50% female participation (and progression) by 2026.” 

Active Partnerships reported on how its some of its 43 regional partnerships were marking International Women’s Day. Active Suffolk promoted the inspiring stories of some of its local This Girl Can ambassadors, including Natasha and Charlotte, while Active Humber featured women with different challenges who have incorporated movement into their lives over the difficult winter lockdown, from their Women's Winter Workouts blog series. The Active Partnership for Hampshire, Energise Me, was one of several which encouraged people to share photos of themselves with their hand high to show ‘choose to challenge’. 

Activity Alliance celebrated disabled women’s activity with a series of powerful short stories, including from Sam (above) who has cerebral palsy, while Sporting Equals – the charity which promotes ethnic diversity across sport and physical activity – heard from its East London Activator, Janine Palm. “We must break down barriers and challenge the social norms so we can be treated equally,” said Janine in her blog.

To mark the day of action, Sported’s website listed some of the projects the charity runs which are targeted at increasing female participation in sport and physical activity, including Girls Unite, Engage Her and Project 51 (below). Later in the month, Sported also announced it was partnering with Always as part of the sanitary products manufacturer’s ‘Fuel Her Future’ campaign.


Ready Steady Active, a small organisation in West Yorkshire provides health and activity programmes for women principally from South Asian and Muslim communities, highlighted some of its coaches and volunteers in a series of social media posts; women such as Fazila who is “an inspiration who brings her community spirit to all” and Ammarah who “attended one of our first multi-sport sessions and pushed us to deliver football”. 

Gender equality (Goal no 5) and reduced inequalities (no 10) feature prominently in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which form part of the Agenda 2030, the global blueprint for sustainable development. Targeted sport and physical activity policy and programmes, that are designed inclusively and work to address deep-rooted gender inequalities, can contribute to specific SDG targets on ending discrimination against women and girls, promoting women’s leadership and ending gender-based violence. Read more about sport’s contribution to the SDGs

Stephanie’s blog highlights how women’s sport has fallen down the agenda during the pandemic, providing insight into how inequalities have been exacerbated and progress towards these targets slowed. “In the first panic of lockdown, major sports bodies, broadcasters and sponsors focused hard on the big money, and that inevitably did not involve the women. 

“Whilst every effort was made to get the men’s matches played to meet broadcasters’ and sponsors’ needs, the women were left behind.” Elite sport matters in this conversation, says Stephanie, “because it speaks volumes about women’s place in society.”


During the pandemic, the Telegraph reports that elite women’s sport was out of action for 2191 days while men’s sport lost 982 days across the comparable leagues and teams. In rugby union, the Six Nations was postponed as the men’s competition went ahead, and the 2021 World Cup also looks set to be pushed back. During the second lockdown, girls’ football academies were closed but boys’ academies were opened as they had been granted elite status. Then once girls’ academies were permitted to re-open, many did not have enough resources to do so.

Gender inequality was also evident in sport and physical activity participation. Sport England’s Active Lives data showed that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic 68% of men in England were active compared to only 63% of women, and that 58% of boys were active compared with only 49% of girls. While the negative impact on activity levels witnessed during the pandemic was lower for women and girls than men and boys, women remain less active than men and substantial effort will be required to maintain gains in girl’s activity made over the past year. The research undertaken by Women in Sport has shown that 45% of teenage girls are worried it will be hard to get back into the habit of sport and exercise after the pandemic and 41% have lost confidence in their sporting ability.


Women are also under-represented in the sector workforce and leadership. CIMPSA’s Workforce Insight Report (above) shows that the sport and physical activity workforce is overwhelmingly young and male. There has been positive change in the leadership and governance of sport, with women now making up 40% of Board members across Sport England and UK Sport-funded bodies; however more needs to be done across the wider sector and especially in ensuring women from ethnically and culturally diverse communities are represented in governance and leadership roles.


Stephanie is keen to highlight some of these positive aspects from the last year. “The crisis has changed the mood, made us more collectively empathetic, more apparently alert to right and wrong.” 

She adds: “There is a palpable sense that the old normal is no longer acceptable within both the workplace of sport and within the participation of sport. For us to succeed as a society, women in all our diversity must be central and equal in decision-making. As part of this, sports organisations are recommitting to their women’s games and sponsors are showing unprecedented interest in backing women’s sport.” 

As if to illustrate this point, later in the month it was announced that the Women’s Super League is to be shown on free-to-air television for the first time from next season. Matches will be screened on BBC and Sky thanks to a new three-year deal

More examples of when equality has been achieved in and through sport, can be found at this link To highlight your programmes and initiatives, around gender equality or other key Sport for Development outcomes, contact [email protected]