A good sport: Let’s keep the momentum going for women

The number of women taking part in sport and excelling at an international level has increased in recent years but barriers still exist, writes Dr Una May.

A good sport: Let’s keep the momentum going for women

The number of women taking part in sport and excelling at an international level has increased in recent years but barriers still exist, writes Dr Una May.

The number of women taking part in sport has increased over recent years, while on the international stage Ireland’s female athletes have gone from strength to strength. This is not only positive for Irish sport, but for Irish society as a whole.

The recently published Irish Sports Monitor 2017 found that, at 4.5%, the gender gap in sports participation is narrower now that when the report was introduced 10 years ago.

The report, written by Ipsos MRBI on behalf of Sport Ireland, also found that increased participation among females aged 45 and older means that they are now more likely to participate in sports than males of the same age.

Sport Ireland’s Women in Sport programme was established in 2005 with an aim to increase women’s participation in sport, including non-participatory opportunities through volunteering and coaching with support through appropriate training and education and to improve access to sport and physical activity through provision of information and resources.

Since 2005, Sport Ireland has ring-fenced approximately €19.5 million for National Governing Bodies of Sport and Local Sports Partnerships under this programme to increase participation in sport among women and girls. In 2018, Sport Ireland will invest approximately €1m specifically to support Women in Sport initiatives.

Through the Women in Sport Programme, many national governing bodies for sport have developed innovative programmes which target groups of young girls, teenage girls and older adults. These programmes are not solely focused on participation, but also look at the areas of leadership, the integration of migrant families and coaching initiatives.

One excellent example of such a programme is Rowing Ireland’s ‘Get Going Get Rowing’, which introduces girls to the sport and to a general fitness regime through indoor rowing.

If the indoor activity appeals to participants, they are encouraged to try rowing at local clubs. Over the last three years, the programme expanded countrywide and reached up to 25,000 participants with lots of girls transitioning to the water.

At a local level, Sport Ireland’s Local Sports Partnership Network has contributed to the increase in the number of women taking part in sport. Programmes such as ‘Women on Wheels’— Limerick Sports Partnership; Connemara ‘All Blacks’ girl’s rugby — Galway Sports Partnership; Get Going, Get Rowing — Dublin City Sport and Wellbeing Partnership have all contributed to increasing and sustaining participation in physical activity at a local level.

At the other end of the spectrum, female Irish athletes have experienced success on the international stage in recent times. Most recently, the Irish Women’s Hockey Team’s historic journey to the final of the FIH World Cup in London was a significant milestone for Women’s Sport as was Sanita Puspure’s World Rowing Championship win. The growing spread of performances across the highest level is demonstrating how Ireland’s high performance system is continuing to develop as it has in recent years.

To date in 2018, 55 medals have been won by Irish athletes at World or European competitions in supported high performance programmes; 31 of those medals have been won by female athletes.

With many of our athletes being guided by Irish coaches, utilising the facilities and expertise of the Sport Ireland Institute and training on the Sport Ireland National Sports Campus, Ireland is now well placed to continue this level of success and win significant medals across multiple disciplines.

Sanita Purspure.
Sanita Purspure.

While there are many positives, it is important to acknowledge the challenges and barriers to female engagement in sport and physical activity.

Participation levels in sport decline significantly as young people transition through primary and post-primary education. This decline particularly affects girls.

The Children’s Sport Participation and Physical Activity, 2010, found the main reasons cited by post-primary girls for not taking part in sport were not having enough time, feelings of incompetence and not liking sport.

As found in the Irish Sport Monitor 2015, when asked for the most common factors for ceasing sport, women were more likely to cite family commitments (26%) while men were more likely to cite work commitments (31%).

There is also a persistence of gender roles in volunteering which in many cases is limited to the provision of transport rather than a coaching role.

In order to address these and other challenges Sport Ireland, through the support of the Dormant Account Fund, has commissioned a research project to further inform our work to increase women’s participation in all areas of sport.

This project will examine the current landscape of women in sport in Ireland, identify any barriers to their participation in all areas of sport and make recommendations to inform future investment.

The project entails hosting Focus Groups throughout the country; gathering and analysing qualitative and quantitative research on women’s involvement in sport; identifying best-case examples of international best practice in the area of advancing involvement in sport; and consultation with key stakeholders on the barriers and opportunities.

The recommendations arising from this project will inform Sport Ireland’s investment in women’s sport and next steps for supporting women’s involvement in sport as advocates, leaders and as participants from recreational sport to the podium.

Dr Una May is Sport Ireland’s director of participation and ethics.

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