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Is COVID-19 the reset we need to improve sport for women and girls?

The COVID-19 pandemic is a unique opportunity for our sector. We are faced with the choice to re-build the sport sector as it was, or to realise  the possibilities that lie before us. 

COVID-19 forced all sport to stop. If we use this pause in play to proactively reimagine our future, we can shed old priorities, choices, habits, and exclusionary behaviours, and clear the slate for new, better ones that benefit all New Zealanders.  

You’ve likely heard these words many times in recent months: Crisis is the catalyst for change. 

Over the past few decades we have seen a huge shift in the inclusion of women and girls in sport, however discrepancies still exist.  

In 2017 the Government’s Strategy for Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation was released, which seeks to achieve equity for all women and girls. Since then, progress has been made to increase the participation, leadership, value and visibility of women and girls in sport in Aotearoa.  

COVID-19 has now resulted in major upheaval to the sport and recreation sector, with many organisations focussing on survival above all else. This threatens projects and initiatives that were dedicated to levelling the playing field for women and girls. We need to ensure that we don’t lose all of the momentum we had gained in enabling an equitable sport system due to the impact of the pandemic.  

The prospect of this has been highlighted by the International Working Group for Women and Sport who have declared COVID-19 to be a significant threat to the women in sport and physical activity movement. It has asked organisations to champion gender equity throughout the recovery and re-build phases, referencing five key areas – wellbeing, safety, resource, leadership and structure. 

So how does this fit into the world of youth sport?  

We often talk about young people as a collective group. We know that the physical activity levels of young people continue to decline in New Zealand, but by improving the quality of their experiences, there is a chance for them to re-establish a life-long involvement in sport and recreation. However, a universal approach to improving experiences within this age group will not address the gender disparities that still exist.  

In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown, the social value of sport is more prominent than ever before.  Sport creates a sense of belonging, gives people confidence, and improves wellbeing. Recent data from Sport NZ’s Active NZ survey shows that girls and young women spend on average 90 minutes a week less than boys and young men participating in play, active recreation and sport.  We also know through Sport NZ’s Value of Sport research that sport plays a crucial role in enhancing the wellbeing of New Zealanders. So why should girls and young women miss out on the benefits sport has to offer?  

When we talk about girls being less active and not participating in sport, it’s not only because they have less opportunities to play sport. They’re not ‘missing out’ based solely on access issues. This is only one piece of the puzzle. A strong focus also needs to be put on the psycho-social barriers that make girls feel like they can’t participate. These barriers need to be addressed if we want to make meaningful change.  

These psycho-social barriers primarily stem from deeply entrenched practices, norms, and stereotypes that are present and reinforced in our broader society.  

Active NZ data from 2018 revealed that young women (12-17 years)  were significantly more likely to identify “not fit enough”,  “not confident enough”, “I don’t want to fail” and “I don’t like other people seeing me being physically active” as barriers to participation in physical activity, compared with young men. 

Sport NZ’s Girls and Young Women Profile shows that having fun and  socialising with friends and family are key motivators for girls and young women to participate in physical activity. However, the influence of friends can also be a barrier to participation – if their friends drop out, so will they.  

The competitive nature of sport can also lead girls and young women to view sport as taking time away from socialising with their friends, and therefore, the motivators of sport being fun and social are no longer present. No matter what stage they are in, girls and young women want to ‘find their tribe’ – they want to feel like they are part of something. So, how can you use this to foster a passion for sport among the girls in your community? 

Some questions to ponder 

  • Have you created an environment that is supportive and welcoming to girls and young women? 
  • Is the foundation of your club culture based on social connectedness?  
  • Do you understand what sport means to the girls and young women you’re trying to target? 
  • Are you using a co-design approach to ensure what you’re offering is relevant?  
  • Have you considered the role of whānau to support and encourage participation in sport?  
  • Are women and girls valued in your sporting community? 

The role of sport and recreation in addressing gender equity issues and creating a more inclusive society cannot be underestimated. COVID-19 has forced sport to stop. It has also led us into a ‘recovery phase’, which is a unique chance to reset the sport system.  

Some steps you can take now to initiate change:

1- Ensure the voices of women and girls are at the decision-making table 

Having diverse leadership at every step of the planning and decision-making processes and at all levels (national, regional and local), is key to effective and fully inclusive COVID-19 response and recovery.  

2 – Ensure that the women and girls in your sport are valued and visible 

This is crucial in enabling the shift we need. If you run a local sports club, have a think about what teams you are prioritising as you get back into sport. Which team gets to use the facilities? Which team gets more time on the field? If the answer is the senior men’s team, you might need to stop and think. Girls and young women need to see that women’s sport is valued, and even more crucially, boys and young men can learn that women’s sport is valued too.  

3 – Seek to understand the needs and wants of women and girls 

Try to create an environment that they want to be in. However, not all young women and girls are the same, so a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. Sport NZ’s three approaches can help put you on the pathway to developing participant-focused sport environments.  

If you’re thinking that inclusivity isn’t a priority in the current environment given the financial hardship sport is experiencing, think again. Bringing girls and young women into your club and enabling them to develop a love for sport won’t only benefit them as individuals. An inclusive environment will also directly affect the number of members, volunteers, coaches and champions you have. This is crucial for the recovery and long-term sustainability of your club and the wider sport sector.  

At a national level, Sport NZ is committed to the Government’s Strategy for Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation which seeks to achieve equity for all women and girls by increasing their participation, leadership, value and visibility within our sector. How will you, at a local or regional level, approach this recovery period to ensure that women and girls are valued and visible participants in your sport? 

The greatest risk to sport in general is that we rebuild the way it was before the crisis. This infographic shows how historically women have been underrepresented in decision-making roles, have had many barriers to participation and have been invisible and undervalued in the sport sector. The pandemic has forced all sport to stop. This is the chance we have to reset and create the sport sector we want in the future.  

The year of 2020 will be one we all look back on – the year where lives all over the world were taken, where the global economy was shaken, and the way we live, work, and play was transformed. What part will you play in forming the ‘new normal’? What part will you play in creating a brighter future for women and girls in sport?