You’re not alone when you enter an exercise environment ready to run the other way. Research findings, both here and in the UK, show feelings of intimidation, judgement, inadequacy, body image concerns and teasing are common barriers to participation in sport and activity, especially if you are female. (Women's Health Week 3 to 7 September has some inspirational ideas and more than 2000 events across the country with which to get involved.)
A 2015 VicHealth survey of 2000 Victorian women and men aged 18 or over found 52 percent of women surveyed worried about being judged while exercising. More worryingly: 41 percent of women were too embarrassed to exercise in public compared with 26 percent of men.
VicHealth is a statutory authority in Victoria, originally funded by hypothecated taxation raised by the Victorian Tobacco Act 1987. The organisation aims to increase the health of Victorians through health research, running targeted programs and marketing health initiatives. VicHealth’sHealth’s most recent adventure is the This Girl Can project – licenced from the UK. The project launched in Victoria in March 2018 (above, ambassadors and everyday women at the launch event).
This Girl Can uses traditional and social media channels to encourage women to get active by showcasing women’s stories of joining in and getting involved with sport from boxing to walking, weightlifting to AFL, and beyond.
The campaign was originally developed in the UK by Sport England. VicHealth’s research confirmed many of the same barriers to activity for women as Sport England found. This Girl Can UK has, since 2015, motivated 3.9 million women in England to take their fitness into their own hands.
This Girl Can partners with sports and activity clubs to support women to join in and be active and turn around the worrying inactivity statistics. To boost participation by women, sports clubs and organisations have, for example, engaged in varying the rules, or the game itself, to suit different players; changed game lengths and session timetables to suit the lives of more people; varied financial costs; broken down social stereotypes around who can play what sport and, most importantly, they have begun to provide women with a place where judgement is left at the turnstile. The campaign also uses ambassadors to inspire women to participate as well as the video stories of everyday women and girls playing sport and getting active.
VicHealth believes the This Girl Can campaign - to show women being active and removing barriers to activity - will have similar success to its UK counterpart, albeit smaller in number. Says VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter (above): “The evidence is that when women can identify themselves in advertising and in the media, they’re more likely to overcome fear of judgement.”
VicHealth’s research results feeds into the larger national picture: ABS data notes that three in five (60%) of Australian women are not “sufficiently active”.
What does “sufficiently active” look like?
According to the Federal Department of Health it looks like this for people 18 to 64 years:
“Be active on most, preferably all, days every week.”
And that means “accumulating 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.”
Plus, “do muscle strengthening activities on at least two days each week”.
If that sounds disconcertingly unlike you, you’re not (as the data shows) alone. The encouraging piece of advice: doing any physical activity is better than doing none. Start by doing some, and gradually build up to the recommended amount.
Globally, women’s participation in leadership and decision making remains limited. Sport and sport-related fields and organisations are no different. One of the wider aims of This Girl Can is to initiate and support leadership change by increasing participation of women at every level of activity. It also aims to change the power balance, and by bringing greater equality to the way we participate in and think about sport to positively affect women’s safety in society, family and community.
The Line, an Australian Federal Government evidence-based social marketing campaign to encourage healthy, equal and respectful relationships by challenging and changing attitudes and behaviours that support violence against women has, as part of its remit, delved into sport and its representations of women. It has found under-representation when it comes to women is rife in media: “In spite of huge successes on the world stage, Australian women’s sport only receives 7% of Australian TV sports programming and 9% of sports coverage on the news. Even horses get more coverage than sportswomen! That lack of coverage means less funding, less sponsorship and lower salaries. And when we don’t see women’s sport on TV, we’re also missing seeing women in positions of leadership and great role models for girls.”
According to the findings of a 2007 UN’s Women, gender equality and sport: “The poor representation of women in sport related employment is not a reflection of the number of working women in the world today; women represent more than 40 per cent of working people worldwide… Many barriers to equitable employment opportunities remain, including stereotypical attitudes towards women and sport.”
Women in sport and sport-related employment are underrepresented at all levels. This includes, and is not limited to, in coaching, sport-related health therapies, management, commercial sporting activities, sport marketing and branding and the media, as well as in decision-making bodies at the local, national, regional and international levels.
This lack of representation reaches right down to volunteering: The 2010 General Social Survey conducted by the ABS found that “6.1 million Australians aged 18 years and over participated in voluntary work, with sport and physical recreation organisations attracting the largest number of volunteers (2.3 million or 14% of the adult population). Males were more likely to volunteer for all sport and physical recreation organisations (55% or 1.2 million) than females (45% or 1.0 million).”
And then there’s the shocking discrepancy in pay. According to The Line’s data, “the average wage of a male AFL player is $265,179. An average player on the Australian National Netball Team receives $43,000 per year…”
Such meagre incomes reduce women’s opportunities to excel, but most importantly, in our culture, the inequality of pay conveys a strong negative message around worth.
Women are worth-less.
By increasing women’s participation we can change the way we think and speak about sport, as well as how we consume sport, and so build a more level playing field. The benefits include increasing women’s confidence, building positive imagery around women in sport and decreasing negative stereotypes.