Opportunities for women in sport and exercise are expanding rapidly, whether it is in leading a governing body, excelling in elite competition or simply participation for fitness, camaraderie and the love of sport. However, there is still much work to do to achieve a level playing field. Having started as an all-male event, women competed for the first time in The Olympics in the 1900 Games in Paris. According to the International Olympic Committee females represented just 2.2% of the 997 participating athletes, competing in just five sports at these Games. Significant progress has been made since then, with females now making up almost half of the athletes at the Summer and Winter Olympic games (Noland & Stahler, 2017). However, gender parity at the Olympic Games is not enough. As athletes and spectators, females continue to face discrimination with inequalities in professional sports, media coverage, sponsorship, and leadership roles.
In both amateur and professional sport, monetary prizes for women in sport are almost always lower than that of men, the exception being tennis which has awarded equal prize money at Grand Slam tournaments since 2007 (Rakovska & Svoboda, 2017). Furthermore, there is disparity in the standard of sports facilities for use by female athletes. For example, despite research identifying that synthetic turf surfaces have a casual impact on lower extremity injury (Mack et al., 2019), players in the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015 had to play on synthetic turf throughout the tournament, with many players petitioning and threatening legal action in protest. In contrast, male competitions, particularly those at the top level, are predominantly played on natural surfaces. Further disparities exist in the media coverage of sports with women’s sport making up just 7% of all sports media coverage in the UK (Women in Sport, 2015). The lack of coverage is often defended with the argument that no one is interested in women’s sport, however viewing statistics tell a different story. For example, the Women’s Euro 2017 semi-final attracted an audience of more than 4 million in the UK (Sweney, 2017). Wage disparities and lack of media coverage can have a knock on effect in terms of opportunities for females to be full-time athletes, and attracting sponsorship. Between 2011 and 2013 it was estimated that women’s sports sponsorship accounted for just 0.4% of all sports sponsorships (Women in Sport, 2015) and endorsement and sponsorship deals for women are further criticised when in many cases female athletes are exploited for their attractiveness or ‘sexiness’ as opposed to their athletic ability and success (Weatherford, Block & Wagner, 2018). In sport and exercise-related employment there is also still much work to be done. In senior leaderships and coaching positions, males outnumber females (Norman, 2018). Women hold an average of 30% of board positions within National Governing Bodies and there are much lower numbers of women in Performance Director roles (Women in Sport, 2017). A collaborative effort is needed from policy makers, sports organisations and the media, to address the gender disparities discussed above.
Researchers and practitioners also have a significant role to play increasing scientific knowledge of female specific health issues, and developing and disseminating effective strategies for optimising health and performance of female athletes and exercisers. There is a significant under-representation of women in sport and exercise medicine studies leading to the extrapolation of findings provided my male participants, to female athletes and exercisers (Costello et al., 2014). Over three-quarters of women report that their exercise training and performance is negatively impacted by the menstrual cycle (Martin, Sale, Cooper & Sale, 2018). Furthermore, it is acknowledged that during the preovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle, ligament laxity is increased, therefore risk of certain injury types associated with this, such as anterior cruciate ligament damage may be increased (Anderson et al., 2016). This highlights the importance of understanding female physiology and defining the effects of cyclical variations in hormones on athletic performance (Bruinvels et al., 2017).
Being unique to the female, the breast is an evolving area of research in sports science and medicine (Brown et al., 2014). The breast has limited intrinsic support (Gefen & Dilmoney, 2007) and as a consequence excessive breast movement can occur during physical activity (Scurr, White, & Hedger, 2009, 2011). This movement can lead to a number of negative consequences for both elite sports women and recreationally active females including breast pain (reported in up to 72% of exercising females) discomfort and embarrassment while exercising (Page & Steele, 1999; Scurr, White & Hedger, 2011; Starr et al., 2005). One in four adult women report that the breast is a barrier to physical activity participation (Burnett, White & Scurr, 2015). Furthermore, in a survey of 2089 adolescent girls, nearly half reported that their breasts has some effect on sport and exercise participation. Appropriate breast support, such as a sports bra, can reduce the negative consequences associated with breast movement, however research has identified that sports bra use, and knowledge of breast health in female populations is low. Scurr et al. (2016) identified that over half of adolescent girls surveyed reported never wearing a sports bra during sport and exercise and 87% of girls wanted to learn more about breasts and breast support. Among adult populations sports bra use has been reported to be as low as 41% (Bowles, Steele & Munro, 2008), with many exercising females dissatisfied with sports bra design (Brown et al., 2014). Limited research has investigated the influence of breast support on sports performance; however novel research in running suggests that improvements in breast support can reduce or eliminate breast pain (Scurr, White & Hedger, 2010), alter running kinetics and kinematics (White, Scurr & Smith, 2009), and improve perceptions of comfort and exertion (White, Lunt, & Scurr, 2011). This highlights the importance of research in this area to optimise sports bra design and allow female athletes and recreationally active females to exercise in greater comfort without compromising performance. Additionally, education initiatives to improve female’s knowledge levels of breasts and breast support are recommended (Scurr et al., 2016; Brown et al., 2017).
Join us in our mission to push the boundaries in women’s sport
With the issues above in mind, the 2019 Women in Sport and Exercise Conference being held on the 11-12 June at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, aims to bring together leading thinkers and practitioners from a range of disciplines to promote discussion and debate around the issues that females face in sport and exercise at all levels. In addition, it will look at how the industry can innovate, challenge attitudes and push the boundaries that still exist for women in sport.
The conference will explore the latest research and real world evidence to address female-specific issues and life stages that impact on performance and health. It will explore gender inequality in the sport and exercise arena, and discuss the opportunities and issues surrounding female participation in physical activity. Key areas of focus will be the practical application of research to increase the opportunities for females in sport and exercise and minimise and overcome identified barriers.
Academics, practitioners, health professionals, athletes and those working in sports governance are invited to come together to share their achievements and collaborate with like-minded individuals to optimise women’s athletic success, while promoting inclusion and female empowerment through sport.
REPs members who would like to attend can enjoy a 10% discount by quoting their REPs membership number during the booking process.
Additionally, if you are interested in joining the Women in Sport and Exercise Academic Network (WISEAN) you can do so by contacting Dr Claire-Marie Roberts (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Dr Jacky Forsyth (J.J.Forsyth@staffs.ac.uk) expressing your interest. The WISEAN is a research-oriented interdisciplinary group that aims to grow, strengthen and promote research on women in sport and exercise.
Dr Nicola Brown
Faculty of Sport, Health and Applied Science
St Mary’s University, Twickenham
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