On International Women’s Day, we ask a group of leading sportswomen how far women’s sport has come over the last five years, what change they want to see by 2025, and how to keep young girls active.
Perception and professionalism are two fundamental steps forward for some of our sportswomen over the last five years. But what about the future of women’s sport? What needs to happen or change to keep growing women’s sport?
England and Manchester City captain Steph Houghton, WBO super-welterweight champion Natasha Jonas, England cricket captain Heather Knight, England rugby captain Sarah Hunter, British No 2 tennis player Heather Watson, two-times W Series champion Jamie Chadwick and England hockey captain Hollie Pearne-Webb reflect on the evolution of their own sports and pinpoint what needs to happen to sustain the development.
And, with a recent report from Women In Sport indicating that more than one million girls who thought of themselves as sporty at primary school lose interest in physical activity as teenagers, what message would our leading sportswomen have for those girls thinking about dropping out of sport?
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in women’s sport over the last five years?
Steph Houghton: The biggest change is probably the perception of women’s sport overall. I think now people are seeing us all as athletes and people who try to excel in their sport and compete rather than for our gender.
Natasha Jonas: With the support of big platforms, companies and a change in attitudes there’s been a positive change in women’s sport across the board for the better. It’s visible, it’s endorsed and fans/the public support it and get behind it. Governing bodies are doing amazing work in staying relevant and recognising the need for change. Women (and, in male-dominated sports, men) are supporting, encouraging, motivating, empowering, promoting and celebrating each other.
Heather Knight: I think the perception of women in sport in general has changed massively. People are more accepting of it now, it’s more normalised. It’s more professional, certainly, which I think has helped drive that change in perception of where it’s at.
Sarah Hunter: The biggest change I’ve seen is probably the professionalism. We are seeing more and more women in sport now being paid to play the sport they once did for free. This is something that I have experienced first-hand. I have played for England since 2007 but it wasn’t until 2019 when I received my first full-time professional contract. Young girls playing sport can now think “I can be a professional sports woman when I grow up” which is something boys have always had and now girls have it too.
Heather Watson: I feel like team sports have become a lot more popular which is great to see because most of us, when we’re younger, start out in team sports. You’re seeing so much more promotion of sports like women’s basketball and football from their leagues and in the media, but there is still a lot more work to do.
Jamie Chadwick: I would say the biggest change I’ve seen is the amount of big brands and sponsored partners that are getting involved in women’s sports. The big one being Visa matching the same amount of investment that they put into the men’s World Cup title partnership as they do women’s.
Hollie Pearne-Webb: It’s fantastic that so much women’s sport is getting more profile and investment. For us in hockey, in the last five years or so we’ve had a Women’s World Cup on home soil and we have personally heard many stories of how the three consecutive Olympic medals have inspired people to pick up a stick. There’s no question now that women’s sport is treated with more respect, taken seriously and, most importantly, young girls see becoming a professional sportswoman as a viable option for them. So yes it has improved, but there is still a long way to go.
What is the one thing you would like to see changed in women’s sport by 2025?
Houghton: The one thing I would like to see in all sports is for more fans to come and watch all sports live. We need bigger audiences to make our sports more sustainable.
Jonas: Fairer pay scales, continued support in growth and development, inclusion of females at executive board and decision-making levels and more visibility throughout the media.
Knight: I would like to see a lot more media coverage outside of big events. It’s less than 10 per cent at the moment, particularly in the written press, and to drive that change I think that more media coverage and coverage of other events outside World Cups and Olympics is needed.
Hunter: I would love to see women’s sport on an equal footing to men’s sport so we can stop having the conversation about what changes or what more we need to do to help support women’s sport. We would have equal visibility on TV and in the media. Commercial sponsors would invest in teams, sports, individuals and competitions like they do men’s sports and we have generated fan bases that would sell out games, matches and events.
Watson: I am lucky enough to play tennis, which has always led the way for women’s sport. However, despite that, and even in tennis, we still don’t always see the same levels of coverage for women’s sport as for men. Sport has always been seen as primarily a men’s activity, so the thing I would most like to see change is women’s sport to be just as respected as men’s.
Chadwick: I’d still like to see higher participation rates – the amount of girls taking part in sports at grassroots level and increasing participation at a young age.
Pearne-Webb: By then I would love to see a continued growth in all of the core aspects that make women’s sport great. UK Sport and the National Lottery have done an amazing job funding sport, so long may that continue. And then in terms of commercial investment and media interest, it’s imperative that we share the spotlight among all women’s sport, rather than concentrating on a handful of sports. I have met amazing athletes from so many sports that do not get the investment and coverage they deserve, and I would like to see that change. How many times will we see the gold medal-winning curling team between now and the next winter Olympics, and what investment will they receive? Those things are very important.
How do we ensure young girls don’t drop out of sport and what message would you have for those girls stepping away from their sports?
Houghton: If we can continue to push the benefits of young girls being active and being part of different sports on health, self esteem and relationships, whether that is in schools or via clubs, then we have a greater chance of allowing girls to stay in sports.
We have a chance as role models in many different sports that are shown on live TV to demonstrate this as well and, the more we are visible, the more that it could become an option for girls to pursue this route in the future.
Jonas: Make a wider range of sports more accessible, breaking down as many barriers as possible. I don’t know how we do that. Celebrate grassroots sports and give it a bigger platform, encourage positive body image which are heavily funded and promoted, highlighting all the different shapes, sizes and body types in sports.
There’s a sport out there for everyone at whatever level you want. The enjoyment is trying as many as possible and finding the one for you.
Knight: I think a lot of girls leave because other things come along and because there is that self-consciousness young girls sometimes have. Sometimes being involved in sport is not what you are expected to do as a teenage girl, so the more we can drive a change in perception and do things a little bit different to make girls feel included and maybe keep them with a group of friends [is important]. If girls are leaving sport, I would ask why and what can we do to bring friendship groups together and help girls maintain that active lifestyle.
Hunter: I think we need to make sport fun, varied and accessible to young girls to prevent them from dropping out during their teenage years. We need to make sport attractive and “cool” to make young girls want to keep taking part. We need to engage and make sport come to life with the way young people interact with one another. For example, how do platforms such as Tik Tok make young girls want to keep playing sports? We need to think outside the box of how we have tried to retain young girls in sport in the past.
The message I would have for girls stepping away from sport is to stay and keep playing. You started playing sport because you enjoyed it; try and give it another chance to let it give back to you and make you realise why you started playing it in the first place. It will be the best decision you make. You could go on to be the next Olympic or World Champion, you could turn that sport you did as a hobby into your full time professional job, you could travel the world doing something you love but most importantly you will meet incredible people and make friends for life and sport will help guide and develop you as a person in a way that nothing else can do.
Watson: I think the most important thing is to encourage young girls that sports are fun, social and part of a healthy lifestyle. Sports are so cool and can provide so many opportunities and valuable experiences that will be so beneficial for you in the future – I have been lucky enough to make a career out of playing sport, but there are so many more health, social and wellbeing benefits that playing sport can provide to anyone. I’d definitely say stick with it – you won’t regret it!
Chadwick: I’d say it’s important to have positive role models shining more attention on women’s sport and more media attention and exposure to show sport’s accessibility. We also need to inspire girls to continue progressing in the sport. It’s an old cliché, but, ‘you need to see it to be it’. If you enjoy doing it and have the opportunity to do it, then don’t let anything put you off doing it, cause there are so many other opportunities in sport across the board outside of being just a sports’ player. There’s many opportunities in sport – now more than ever.
Pearne-Webb: For the good of both girls and boys, continued investment in primary school sport is absolutely essential, for many reasons. First and foremost we must look after the health and wellbeing of the nation, but we also need to ensure that every child has the opportunity to progress as far as they possibly can within their chosen sport. And especially for girls, we know how many stop doing sport when they become teenagers, so creating a love of sport in primary schools is key. To keep girls in sport, they also need to see female role models on TV and in the media even more.