Women and Equalities Committee: Report on Health Barriers for Girls and Women in Sport

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It is clear that interest in women’s sport continues to grow, with the industry estimated to reach £1 billion in 2024. Nevertheless, many women still face significant barriers to participation in sport. On 5 March 2024, the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) of the UK Parliament published a report on the health and physiological barriers to sport faced by women throughout their life (the Report). From June to November 2023, the WEC collected oral evidence from a panel of witnesses consisting of retired sportswomen (with backgrounds in cycling, netball, rowing, and rugby), national governing bodies such as England Netball and England Hockey, key organisations including UK Sport and Sport England, and experts in women’s health and fitness. This latest article in the Women’s Sports Series explores the WEC’s findings and recommendations set out in the Report. Ultimately, the Report encourages a more streamlined approach to women’s sport through improved initiatives and collaboration of key organisations with the aim of increasing women’s participation in sport.

Key Findings & Recommendations

Barriers to girls’ participation

A key finding set out in the Report is that there is a lack of education for young girls about the menstrual cycle. Although education on the menstrual cycle is mandatory, research conducted by England Netball and Swansea University revealed that only 51% of schools are providing this to young girls (often after many first experience menstruation). Based on the evidence provided, the WEC considered that without a basic understanding of their physiology, girls may lack the confidence to participate in sport. Evidence provided to the WEC also indicates that PE teachers are not receiving adequate training regarding the menstrual cycle, meaning teachers are less able to provide the necessary support for young girls in sport.

The Report includes a recommendation that the Department for Education (DfE) ensures 100% compliance in providing menstrual cycle education, highlighting positive steps taken by Swansea University who plan to pilot an enhanced four-week lesson plan in schools. The Report also includes a recommendation on providing more choice for young girls’ PE kit and better guidance on sports bras to aid confidence in participation. Finally, the Report includes a recommendation that Sport England extend the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign to educate parents in supporting young girls’ participation in sport, alongside collaboration of the Women and Equality Hub, Youth Sport Trust, and The Well HQ to ensure appropriate data and expertise are available to address these barriers.

Midlife and Menopause

Lisa West, Head of Policy, Partnerships and Public Affairs at Women in Sport, explained in her evidence to the WEC how barriers faced by women throughout their life can have a cumulative effect on women’s participation in sport in mid-life. Further evidence provided to the WEC revealed a key challenge in mid-life is that many women are time poor, with gendered social factors (such as caring responsibilities) and symptoms of menopause further limiting women’s participation in sport. The WEC welcomed Government initiatives addressing these issues, such as ‘Get Active’, but noted that more detailed research would help to provide specifically designed interventions to overcome these barriers.

The WEC recommends further extending Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign to include a focus on mid-life participation in sport. Collaboration with Women in Sport and the Well HQ is also advised for better informed interventions.

Sports and Exercise research

The Report sets out the WEC’s finding that better research is needed on the health and physiology of women in both the availability of appropriate kit for women and increased representation of women in sports research (which is currently very male-centric). Reference is made to Karen Carney’s independent review of women’s football and the association of poor kit with the disproportionate rates of ACL injury in female athletes in order to highlight systemic inequalities in sport research and design.

Recommendations in the Report include the establishment of a taskforce by the DfE. This taskforce would aim to connect key organisations with health and fitness experts (such as UK Sport, UK Sports Institute and The Well HQ) with a focus on increasing representation of women in sports research.

Coaching

Evidence provided to the WEC raised two key concerns in women’s sport coaching. Firstly, the need for a better understanding of women’s health and physiology to fully support female athletes in training. The WEC welcomed positive coaching practices that support female health and physiology (such as the NetballHer initiative developed by England Netball and The Well HQ). However, the WEC’s evidence indicated that these positive practices largely depend on the individual coach or specific sport, as opposed to a common standard across women’s sport. Secondly, the WEC recommends better regulation in coaching practices with more scrutiny over inappropriate practices. Evidence provided to the WEC highlighted harmful coaching cultures in sport, including the negative impacts of frequent weigh-ins on mental health and the impact of intense training on regular menstrual cycles (associated with the condition RED-S).

The WEC’s recommendations set out in the Report include a best practice standard and mandatory qualifications in coaching across women’s sports, with NetballHer considered a positive step in this direction. Accountability for improving coaching cultures across women’s sport is also encouraged by the WEC. The Report highlights examples of improvement in this area, such as Sports England’s review of Swim England’s coaching practices and responses to complaints. Further, the WEC welcomed the call for evidence on integrity in sport by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and noted that it expects to see tangible actions arising from this in order to help tackle issues of bullying, harassment, abuse and discrimination.

Pregnancy and Maternity

Last but by no means least, the Report notes the need for streamlined policies and practices around pregnancy and maternity policies in women’s sport (discussed in our earlier article here). Evidence was provided to the WEC by former netball player Eboni Usoro-Brown on the positive steps netball is taking in this area, with expert coaches supporting a gradual return to the sport for players postpartum. However, evidence collected by the WEC revealed that standards of support for pregnancy and maternity vary across the different sports. For example, British rower Mathilda Hodgkins Byrne provided evidence of a lack of support in returning to top level competition and inconsistent support from her coaches.

The WEC also suggested that UK Sport’s policy for funded athletes (published in November 2021 for Olympic and Paralympic athletes) can be used as a model for other sports. Additionally, the WEC recommended that the DCMS, UK Sport and Sport England establish a permanent working group on best practice in pregnancy and maternity policy and that, as part of that, the working group should consider establishing a road map for equal access to leave and pay in line with statutory maternity rights and across all international sports.

In summary, while the growth in women’s sport has brought huge benefits to the industry, the Report concludes that more needs to be done to support the health and physiology of women throughout their lives. The WEC’s recommendations aim to streamline approaches to women’s health and physiology in sport to better support women’s participation in, and the continued growth of, women’s sport.

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