Having attended a girls’ school since the age of eleven, I have never felt as though my gender has limited me in any way. In everything from academics to music, we were always encouraged to strive to be the best and this certainly translated onto the sports field.
Right through until Upper Sixth, sport was taken incredibly seriously. At times, I really think our teachers considered missing a lacrosse practice a crime worthy of jail time. I was used to competing against young women who were as intelligent as they were athletically talented, and completely unapologetic for both. In our midst were girls who competed at junior Wimbledon, one Olympic swimmer, a smattering of England lacrosse players, and a baseball player nominated by Baseball Softball UK (BSUK) for the 2016 Young Sports Personality of the Year. Looking back, it was a real privilege to grow up in that sort of environment but I never realised just how unique it was until I started participating in sport outside of the school arena.
As much as I was being educated with women who were increasingly dedicated to their sports as they grew older, the state of affairs at my home athletics club was quite the opposite. Having started out training for sprints with a healthy gender balance to the group, around the ages of 16-18, almost all the girls stopped coming to training. The few exceptions were those who, clearly, took athletics very seriously.
The change felt quite abrupt as though going through puberty had flicked some sort of switch which gave these young women a sudden aversion to sport. Without warning, the purpose of physical exercise for these girls became less about peak performance and more about aesthetics as they swapped the weights room for the Topshop changing room.
Alas, this phenomenon is not just restricted to my sprints training group but is part of a wider national, perhaps global, trend which sees girls drop out of sport in their teens at an alarming rate. Statistics from England Athletics show that in all sports almost half as many 16-24 year- old women take part in sport as men of the same age.
It is absolutely imperative to question why it is that girls seem to be abandoning sport just when they need it most. With body confidence and relationship issues coming to a head in the late teenage years, it would seem natural for girls to look to sport as a way of boosting their self-esteem during these formative years and yet the reality could not be more different. Personally, I really feel that it was my participation in sport that gave me the confidence I needed to demand the best results from myself in all areas of my life. If this were not the case, I would not have pushed myself enough academically to set my sights on Cambridge. In this respect, it is clear that the implications of girls failing to continue with sport stretch far beyond the athletic realm. We could be seriously disadvantaging our young women by not insisting that they continue to be committed to sport in some way, competitive or otherwise.
Back in primary school, a co-ed institution in my case, boys’ sporting progress was taken more seriously than the girls’. Whilst the boys went off to defend the honour of the school in a football tournament, the girls were resigned to an art lesson, something altogether more appropriate for our meek female bodies. Certainly, speaking to friends who attended mixed schools throughout their education, it is clear that girls dropping out of sport was never really questioned. Socially, boys were ostracised if they failed to make teams or excel athletically; the same pressure was never applied to their female counterparts. Girls are often, and easily, able to escape sports lessons by citing ‘womanly issues,’ and it is made clear from the very outset that female participation is not a priority.
This was aptly highlighted by the pathetic excuse for a netball team, half-heartedly strung together by my primary school PE teacher, in comparison to the well-drilled and lauded boys’ football team which was the pride of the school. Even in my all female and extremely sporty secondary school, girls began to ‘bunk’ PE lessons from around year ten and always expressed a desire to not be made to engage in any sort of sporting activity in front of the students from the neighbouring boys’ school. Despite this, however, it is clear that a great number of us continued to take sport seriously and we were good at it. Part of me thinks that the reason so many of us were able to succeed in the sporting world was the absence of boys.
Not only were we able to concentrate on getting better at our sports without the distraction of thinking about what we looked like in front of the opposite gender, but the all-female environment meant we were uniquely immune to societal gender norms whilst at school. There was nobody telling us that sports were for boys and art and music were more appropriate for girls. Incidentally, I would also imagine that this phenomenon explains the increased level of female participation in STEM subjects at single sex schools. We were not constrained by the world’s expectations of “the gentler sex” and so were able to flourish.
Of course, there are a plethora of reasons why girls choose to leave the world of competitive sport in their late teens, those reasons being as numerous as they are varied. Body image, relationship woes and confidence issues to name but a few. However, despite this eclectic bunch of causes, I believe that female participation in sport can be dramatically increased by constantly challenging stereotypical views of strong and athletic women. Steps have certainly been taken in the right direction with movements such as the WTA’S ‘Strong is beautiful” campaign showcasing top female tennis players demonstrating their athleticism whilst wearing ball gowns – illustrating that competiveness and femininity are not mutually exclusive. Other Campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ and female sporting role models in popular culture such as Serena Williams on the cover of Vogue this year show that perceptions are certainly changing. At the very least, we can confidently state that the world has never been more comfortable with female athleticism as it is today.