THE BLOG

Sport, Sexism and Cheerleading

26/02/2014 12:30 GMT | Updated 27/04/2014 10:59 BST

The anti-cheerleader troop has been out in force over the past week. It's easy to take a pot-shot at cheerleading. So let's join in.

I used to be amongst the sharp-shooters who poo-poo'd cheerleading because it reinforces women's subordinate role. Cheerleading seemed closer to burlesque than to real sport. I thought cheerleading belittled those athletic lasses who danced to please the male gaze during the half time break in the serious business of the day - a match between men. And anyway cheerleading is a bit too American, and too waspy.

These ideas were of their time. It was twenty five years ago and women were still substantially excluded from the high status, men-only sports - football, cricket and rugby. It was outrageous sexism. Back then we thought that the gender gap in sport - women participate in sport at about 75% the rate of men - would drain away once women won the right to play. Society is a better place now that women have forced ajar the doors to all British sports but the gender gap has not significantly reduced. There were not as many women clamouring to play as we expected. The first generation of women who were allowed to play football generated only 120,000 women who now regularly play every week.

But the biggest kick comes in the realisation that playing team games is not all that popular with either gender. As a whole, British society most highly values competitive games that involve a bat or a ball. But when it comes to getting the trainers on - that's not what we do. The ratio of players taking part in team based sports compared to individual activities - fitness, jogging, dance and cycling - is about 5:1.

This preference for non-traditional sports is more pronounced amongst women. Every week over 200,000 women play badminton - the most popular traditional sport amongst women. Each week over 2.5 million go to the gym or to fitness classes. That's ten times the amount that play badminton. Women like these non-traditional sports because they prefer sport to be informal, friendly, fun and set to music. Many women see the environment of traditional sport as 'not for them'.

Those preferences came to life for StreetGames when we started the Us Girls campaign with the intention of mobilising 30,000 disadvantaged young women. We found many young women who want to play football do not yet have a cheap, convenient opportunity which is organised in a fun and friendly way. However, we found that a far greater number wanted activities that they, in line with traditional opinion, consider more suitable for women and girls.

We were confused. If the young women wanted gym, fitness and dance, should we give it to them or should we push the sports that we'd spent years fighting for? The problem was resolved for us. The landscape is more complex than we realised. These days some lasses want to play football, go to a fitness class and then get dolled up for a night out in the clubs. It isn't always either football or fitness classes - some women want both. And that's progress - football is now acceptable to girls who do not particularly want to challenge gender stereotypes. Girl's football is becoming normal. Although the gender gap has not been significantly closed by opening up football to women it will make a greater contribution in the future. The next generation of girls seem set to play at a greater rate than the current generation.

And that takes us back to cheerleading.

When StreetGames looked more closely at grassroots cheerleading we found it does not involve cheering on men. It's done in the privacy of the community centre's back room just after the dance class has gone home. Participants in community cheerleading are no more likely to be the half-time entertainment in a professional sports match than the neighbourhood football team is to play at Wembley. It's a hobby with a sense of belonging and it does get girls active.

And most of all, cheerleading is hard work. See if you can do it. Try a dozen star jumps from a crouched down position, twizzle in the air and chant at the top of your voice at the same time. Unless you go to the gym more than every now and then, I bet you can't do it.