Women in sport featured heavily in the media after female successes at the Commonwealth Games and the first women's race on the final day of the Tour de France. The increased coverage signals progress, but the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee's recent Women and Sport report left us with the sobering thought that there are still stark differences between men's and women's sport, especially in participation levels.
Lack of facilities, choice in girls' PE lessons, inequality in sponsorship and prize money and media coverage were all to blame. None of these have quick fix solutions. Sports Leaders UK is in the strong position that nearly half of the 120 000 sports leaders trained every year are female. We do it through appealing to people's sense of fun, focusing on physical activity rather than sport and building confidence of leaders and participants.
Several researchers found that some women don't enjoy the competitive element of sport. In Wales, the Sporting Ambassadors project trains women to become ambassadors in their local community and encourage others to participate. After some training on how to lead activities, the leaders ask the community what they would like to do. Sessions offered as a result ranged from New Age Kurling to Nordic walking, and archery to Tai Chi. There has to be something women enjoy, otherwise it won't increase participation in the long run.
These ambassadors are role models for others in their community. They show that you don't have to have the talent of an elite athlete to enjoy physical activity, and is therefore much more inclusive. Through acquiring generic leadership skills, leaders boost their confidence and ability to devise activities that include all and use available equipment, rather than relying on costly, often unavailable facilities.
The Women and Sport report stated that some women were put off sport because of poor body image and the worry that they won't be fit enough. Activity sessions in the community, led by a local leader, could help to address these, as they are easier to access and often organised for people of similar age, fitness levels and competence.
StreetGames' Us Girls programme is also based on local delivery and encourages women in disadvantaged communities to take up sport. They found young women often prefer activities based on friendship groups and didn't like traditional exercise environments such as gyms or aerobics classes. They enjoyed inclusive activities, as it didn't make them feel like they are not good enough. Greater inclusivity was achieved through rotating positions in games, changing rules and encouraging women to try different events. For most women, having fun was what kept them coming back for more.
Our 28 years' experience taught us how to appeal to women's intrinsic motivation, and maybe this is what policy makers are still missing. To attract more women to physical activity, we need to listen to what they want and deliver it where it is easily accessible. Having trained people in the community that can steer the behavioural change to increased activity is key to success, not delivering 'one size fits all' facilities that don't appeal or doesn't provide enough choice.