How Covid is widen­ing the gen­der ac­tiv­ity gap for women and girls

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Women's Sport Monthly -

The gen­der gap for women and girls in sport has widened dur­ing the dev­as­tat­ing Covid-19 pan­demic, ac­cord­ing to a raft of new re­search which has also con­firmed the sec­tor’s worst fears over how the cri­sis will im­pact chil­dren.

The data, which is sep­a­rately pub­lished to­day by Sport Eng­land and the Youth Sport Trust and can be re­vealed by Tele­graph

Women’s Sport, shows how, af­ter six months of lock­down re­stric­tions, only a quar­ter of women are re­main­ing reg­u­larly ac­tive.

The gap to men, which had closed sig­nif­i­cantly be­fore Covid fol­low­ing ini­tia­tives such as Sport Eng­land’s “This Girl Can” cam­paign, peaked at 10 per cent early in the pan­demic, but has since sta­bilised at around five per cent. Women were found to be more anx­ious about go­ing out to ex­er­cise, more af­fected by car­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, com­par­a­tively worse off fi­nan­cially and more af­fected by the re­duc­tion in group ac­tiv­i­ties such as ex­er­cise classes.

The vis­i­bil­ity of elite women’s sport has also been dis­pro­por­tion­ately re­duced af­ter gov­ern­ing bod­ies pri­ori­tised the re­turn of more lu­cra­tive men’s com­pe­ti­tion.

“I’m pos­i­tive about the over­all tra­jec­tory of women’s sport, but my fear is that we will be tak­ing a gi­ant leap back­wards be­cause of this year,” said Chrissie Welling­ton (right), the four-time world Iron­man cham­pion and Parkrun’s global lead for health and well-be­ing.

Par­tic­u­larly alarm­ing is the early data this term from schools which, de­spite the need to get chil­dren ac­tive fol­low­ing their March clo­sures, have re­duced ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties. Ac­cord­ing to the teach­ers sur­veyed by the Youth Sports Trust, half of schools were pro­vid­ing fewer than 30 min­utes of daily ac­tiv­ity time for chil­dren, in­clud­ing 12 per cent who said that there were no ac­tive min­utes at all.

Just three per cent of sec­ondary schools said that they would be of­fer­ing more PE this term, de­spite re­spec­tively 73 per cent and 49 per cent of teach­ers hav­ing iden­ti­fied “low phys­i­cal fit­ness” and “men­tal well-be­ing, in­clud­ing anx­i­ety and fear” as an is­sue in re­turn­ing pupils. All pre­vi­ous re­search has also shown that girls are dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected by a cri­sis of in­ac­tiv­ity.

“What we have feared most has be­come a real­ity, chil­dren’s lives have been dis­rupted by the pan­demic and their usual play and ac­tiv­ity habits in­hib­ited,” said Ali Oliver, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Youth Sports Trust.

“Now they are back at school, we are see­ing all sorts of is­sues present them­selves from anx­i­ety and depression to low phys­i­cal fit­ness and self-con­fi­dence. The well-be­ing of our chil­dren has to be a na­tional pri­or­ity.”

In­dus­try lead­ers and ex­perts have also called for:

A gov­ern­ment res­cue pack­age to en­sure that com­mu­nity sport and ac­tiv­ity sur­vives the pan­demic.

In­creased vis­i­bil­ity of women’s sport. Phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity and well-be­ing to be given the same pri­or­ity as aca­demic achieve­ment in schools.

A de­bate over the trade-off be­tween cur­tail­ing sports and the long-term health im­pacts of re­duced ac­tiv­i­ties.

A na­tional push to get more women and girls coach­ing as well as par­tic­i­pat­ing.

The year had started with the num­ber of women deemed “ac­tive”, de­fined as 150 weekly min­utes or more, up to 61 per cent. And the gap to men had nar­rowed to only 3.9 per cent. Then came lock­down and, says Lisa O’Keefe, Sport Eng­land’s in­sight di­rec­tor, “overnight we sud­denly saw this mas­sive dis­rup­tion and im­pact”.

The gen­der gap peaked dur­ing the first week of lock­down data and those deemed “ac­tive” by the cri­te­ria of at least 30 min­utes per day, five days a week, has been re­spec­tively 30 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women across the past three weeks.

It sug­gests a stark over­all re­duc­tion across gen­ders since be­fore Covid-19, although O’Keefe stresses one po­ten­tially cru­cial statis­tic. With the Gov­ern­ment con­sis­tently pro­mot­ing ac­tiv­ity even at the height of lock­down, 70 per cent of women do say that it is “more im­por­tant than ever to be ac­tive”. In­creases in run­ning, cy­cling and walk­ing were recorded, but also par­tic­u­lar gen­der bar­ri­ers. Women were al­ways far more likely to at­tend fit­ness classes and so se­vere lim­i­ta­tions on choice have had a dis­pro­por­tion­ate im­pact and, with Covid-19 spread­ing, they were more re­luc­tant than men to leave home to ex­er­cise.

Time was also a fac­tor. Al­most two-thirds of men re­ported hav­ing time to be ac­tive against just over half of women and, ac­cord­ing to a sep­a­rate study by Women in Sport, al­most a third of women could not pri­ori­tise ex­er­cise dur­ing lock­down be­cause they had too much to do for oth­ers. O’Keefe be­lieves that the in­dus­try’s chal­lenge is to

match an en­hanced de­sire to be ac­tive with suit­able op­por­tu­nity and in­spi­ra­tion.

“The con­di­tions brought about by the pan­demic have, in some cases, su­per­charged ex­ist­ing bar­ri­ers and anx­i­eties,” she said. “It is more im­por­tant than ever that ac­tive women and girls are vis­i­ble and cel­e­brated.”

Schools are al­ready see­ing the phys­i­cal and men­tal im­pacts on chil­dren, but gov­ern­ment guid­ance on so­cial dis­tanc­ing, chang­ing rooms, clean­ing and main­tain­ing set “bub­bles”, as well as re­duced and stag­gered lunchtimes, wet weather and staff short­ages, are dis­rupt­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. Be­tween 80 and 90 per cent of schools are of­fer­ing ei­ther no ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar sports ac­tiv­i­ties or less than they pre­vi­ously would.

‘Con­di­tions brought about by the pan­demic have, in some cases, su­per­charged ex­ist­ing bar­ri­ers and anx­i­eties’ ‘Girls have borne the emo­tional brunt of this cri­sis and one thing we owe them is the equal right to space in the play­ground’

“Many schools are strug­gling with the con­fi­dence to re­sume, or do not see it as a pri­or­ity in re­la­tion to other sub­jects – with the chal­lenge great­est in sec­ondary schools, where over a fifth are of­fer­ing less PE than be­fore Covid,” Oliver said.

Some of the Youth Sport Trust’s feed­back from teach­ers has in­cluded the de­scrip­tion of the new school day as “seden­tary” and chil­dren feel­ing like “caged an­i­mals” .

Stephanie Hil­borne, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Women in Sport, has urged the Gov­ern­ment and schools to en­sure that girls are not now marginalis­ed. “Women and girls have borne the emo­tional brunt of this pan­demic and one thing we owe them is the equal right to space in the play­ground, to kick or throw a ball, to run about and shout, to be care­free and high spir­ited,” she said.

A de­sire to pro­mote phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity is at least ev­i­dent. The char­ity Green­house, which pro­vides sports coach­ing, has re­ported un­prece­dented in­ter­est from schools in its pro­grammes while Beth Twed­dle, the for­mer world cham­pion gym­nast, has had 450 pri­mary schools sign up for her free 10-week phys­i­cal lit­er­acy pro­gramme.

With Parkrun still ten­ta­tively plan­ning its re­turn next month, Welling­ton also high­lighted the un­in­tended health con­se­quences of lock­down and how the most dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties were be­ing hit hard­est. “A de­bate needs to be had about the long-term im­pacts of these [lock­down] mea­sures,” she said. “There are deep and per­sis­tent health and well-be­ing in­equal­i­ties, and the Covid pan­demic has com­pounded and ex­ac­er­bated them.”

As well as more than half a mil­lion fe­male Parkrun run­ners and walk­ers, there are also al­most 100,000 vol­un­teers. Main­tain­ing and in­creas­ing com­mu­nity sport’s base of vol­un­teers is, ac­cord­ing to Mark Gan­non, UK Coach­ing’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, also crit­i­cal. “Schools will be so pre­oc­cu­pied with try­ing to catch up aca­dem­i­cally that com­mu­nity sport is more im­por­tant now than ever,” he said. “My fear is that women and girls’ sport could go back 10 years. It’s had such fan­tas­tic mo­men­tum – and that is some­thing we must not now lose.”

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