ANXIETY MONEY INEQUALITY FATIGUE ISOLATION LOCKDOWN DEPRESSION FEAR TIME CHILDCARE
How Covid is widening the gender activity gap for women and girls
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.”