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How sport is missing a trick for female athletes

Posted: 16/08/2023

Some 860,000 fewer girls than boys play team sport in England, more than the combined capacity of all 20 Premier League football stadiums, according to a recent survey from the charity Women in Sport. It found that 22% fewer girls than boys play team sport, with 61% of teenage girls saying that they feel judged when participating. Worryingly, 38% of teenage girls said that they did not feel safe exercising outside. This needs to change in order that the benefits of sport can be felt by all – so what is missing?

The missing years – when are girls hanging up their boots?

Over 40% of girls who were previously active at primary school reported that they disengaged from sport once they moved to secondary school. The links between sport and mental and physical wellbeing have been known for years but the benefits of sport also come into the workplace. A remarkable 94% of women at C-suite level play sport regularly and it is known to help focus and improve academic performance. Even if not becoming an elite athlete, sport can change lives.

Body consciousness during puberty and fear of being sexualised, as well as sometimes unconscious biases of coaches against female athletes, can be off-putting. Comments on running, throwing, or kicking ‘like a girl’ remain prevalent and can make an otherwise motivated future athlete choose to stop her sport. Advances in women’s sport, such as blue shorts for the England football team to mitigate the risk of a player’s period showing on the old white shorts, are rightly lauded. However, this is not enough on its own and there is still a long way to go. 

The missed opportunity – why is the female sport market only now being noticed? 

It is also a lost business opportunity. Studies have found that women’s spending on their hobbies is around 21% higher than men’s, and female sports fans are said to be 25% more likely to buy sponsor products than men. In addition, then to the moral view on improving women’s participation in sport, sport funding should, logically, be much more catered to women. 

Sadly, though, this is not yet the case. It is estimated that if an athlete ran a marathon with an ill-fitting bra, then it could effectively amount to finishing the race at the time they would have run 27 miles in a bra that fits (effectively one mile slower). The Tokyo Olympics was the first time that Team GB had fitted bras for female athletes. This took place in 2021. 

In the 1990s, male footballers started to be paid to wear specific boots; in the 2000s, they were given tailored boots to reflect their style such as pace or passing range, with the 2010s showing a real boom in boots being named after star players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. Yet in 2023, between 25 and 30 women have missed the World Cup due to anterior cruciate ligament injuries, including key players for the England team, Leah Williamson, and Beth Mead. ACL Women Football Club estimates that 195 elite female players suffered this injury in the last year. Women are 2.5 to 3.5 times more likely to suffer knee ligament injuries than male athletes (with some commentators even suggesting that the figure is likely to be nearer 4.5 times).

Missing the point – how does sport need to be redesigned for women?

One reason suggested for the high prevalence of this injury is the boots. Until recently, football boots were only really designed for male feet without factoring in the different body shape and biomechanics of female athletes. Some argue that men’s prevalence for higher impact contact with the grass when jumping, landing, or sprinting means that they need boots with a firmer grip. It is debated whether women, in fact, need a lighter connection with the grass, and so the longer studs or blades could actually be causing a greater strain on women by keeping them in contact with the ground for longer.

Concussion is also twice as likely in women than men, but is less likely to be diagnosed as women suffer more sub-concussions (a quarter of the force but 500 times more likely to happen). Technology needs to advance to understand this and protect women when competing in contact sports.

Moreover, wider research is needed into the most efficient method of training at different points in the menstrual cycle. Women should not be expected to train at 100% on days of a particularly heavy flow. There are sad cases of athletes pushing themselves too much with an intense training regime to the point that their menstrual cycle starts late or is interrupted. The British middle-distance runner, Bobby Clay, did not have a period before her twentieth birthday. She also got osteoporosis as a young athlete after over-training and under-eating. 

A missing link – can the law provide guidance on how to change?

Sex and maternity/pregnancy are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 and so there are a number of legal claims that could arise in relation to the mistreatment of women in sport, including:

  • Direct discrimination – sexist comments or negative treatment from teammates, coaches, members of staff or even third parties such as the crowd because of the complainant’s sex or because they are pregnant.
  • Indirect discrimination – where a provision, criterion, or practice (such as a team’s decision to have just one cubicle in the changing room and more urinals despite it being used by both men and women) applied to all puts those with a protected characteristic at a disadvantage compared to those without that protected characteristic.
  • Harassment – unwanted conduct related to someone’s sex or maternity and/or a sexual advance (including messages on social media) that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment would amount to unlawful harassment.
  • Victimisation – if a player was subjected to a detriment (for example, not being selected for a match) as a result of having raised an allegation of discrimination, then this would amount to victimisation.

Claims can be brought against the club where the discriminatory act occurred through vicarious liability if it takes place in the course of the complainant’s employment. 

However, it is important to note that whilst this might help athletes who are employed by a club, such as footballers or rugby players, it would not cover those who are typically self-employed athletes training and participating for a national sports body (including track and field athletes)  - as recently shown in the cases of British high jumper, Laura Zialor, who unsuccessfully sought payment for her medical treatment when injured, and British cyclist, Jess Varnish, who was unsuccessful in proving employee or worker status in her discrimination claim against British Cycling.

Successful discrimination claims can result in uncapped damages and potential claims for personal injury, depending on the impact on the individual’s physical or mental health. However, given the relatively short playing career for most sports stars can mean the challenge of continuing to play after bringing a claim deters most players from seeking protection through an employment tribunal, avoiding discriminatory conduct around sport to begin with, will, at the very least, greatly help a shift in perceptions.

Mission statement – what can we do to level the playing field?

Sport needs to change and successes like the England women’s football team’s European Championship win, the Women’s Six Nations seeing Twickenham host its first standalone women’s fixture, and the fight between Savannah Marshall and Claressa Shields selling out the O2 Arena, all raise the profile of women’s sport. EA Sports’ football video game (formerly known as ‘FIFA’ but now called ‘EA Sports FC’) now features women’s teams on the main game, further increasing the publicity of the players. Sport England conducted a survey which showed that there are 100,000 more girls playing football regularly now than there were five years ago, and England Football saw a 196% increase in women’s and girls’ bookings for football sessions after Euro 2022. 

Our sports team has taken on the impassioned call from Alex Scott and Ian Wright in the aftermath of the coverage of the Euro 2022 final to consider what can be done to improve the outlook for women’s sport. Our new podcast series, titled ‘Fair play’, is designed to ask the difficult questions of the industry experts and see if we can piece together ways to learn from the mistakes of the past and give women the tools that they need to break the glass ceiling in sport. We need more schoolgirls in the future, when asked about taking part in optional sport, to want to say ‘Yes, Miss’.

The ‘Fair play’ podcast is available to be listened to here

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP