How can we get more women to participate in physical activities like sports and adventure pursuits? We are often thinking about efforts to increase female participation in the Tough Girl community. What if we now approach this challenge from an academic perspective?
PhD candidate and feminist sociologist of sport Bethan Taylor-Swaine (IG @BethanTaylorSwaine) is leading the charge as she researches the representation and identity of women in ultra running at the Sport Business Research Centre at Birkbeck, University of London.
Bethan seeks to help all understand why women don’t participate more in active pursuits and how society’s roles have had an impact on that participation. She is passionate about running and women in running, however her research can apply to all types of sports and adventures. You can listen to Bethan’s experience with running and more on her study of women in sports on the Tough Girl Podcast.
Keep reading to learn more about how we can get more women in sports and adventure activities from the perspective of sociology. You might just learn a new way to encourage women in your activity of choice!
What are the true costs of physical activity?
With running in particular, we often hear this idea that it is free. You just open the door and run. In reality, this sport comes with a cost. Running shoes, clothing and even sports bras can be expensive. While you could go barefoot, that’s not likely to be the choice for those taking the first step into running.
“The way we talk about sports matters,” Bethan says. “A lot of the narratives we take for granted are exclusionary.”
For a beginner, knowing where to get equipment, what will fit them and being able to afford it can all be barriers to entry.
How does the feeling of safety impact sports participation?
Whether or not you feel safe running is going to influence whether or not you run. This barrier particularly affects women and minorities.
Do you feel comfortable going out to run or train? Are you worried about being catcalled? Do you feel you need to carry a personal alarm? What will you wear to run comfortably? Can you wear it in a public space?
Consider these questions when it comes to your sport of choice. Are there safety barriers that could be discouraging women’s participation? What could you do to create a greater sense of safety?
Do women have the time to participate?
If you’re working all day, coming home to kids and dealing with other stressors, physical activity may not be a priority. Some are privileged to have a partner who supports their physical endeavors or a lifestyle that makes participation possible, for others it’s not always that simple.
Focusing on the idea of, “If I can do it, you can too,” can be exclusionary to women who don’t have such privileges.
“Life is absolute chaos most of the time,” Bethan relates. “‘If you want something you just have to work hard enough.’ Quite often that is a masculine point of view. Society is framed around helping men succeed.”
The idea that if you work hard, you’ll succeed isn’t always true for all people. While for some women that may work, it won’t for others.
Understanding the time conundrum that women face may help us be better able to facilitate and support their participation in sport and adventure. Bethan advises we look more deeply at what’s going on. What’s structurally preventing women from getting into physical hobbies? What’s governing people’s choices and behaviors?
Can we really have it all?
There is a real cultural drive for women to do it all and excel at it all. You hear that you can be a successful career woman, super fit and spend time with your family. This is a real generational idea that might be hurting our efforts to get women into sports.
In reality, maybe you can have it all if you can afford help. Otherwise, you’ve got to make choices. That’s ok. “Do you really want to do everything all at once or do you want to enjoy life without so much pressure?” Bethann asks. “You only have so much energy. Sometimes you have to balance that energy.”
If the work you’re doing is so important to you, you’re going to channel that energy. At times, getting into sports training may involve a balance shift at home. You may need to ask your partner to take on more at home.
Sometimes the focus will be time with your family and other times it will be physical activity. Your priorities can’t be everything. However, that doesn’t put women’s capabilities down.
We can change the conversation around doing it all by acknowledging that we’ve been mis-sold a lot by a system that’s letting women down from the pay gap to poor childcare options.
The key is not looking critically at individual women but looking critically at the social systems that fail women and support men.
What privileges do you have that support your participation?
Do you care about getting more people to enjoy physical activity? Examine what your privileges are, then think about how you can support others. You may have privileges of health, wealth, family and access that others simply don’t have.
Avoid platitudes. Just do it. Anyone can start. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. Instead, think about what you can do to understand your journey better and what might have helped you on your journey.
Understanding your privilege is a process. Putting the effort into uncovering your privilege is an important part of being able to support and encourage others.
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