This week the First Minister and I were privileged to meet Scottish members of Team GB and ParalympicsGB at their homecoming in Edinburgh. Rio was Team GB’s most successful Olympics for over a century, and our Paralympians did even better than their medal haul in 2012.
For anyone who cares about Scottish sport, it was a great all-round performance from our athletes – not least because of the achievements of our Scottish women. From Katherine Grainger, now Britain’s most decorated female Olympian, to Abby Kane who won Paralympic swimming silver at the age of 13, they did us proud. Even more encouragingly, they won their medals in the full glare of media attention, enjoying equal billing with their male team mates. But now the glamour of Rio is over and the winter draws in, how much coverage and exposure will we see for women’s sport?
With Women’s Sport Week starting tomorrow it’s a timely question.
My fear is that, if past experience is anything to go by, women’s sport will slip once more into the shadows, fighting for the recognition it deserves. According to a report by Research Scotland earlier this year, on average, less than 5 per cent of sports coverage in national and local print media is dedicated to women’s sport. This creates a vicious cyclical problem because if TV coverage of women’s sport is severely limited, sponsors can be loath to put much-needed funds into women’s teams. People can’t attend sporting events if they don’t know they are happening, and that’s where media attention can drive participation. Women’s sport deserves greater coverage because it isn’t just at the Olympics and Paralympics that Scottish women are achieving.
I wonder how many readers of this column will know that Scotland’s women’s football team, whose patron is the First Minister, have just qualified for the European Championships – their first major tournament. Netball Scotland have just won a franchise in the Netball Superleague, and our women cricketers have gone from winning one game in 2011 to finishing fourth in the ICC World Twenty20 qualifying tournament. This gulf in coverage matters because our girls are being short changed. We are perpetuating a culture where elite sport is something played by men and watched by men.
I believe that’s one of the main reasons why teenage girls consistently do less physical activity than boys.
The number of 13-15 year-old-girls who do the recommended amount of physical activity has increased in recent years, from 39% in 2008 to 53% in 2014. That’s encouraging, but they still lag behind their male classmates. I remember my own experiences of enjoying football at primary school only to progress to secondary and find it was no longer the thing to do. There have been big improvements since then. We’ve seen an increase in children doing two hours or periods of P.E. from less than 10% in 2004/5 to 98% in 2016. However, there is clearly still an issue because a recent survey by Girlguiding Scotland found that one in three girls aged 11-16 don’t feel they get the same choices as boys in school sport.
We need to break this cycle because the gender divide in physical activity continues into adulthood, with women less likely to take part in or volunteer in sport and less likely to take the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. Participation in sport, and being part of a team boosts confidence and helps people to discover leadership potential. It opens up a range of opportunities from coaching, volunteering and behind-the-scenes roles right up to the boardroom.
The good news is that there’s plenty of work going on to turn this around.
Today I will be visiting Project Ailsa, a new scheme being run by Scottish Swimming with the aim of creating a positive environment for female swimmers to fulfil their potential in the sport for as long as possible. Girlguiding Scotland have launched a campaign called WOWwoman which invited young women to share their role models – many from the world of sport. And for our part I recently announced Scottish Government plans for a £300,000 Sporting Equality Fund – aimed at increasing the participation, engagement and promotion of women in sport. These are just a few examples. There is an army of organisations and volunteers out there working in grass roots sport, many of them with girls and women.
The challenge for the rest of us is to ask what more we can do to make sure girls are not left behind when it comes to sport and physical activity.
As Sports Minister it is one of my top priorities.