Saturday 19 January 2019

'Do boys play football too?' - For all the talk about women in sport, there's still so much to be done

Emma McDonagh and Karrie Rudden of St Patrick’s GNS celebrate after winning at the Allianz Cumann na mBunscol finals in Croke Park last October. Photo: David Fitzgerald
Emma McDonagh and Karrie Rudden of St Patrick’s GNS celebrate after winning at the Allianz Cumann na mBunscol finals in Croke Park last October. Photo: David Fitzgerald

John Greene

A doctor friend tells a story about a woman who came to her surgery with her eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son.

The girl loves football but has a sore leg and the mother is wondering should she keep her out of training for a bit until it improves. My friend looks to break the ice as she starts to examine the girl’s leg. “Do you like football?” she asks her. The girl smiles, and nods.

“What about your brother? Does he like football?”

The girl gives the doctor a puzzled look. “Do boys play football too?” she asks.

That was a few years ago. That girl will be entering her teenage years soon and I wonder if her world-view has shifted, or if it has been shifted for her. Or has she remained so wonderfully uninhibited in her attitude to sport and her pursuit of it, despite whatever obstacles have been put in her path. If so, she is one of the lucky ones.

In a memorable piece in the Irish Examiner last year, writer Eimear Ryan addressed her relationship with camogie. “Team sport does something to a girl,” wrote Ryan, who won an All-Ireland medal with Tipperary. “You get to think about your body in terms of what it can do, rather than how it looks. You become more engine than ornament. It is the only context in which I have ever been praised for aggression. It teaches you to be commanding, to take your ground. To assert, rather than mitigate, your physical presence.”

She went on: “Team sport confers on women opportunities usually only given to men: the chance to face fears, take risks, and get hurt without serious consequences.”

Yet, the obstacles for girls are everywhere. They’re in the home, the school, the peer group, the local club, in sporing organisations . . . they are everywhere.

Here is a case in point: I coach an under 16 girls Gaelic football team. The girls have been training since

mid-January in all kinds of weather for a competition which began last month. They will play their second competitive match this morning on a bog of a pitch which has been ravaged by the weather of the past few weeks. It actually should be their third game but one was postponed because of a bereavement and — in just the second week in March — we are under pressure to get that back match played. The last scheduled game in the division is on March 25 and for those teams that don’t advance to the

semi-finals, the majority of their girls will be without football in their age-group until September 9, a staggering break of 24 weeks, having had five games in six weeks during some of the worst weather this country has experienced in a long time.

Like anyone coaching boys or girls, my primary interest is in having meaningful games for them to play and enjoy, and also affording them the opportunity to develop and grow in the right environment. It is hard to imagine a scenario where boys of the same age would be put under a similar restriction, with no organised games for six months at a time when conditions are at their best.

Over the last number of years, I have observed a higher fall-off rate in our club among teenage girls than boys, and while there are a number of reasons for this, my experience is that long periods without games is one of the most significant factors pushing girls away. It is very damaging when the routine of training and playing is broken, which makes it difficult to understand why we so often fail to devise proper programmes to keep girls involved in sport.

Last week, at an event organised by Liberty Insurance to mark International Women’s Day, an example was cited of an all-girls secondary school in Dublin which had decided not to apply for one of the pilot places on the new Leaving Cert PE syllabus because it was thought the girls wouldn’t be interested. This is sadly typical, where assumptions are being made all the time by parents, teachers, administrators, and so on, which hinder the path of progress for girls who have a genuine interest in sport.

Even for those girls who don’t have an interest, they should at least still be physically active, but where are the mechanisms to ensure that this happens? The school system is dysfunctional and for all the good done by sporting organisations there are huge holes there too. For all the positive talk about ‘women in sport’ in the past week, there is still so much to be done in terms of attitude and action.

It is, after all, a simple premise — or at least it should be: that there are equal opportunities when it comes to sport, equal access to facilities, to equipment, to funding, no matter what your gender, or race, or ability. Despite the obvious progress which has been made, this is still patently not the case. Remember, this country’s two indigenous sports of hurling and Gaelic football remain steadfastly segregated on gender grounds, all run by different organisations, and despite recent noises suggesting otherwise, we remain a long way from rectifying that.

Even the constant referencing of ‘women in sport’ is, to my mind, reinforcing the divide by normalising it in everyday language. Why does there have to be a gender association with the term ‘sport’? Sport should be sport — for boys and girls. We don’t want it to be different; we want it to be the same. We want the same opportunities and the same outcomes for both girls and boys that takes levels of interest and ability into account in the same way. We want the same pathways, for elite level athletes, for talent identification, all the way down to simple participation and the pure enjoyment of sport.

Gender inequality was one of the topics which featured prominently at the PE Xpo — a competition designed to help second level students demonstrate their knowledge of sport — in DCU last Wednesday.

A few projects stood out, because they reflected the attitude of teenage girls to sport. So, of 124 girls surveyed in Kishoge Community College in Lucan, just over 80 per cent said they enjoyed PE in school, but almost a quarter admitted to feeling intimidated or self-conscious when doing it, while almost 40 per cent said they occasionally felt that way. Among the main reasons attributed to this were weight and body image, a feeling of being judged, and a feeling that others in their peer group were better. Issues around bullying also arose.

So, instead of sport being a way of bringing girls together with friends and peers, it’s doing something which is quite the opposite, and creating a negative experience for some. This is not the fault of sport. The fault lies in how it is being brought to the girls by the teacher, or coach, or whoever is in that position of responsibility. This is where girls are so often being badly failed.

Mary Adekoya and Dhanya Binoy, students in Adamstown CC, exhibited a project entitled, ‘Is Your Mobile Making You Less Mobile?’, which found an extraordinary high level of phone usage in teenage boys and girls — three to six hours a day — but that when it came to sport, this level of usage impacted more on girls taking part than boys.

Tara Macken, Katie Kennedy and Sophie McGrane, from St Mary’s Holy Faith in Glasnevin focused on sporting role models for girls. Their catchline was: ‘You can’t be it, unless you see it.’ They surveyed 102 girls in their school, and found that while 72 per cent played sport, 68 per cent identified more with male sports stars as role models. Teenage girls, they said, are influenced by what they see on television, and on social media — which is mainly male sports. Katie Taylor and Serena Williams were the female stars most likely to be on their radar, even though role models closer to home — like other girls in their circle, or in their community — could have a much more powerful and immediate impact.

The media in all its forms has a big part to play in helping to break down barriers, but that can only achieve so much unless there is real and meaningful action elsewhere.

Liberty Insurance published the results of research undertaken by Red C to coincide with their event in Croke Park last week. More than 1,000 adults in Ireland and 2,000 in the UK took part. Three-quarters of Irish adults, according to the survey, attended or watched a major men’s sporting event in the last 12 months, but only one-third attended or watched a women’s sporting event in the same period.

More revealing, though, was that the most frequently cited reason for the low engagement in women’s sport was ‘a general lack of interest’ (47 per cent in Ireland, 55 per cent in the UK). Other principal barriers to engagement here were a lack of knowledge, lack of time, insufficient buzz or excitement, and not growing up with women’s sport.

Leadership is needed on so many fronts but ultimately the government must equip schools and sporting organisations with adequate resources and expertise to begin to affect real and lasting change on the ground. There is a huge role for parents too, to give their daughters the same opportunities in sport as their sons, because the freedom to achieve begins at home. And responsibility ultimately rests with us all to change how we think and act.

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