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Getting women off the sidelines

A new initiative aims to grow involvement in female sport by 20 per cent

“We are asking everybody to culturally invest in women in sport. By boosting participation, attendance and media coverage, women’s sport will become more visible.” Photograph: iStock

“We are asking everybody to culturally invest in women in sport. By boosting participation, attendance and media coverage, women’s sport will become more visible.” Photograph: iStock


At the end of last year, creative content studio owner Sarah Colgan was dashing out the door to get her kids to training. It was a scenario familiar in many households. “My daughter was complaining and saying she didn’t want to go so I thought fine, she can skip it, but her brother is definitely going.” Then she caught herself.

It was a perfect example of how ingrained it is in our culture to place more importance on sporting activities for boys than we do for girls.

Colgan decided to do something about that. The result is 20x20, a new campaign which is being presented by the Federation of Irish Sport, supported by Healthy Ireland, and sponsored by a number of key businesses, designed to create a measurable shift in our perception of women’s sport. The aim is to ensure women’s sport is seen as something strong, valuable and worth celebrating.

20x20 calls on the people of Ireland, and all those involved in Irish sport and physical activity, to get behind female sport in a concerted effort to increase media coverage, boost attendances at matches and competitions, and, ultimately, grow involvement in female sport by 20 per cent by the end of 2020.

“You can have all the programmes and policies you want, but to get any sustainable mass change we need to change our cultural perception. The fact is that, as a society, we hold men in sport to be inherently more worthy of our attention,” says Colgan.

It’s a fact reflected in everything from unequal pay to unequal airtime, to unequal demand for event tickets. “But it’s not about finger-pointing,” she says. “And it’s not something that we can put all on Government’s shoulders, or the media’s, or parents’. It’s something that stretches right across society. But if all of these same groups act, we will get the pace of change we need on this.”

The huge interest in the recent success of the Irish women’s hockey team bore out the fact that the public can be just as captivated by women’s sporting prowess as men’s.

“I think the shift and change is already happening, the appetite for change was already there, it’s just that the change wasn’t happening fast enough. Women in sport is just not celebrated or recognised, or seen as being as valuable as men in sport, and we have been overwhelmed with the response we’ve had.”

Part of its success in capturing the public’s attention has been the fact that the entire sporting community is backing it. “We’ve never had all sports pushing the same message before,” says Colgan.

The campaign’s three main objectives are to boost participation, attendance and media coverage, but there will be a fourth too – funding. “We are asking everybody to culturally invest in women in sport. By boosting participation, attendance and media coverage, women’s sport will become more visible.”

Just a habit

Not valuing women’s sport is just a habit, nothing more, she suggests, and habits can be changed. “This isn’t about looking for a hand-out, it’s not a question of ‘girls need, or girls deserve, or girls should’, and it’s not about looking for pity either. It’s about the fact that – as we can see from the excitement that surrounded the hockey – the skills are there in women’s sport, there’s just not enough focus on it.”

Of course, no one can force the public to make more effort to attend or support women’s sport, Colgan points out, but at the same time, it’s important to see how much mores have already changed, even in recent years.

“You only have to look back to sports commentators of the 1970s and 1980s to hear them talking about certain activities being ‘unladylike’ to see that it was really only when we started investing in female games and athletics that it became ‘normalised’. What we have to do now is to invest more in order for it to become even more normalised.”

Getting the public to be aware of the subliminal biases at play is important. “It’s about opening eyes so that we can consciously look at supporting more girls and women in sport,” says Colgan.

It’s not a ‘women’s initiative’ either, she points out. “It’s an ‘all of society for all of society’ initiative. If sport is good then more sport is surely better? On top of that, you have all the health and wellness benefits, and the societal benefits, that come from sports.”

Changing cultural perceptions is only the first stage of the campaign, however. Next will come work focused on the importance of role models, the benefits of participation and a look at women, sport and the future.

Parents just like Colgan are the real target audience. “It’s about being aware that this is deeply ingrained in all of us and realising that, as with my own daughter that day, sometimes girls just need a little more coaching, mentoring or support to get them to participate in sport, where boys might tend to throw themselves into it quicker and faster.”

By checking her biases, she was able to encourage her daughter back to her training, with great success. “She can kick that ball, hit that backhand and she loves her swimming,” says Colgan.

Striking a better balance

Research commissioned by 20x20 found that significantly less than 20 per cent of all media coverage of sport relates to women’s sport and mixed sport.

The 20x20 initiative, which is funded by sponsorship from companies such as AIG, KPMG Ireland, Investec, Lidl and Three Ireland, features sporting ambassadors like footballers Louise Quinn and Sarah Rowe, camogie player Laura Twomey, and golfers Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow.

To support the initiative, creative content agency Along Came A Spider has created five short films on different themes that impact on women in sport. To watch see 20x20.ie.

Tackling the visibility gap

For AIG, supporting 20x20 made great sense, says sponsorship manager John Gillick. Supporting female sports was something the insurance company was already active in through its sponsorship of the New Zealand Black Ferns rugby team, as well as women’s golf, tennis and badminton.

“Our record on this front speaks for itself, so for us 20x20 was a perfect fit,” he says. “On top of that was the strength of the two women behind the campaign, Sarah Colgan and Heather Thornton of Along Came A Spider. Their enthusiasm, planning and detailed research ensured this was something we really wanted to partner with. The fact is female participation in sport needs encouragement – at home, in school and in the media – and not just to start sport but to keep it up because girls have a tendency to drop out along the way. Positive messaging is required to overcome that.”

The gap between female and male participation in sport is narrowing but lack of visibility contributes to a shortage of role models that are key to greater participation, says Shaun Murphy, managing partner of KPMG, a co-sponsor of the 20x20 initiative.

KPMG lists professional golfers Leona and Lisa Maguire and the Dublin senior ladies Gaelic football team among the beneficiaries of its sponsorship programme. “We are big investors in young talented people in many spheres of their lives and it makes sense to extend this into sport and to support the attributes such as professionalism and commitment that we admire both on and off the pitch or course,” says Murphy.

“Having role models was very important for me when I began playing golf. I believe 20x20 will do a lot to promote real-life examples that women and girls can aspire to and learn from and that’s incredibly valuable,” says Leona Maguire, who is a KPMG golf brand ambassador.

The ambition of 20x20 to raise the profile and recognition of women in sport is one that chimes with Investec too. “Given the very visible gap, we all have a duty to do more to promote female sport in the short and long term,” says Aisling Dodgson of Investec, also a co-sponsor.

“The conversation on women’s sport has really gained traction through the 20x20 initiative. The next challenge is to progress this conversation in a meaningful way and to identify the next steps needed to drive continued female participation in sport and to give its heroes the platform they deserve.”

Supermarket chain Lidl and telecoms company Three Ireland are also co-sponsors.