Women may have won three-quarters of the UK medals in the Sochi Winter Olympics but there's more to do to challange gender stereotypes, says Sue Tibballs.
Sue Tibballs knows a thing or two about women's sport. For seven years she was chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), a charity built for the purpose of encouraging girls and women into sporting activity. When she left at the end of last year, a year after the London Olympics, the British public was on first-name terms with Jessica Ennis-Hill, Laura Trott and Nicola Adams, among others. Then at Sochi, three of the four British medals were won by women. How did she enjoy that?
"Fantastic," she says. "Suddenly there are [female] athletes there on our TV screens and on the radio. Names that many of us haven't heard of. I think the whole thing's been fascinating: Pussy Riot, some new athletes that no one knew before ..."
Although the Winter Olympics brought the likes of Lizzy Yarnold and Jenny Jones to national prominence, the end of the event was slightly overshadowed on the domestic front with the fuss over sports minister Helen Grant suggesting some women like to play "feminine" sports. Grant, a former under-16 judo champion said that playing sport need not "feel unfeminine … those participating look absolutely radiant and very feminine [in sports] such as ballet, gymnastics, cheerleading and even roller-skating".
While welcoming "any debate about women's sport", as a means of raising awareness about the issue, Tibballs takes issue with Grant. "It's the equating certain sports with being feminine. She doesn't seem to give sufficient credence to the fact that sport is so gendered and actually the most radical thing you can get women to do is to play sports traditionally seen as male sports."
"At a fundamental level, culturally and socially, sport is still associated with men and masculinity," she adds. "A highly successful [female] athlete is quite challenging to our view of what we think women should be good at and in particular what they should look like. They certainly aren't conforming to the model-esque ideal. Culturally, femininity is associated with beauty and passivity; masculinity with strength. Female athletes confound us."
Successful sportswomen are important role models to confound these stereotypes and Tibballs rates "celebrating elite success" as the area of greatest change during her tenure at WSFF. When she joined, women were described as "hard to reach", she says, "a niche market". Now women's sport is more regularly televised. Elite sports such as football have been professionalised; England women's cricket team is to be paid for the first time. Across social media women's sport is hugely popular. The women's football World Cup final of 2011, for instance, was at the time the most tweeted event in the history of Twitter.
Despite this burgeoning interest, however, the upper echelons of sport is still deeply gendered. Four years before Tibballs took office at the WSFF, Great Britain won another historic medal, in Salt Lake City, when four Scottish women took gold in curling. They were hailed as "housewife superstars". (Captain Rhona Martin was 36.) Meanwhile, the members of last week's bronze-medal winning curling team have been widely celebrated as "darlings of the ice": team capatain, Eve Muirhead, is 23. The assessments differ (which one would you prefer?), but both are rooted in the same prejudice.
Whatever else has changed, to Tibballs' dismay, every sportswoman in the public eye is, at the very moment of her success, evaluated on the basis of her gender.
Given this background, Tibballs says she feels for Grant. "I think what she is trying to say is that sport is deeply, deeply gendered, and that has to be tackled. You have to make sport as open for women and girls as it is for boys and men. That is a fight that has to be fought. But, at the same time, pragmatically, you have to recognise that many girls and women don't have the same attitude to sport as men and boys. You have to take sport to them."
The fact that it hasn't been to date is recognised in the fact that, at the age of 14, girls are half as active as boys, says Tibballs, citing WSFF research. Hence Grant's suggestion of cheerleading and zumba.
But you have to keep both goals in mind, Tibballs says. "We've got a female sports minister. I guess what people would like to hear her say is something really radical about the need to make sport really appealing to women and girls. If she said that, people would be more understanding of her going on to say, 'Look, we've got to take people with us.' But we don't want to label sports today as being masculine or feminine."
Tibballs says her big regret after seven years at WSFF is that school sport is not "in better shape. I'd have loved to have left feeling confident that the school sector had really woken up, that the government had a really clear strategy in place." The gap in participation between boys and girls remains huge. There isn't even a thorough survey of participation, so we don't know how bad things have got, she says.
So, what is her advice? "So many of the arguments have been won," she says. "My advice to the WSFF would be: we can be more radical now. It can't be allowed to carry on that women's sport is still funded and promoted to such a minuscule amount compared to men's sport. It's just not OK."
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image: © Al King