2019 has defined a milestone in women’s sport. While coverage has long been overshadowed by the male leagues, viewing opportunities and public engagement has been growing. Public excitement perhaps peaked during the Women’s Football World Cup, with television audiences across the world increased by millions in previous years.

As female athletes challenge inequalities over pay and investment and shift social expectations, could their example be used to tackle the gender gap in physical activity in the wider population?

Insufficient physical activity is a leading risk factor for non-communicable diseases and can also negatively affect mental health and quality of life. WHO recognizes physical inactivity as a serious and growing public health problem and aims to reduce it by 10% by 2025.

Policies that tackle the gender gap in physical activity could therefore have a substantial impact on overall population health. The barriers to women’s involvement in sports are numerous and complex.

The physical activity gap between boys and girls begins early.

Researches found that girls aged 3–11 years experienced less enjoyment from being physically active and less confidence in their sporting ability than boys as they got older. Children’s exposure to narrow gender norms around boy’s versus girl’s activities and a failure to adapt the types of sports offered can instil this lack of enjoyment and body confidence, and in turn shape attitudes to physical activity into adulthood.

If we look at EU data, according to the Eurobarometer (2019), men are more likely than women to exercise or participate in sports: 44% of men do so on a regular basis, compared to 36% of women; nevertheless, 40% of men never exercise or participate in sports, compared to 52% of women. The gender gap is most pronounced in the younger age groups: just 15% of males aged 15-24 never exercise or participate in sports, compared to 33% of women in the same age group. As people become older, the gender gap narrows: the majority of men and women in the 55+ age range never exercise or participate in sports (58% and 64% respectively).

With regard to the number of sports modalities, it is more common among women to practise only one modality. More specifically, 26,4% of female athletes in Europe only practice one sport, compared to an estimated 16,6% of male athletes. While men are much more likely to practice football, basketball, tennis, cycling or paddle tennis, women take part at much higher rates in any type of gymnastics or swimming.

So, it is a fact that many women are put off by certain physical activities over concerns about stereotypes, because of insecurities around body image, or feeling constrained by cultural acceptability.

But what are the barriers to sport participation for women and girls? and why the drop out from sport activities?

According to a study carried out by Smart Cities & Sport (2021):

  • 75% of women have to decrease their sport activities due to time issues. Time issue is a common reason for women to decrease or even stop being active. Family, children and work will often come first in the list of women’s priorities. 70% of women who are employed full-time and have dependent children (aged 0-14 years) report ‘always/often’ feeling rushed for time, compared with 56% of males.
  • 70% of subsidies allocated to sport activities are used by men. Women have half as many choices as men for sport activities that are likely to please them and use two times less than men the public infrastructures at their disposal.
  • 7% of online sports coverage is dedicated to women’s sport. Research has shown that most girls learn ‘culturally-appropriate styles of movement’ by imitating their older female counterparts. But communicating the achievements of those exceptional women to others remains a challenge. Today, 43% of girls agree there aren’t many sporting female role models. At a higher level, it is widely known that media attention is considerably more focused on male athletes than female athletes (Cooky et al, 2015), thus reinforcing the message that sport is “a man’s thing” for all of us, but especially for girls.
  • These negative social messages concerning girls’ participation in sports are internalized, especially by adolescent girls (McCallister et al., 2003), but more generally by women, and may limit their participation (TCRGWS, 2018). This intensifies the common reasons for young people leaving sports: a lack of time, competing interests, and a lack of enjoyment of pure recreational practice (Keathley et al.,2013)
  • At primary school, differences in sport participation between boys and girls are striking. From year 6, only 39% of girls remain active, against 73% of boys. School plays a big role in showing the importance of having an active life: a high level of sport participation at school translates to a 76% chance to develop a sustained interest in sport overtime.
  • 53% of female students who do sports experienced sexist remarks. Sexist behavior may take various forms and intersect with other forms of discrimination such as lesbophobia, tomboy tag, etc. This type of behavior discourages girls from participating in sport activities.

The universality of sport offers an opportunity to challenge social and cultural norms on a large scale and narrow the gender gap. By making female athletic success more visible, girls and their parents can aspire for them to be professional athletes or simply to take part in whatever physical activity they enjoy.

In this sense, coaches can play a crucial role in involving and keeping girls involved in sports in terms of motivation (Amorose & Anderson-Butcher, 2015; Cooky, 2009; Kipp & Weiss, 2013; Kipp & Weiss, 2015, Smith et al., 1978; Smoll et al., 1979; Weiss et al., 2009). There is a wide acceptance of the notion that women coaches (as visible role models) can encourage girls and women to take part in sport and sustain their participation. Female coaches are powerful role models, demonstrating to girls that they belong and deserve to be included in sports, boosting girls’ confidence and inspiring their continued participation (Zarrett et al.,2019).

Some women choose to train with female coaches due to personal preferences, cultural customs, or religious views. It is also recognized that a more diverse coaching workforce may assist in encouraging women from underrepresented backgrounds (e.g., migrants, persons with disabilities) to engage in sport or work in development/executive roles. (Kraft et al.,2020)

The highest-ranking (and highest-paid) positions in sports coaching are clearly dominated by men. According to research conducted by Finance Football, the top 20 most paid coaches in European football are all men (Pfister & Norman, 2017). However, the representation of women is not just low at the highest levels. The Gender Equality in Sport Proposal for Strategic Actions 2014-2020 (Eu Com., 2014) presents a range of statistics to demonstrate the underrepresentation of women across the EU – it is estimated based on figures in seven EU Member States that between 20%-30% of all sport coaches in Europe are women.