The Gender Play Gap

We all know exercise is good for us, but most of us fall well short of the physical activity guidelines, especially women. This gender play gap starts at a very early age, and depending the school, it can start from the very first day in primary school in a class where boys are encouraged to play sports and girls aren’t. We have a serious problem, as if you aren’t active as a child, the chances of you returning and keeping up physical activity as an adult are greatly reduced. The only thing that increases is the risk of chronic illness and mental health difficulty. I strongly believe that all children should be given every support necessary to be active, as it is insulating them from disease and ill-health in the future, and to not do so is woefully negligent. We, as a country our failing our children, especially our little girls.


Lidl Ireland commissioned a study into the health and well-being of young women and girls in Ireland and the results are worrying. We know that playing a team sport has a positive effect on self-confidence and well-being. We also know that girls that play sport have better body confidence, than girls who don’t. Yet according to this research, half of Irish girls have quit team sports by the age of 13. In an era where more children than ever before are reporting stressors and anxieties we aren’t encouraging the easiest and cheapest ways possible to grow some resilience… physical activity. What I found quite sad about this research was that of the girls who did drop out, many of them did so as they felt they had no encouragement, or less than boys of the same age.


Our perceptions of sport have to change. Competitive sport is just one source, and fear of competition or of being judged keeps a lot of women away. A running or walking group, are just as effective, because guess what? We tend to keep with something if we feel good and gives us a social outlet, as well as on an individual basis.

With all this knowledge, why are we still so behind? Why do schools either follow an antiquated PE programme, or none at all? Or perhaps only provide physical activity for the kids who might win? The gap in the participation between men and women is a reflection on the gender inequality within society. While women are catching up, it’s slow. This kind of attitude is endemic and rooted in beliefs in how we look, how we think, how we feel.

Let’s go back to the Lidl research. The top three celebrities girls wanted to emulate were Emma Watson, Kendall Jenner and Saoirse Ronan. Girls who played sport rated Annalise Murphy and Katie Taylor higher than the girls who didn’t, but neither were in the top three. While Watson and Ronan can only be commended for their work, I find it very sad that strong, athletic women aren’t as aspirational as a girl who became famous as a result of her older sister’s reality show. 


A bit like mental health, people talk about girls not participating in sport, but nobody with any kind of influence seems to want to do anything about it. So, we must take it on ourselves for the sake of younger generations. Watch sport with your child. Take boys and girls to women’s sporting events. Make sure they enjoy whatever activity they’re doing, and that it’s fun. Play with them, and badger your school and community groups to ensure that everyone gets a chance. You could quite possibly be saving a life.