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Women working and studying in sport and exercise

Updated: Apr 15

Despite the growth in women’s participation in sport, women face gender inequalities when it comes to securing a graduate-level job in the sport sector. Men dominate positions in senior sport management, in sports media, in the governance of sport, in senior coaching roles, and in applied sport psychology (Whiteside & Hardin, 2012; Roper, 2008). In coaching, for instance, only a third of coaches are women (Sports Coach UK, 2012) and fewer still work at a professional level (Norman, 2013). Women who try to shatter the ‘glass ceiling’ by seeking high-profiled employment within sport face a number of barriers, including sexual harassment, discrimination, and being pigeonholed into working in areas that are considered more appropriate for women. This under-representation in graduate-level careers in sport is despite moves to improve gender equality by organisations such as Women in Sport, the Women’s Sport Network, Women Ahead, and Sports Coach UK.

Reasons for the low number of sport and exercise graduates working within the industry may include: gender stereotyping and discrimination; women not being able to fit childcare and family responsibilities into a rigid, high-demanding workday that such high-profiled jobs demand; women not feeling confident of achieving senior jobs; lack of networking opportunities and role models; and the ‘old boys network’, where male employers tend to employ male workers. As a consequence, females may feel as though they have failed, and may blame themselves for lack of success in the graduate labour market, which researchers believe could have damaging consequences in terms of self-belief.

The lack of women in graduate-level jobs in sport may be because of a lack of supply. Based on data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for the UK (UCAS, 2016), the number of females accepted onto sport and exercise science courses is low. These figures are also decreasing. In 2016, 29% of accepted applicants were female, compared to in 2007, when 33% were female. In the US, there is also a distinct lack of gender diversity, with nearly 40% of sport management programmes reported to have a female student ratio of less than 20%. The low numbers of females completing sport-related degrees may contribute to the inequalities observed in the labour market.

We have recently undertaken a study using focus groups to explore perceptions on the opportunities and barriers that women face for study and employment in sport. We invited views and opinions from high school students (aged 15 to 16 years), University students studying for a degree in a discipline related to sport and exercise, as well as students who have previously studied for an undergraduate or post-graduate degree in sport and exercise. We found that there were four main themes that our participants talked about: Gender junction; women as barriers to themselves; importance of role models; and token equality.

The ‘gender junction’ was about women feeling that they were, or had been, at a junction in their career pathways. They talked about either going in the direction of no longer studying or pursuing a sport-related career owing to the perceived gender discrimination and stereotyping, or about continuing to pursue a career, by pushing forward against the perceived gender-related barriers. Some participants were put off: ‘you wouldn't get a job in sport; the guys wouldn't take you seriously’, but others talked about having to ‘stand your ground’ and ‘prove them all wrong’, despite being ‘belittled’, having ‘jokes made about you’: One woman said: I think the advice to is to be prepared to have a bit of fight about you’.

Another finding was that women were ‘barriers to themselves’, reporting on external barriers such as childcare responsibilities, networking, and job application forms, and internal barriers such as self-belief and self-confidence. The external barriers were perceived to be so strong, that some women said that, when applying for jobs, they did not ‘tick the box’ to say they were female, out of the belief that acknowledging gender could jeopardise their chances of success. Having a ‘belief in yourself’ was thought to be what was needed to overcome such external barriers.

Another theme was about the importance of role models. The participants either talked about the lack of role models and lack of numbers within sport-related employment and study, or about the importance of having positive role models. Participants expressed irritation and anger at the promotion of male role models, in particular the emphasis on football in sport.

The final theme was about token equality, which is the idea that females are represented in sport-related employment or in sport-related academic environments as a gesture of ensuring that there is gender equality. Efforts seem to be being made to represent females, but females interviewed felt that these were the wrong efforts or that they did not go far enough.

Recommendations, based on the research findings, are as follows:

  • encourage open discussion on gender discrimination and acknowledge that women can be put off by discriminatory comments and opinions

  • promote networking and positive role models

  • offer more flexibility in dealing with family commitments

  • find ways of further shielding job applications so that gender is not so obvious

  • encourage females to believe in themselves and encourage females to apply for senior roles in sport and exercise

  • do more to promote gender equality; definitely don’t stop making efforts to improve gender equality as we are not there yet.

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