The Importance of Women's Sport Week - What We've Achieved and Why There's Still a Long Way to Go

October 3 2016

Today marks the start of Women’s Sport Week, 2016.  Originally imagined by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in 2015, the week celebrates all that is great and good in women’s sport and highlights all that is not.  The BBC, Sky and the charity I chair, Women in Sport, are the principle partners, and we’ll see a plethora of events, content, debate and, hopefully, positive commitments for the future.


Why do we need this? And what has changed since the first Women’s Sport Week in 2015?  We have a lot to be proud of and celebrate.  Women won a record 46% of all Team GB medals at Rio 2016, making up 43% of the team, a success exceeded by Paralympics GB where our female athletes won almost twice as many gold medals as men. Women’s sport has new heroes.  Not only our hugely successful athletes in domestic and international competition, but the extraordinary numbers of women and girls getting active for the first time, and sharing their experiences with others. Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign has seen nearly 3m more women and girls claiming to take part in exercise and activity as a result, although, still 1.73m fewer women than men are active on a regular basis.


The correlation between playing sport, improved health and better life chances for women and girls is now better understood.  Sport and exercise builds confidence, teamwork and self-belief, and brings skills to girls that can’t be taught in the classroom. At the launch of Investec and Women In Sport’s insight into of how female sporting success benefits business this week, it was noted that 48% of female business executives take part in sport/exercise at least once a month, compared with 40% of women generally.  Globally, 74% of executive women say a background in sport can accelerate a woman’s career.  Hannah McLeod, Team GB Rio 2016 Hockey Gold Medallist noted at the launch that “Increasing self confidence, accountability for your own actions, and managing healthy conflict” had made her a better Olympian and business leader. 


Corporate partners are, at last, stepping up to the plate.  SSE’s landmark, long-term partnerships with both the English and Scottish FA demonstrates the energy company’s commitment to its female customers and its female workforce.  This is not simply an act of corporate good citizenship.  The commitment of The FA, the BBC and Wembley to the long-term future of the SSE Women’s FA Cup ensures significant impact and ROI too.  Newton Asset Management ensured, with the BBC, equal billing for the Women’s Boat Race with the Men’s, and with the support of Kia, the ECB successfully launched the Women’s Super League, with six new cricket franchises created and a new, elite competition now firmly in the sporting calendar.


Our direction of travel is changing, for the better.  The Government’s sport strategy, Sporting Future, and Sport England’s response, Active Nation, signal a new way, placing greater emphasis on diversity and female engagement, and recognises the importance of engaging older, and younger people too.   And, finally, increasing numbers of women are driving change and influence through senior positions in sport.  Women in Sport’s Trophy Women report noted an increase from 21% to nearer 30% in the number of women on the Boards of NGB’s between 2009 and the end of 2015.

But for all the achievements of the last 18 months, the journey towards a level playing field in sport still has a considerable way to go.   Why is it that, with the exception of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and a few dedicated broadcast partners, coverage of women’s sport in the last 12 months, whilst having improved, has still remains at the margins? And why is it that, when women’s sport is featured in broader media, too often the focus is on body image rather than achievement?


Where are all the sponsors?  Why do we have so few female performance directors? Why can the experience of live sport for female fans still be so unpleasant and intimidating? Why do we continue to have to argue for proportionate pay and rations for elite sportswomen? How and why do we continue to allow this? Isn’t it time to be more vocal? Disruptive?


We need greater commitment from broadcasters and media to increase the visibility of women’s sport further. Not just for events that come around every four years, but every week, with a regular drumbeat of coverage that embeds women’s sport more regularly into mainstream sports media and beyond, into new and different platforms. But it’s also time to move the focus on not just achievement, but also participation, benefit and outcomes. This needs to become the new normal - the rule, not the exception, and clearly communicated in the classroom too.


The default position for the vast majority of sponsors should not continue to be male sport. Brands must be prepared to challenge the status quo, and not simply accept the bundling of women’s rights in with the men’s. By separating these, brands and broadcasters, however defined, have a greater opportunity to support the growth of the sport, and drive new, compelling competition, content and commitment.  Without the support of the boardrooms of FTSE 250 major companies, however, with strong brands, significant customer bases and an ambition for change, progress will continue to be slow.  We need to turn words into action, forge partnerships with integrity, and create new conversations.  


I’m pleased to be a judge of the Sports Industry Awards again in 2017, and I’m looking forward to seeing more entries that showcase sport for women, and celebrate our continued achievements. For now, onwards and upwards with Women’s Sport Week!


Sally Hancock

Managing Partner, Y Sport, and Chair, Women in Sport