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Diversity: Women in Sport and PE.

"Because of the different ways that our brains are wired, we all experience reality in different ways and any single way is essentially distorted. This is something we need to acknowledge and deal with." - Principles, Ray Dalio

Following on my previous post on my diverse experiences within sport, something else that I have been fortunate to experience along my journey is working under male and female leaders, working with male and female colleagues, and meeting with male and female practioners/pracademics within the field of sport to gain new perspectives and insights. This post will dive into some of my experiences, and the effect I think a female presence (or non-presence) has on male-dominant environments.

A tweet posted by David Joyce a few weeks back that stimulated a lot of thought.

My experiences of Women in Sport

Throughout my journey, some of my experiences:

  • My primary supervisor in the WAIS was the Lead Physiologist at the time Sacha Fulton, who worked primariliy across Swimming, Diving, and Gymnastics - hence my experiences.

  • While in Sydney, I spent time with Jessica Spendlove and Alex Munt speaking about nutrition, and Katie Slattery at NSWIS around physiology.

  • Amber Rowell was kind enough to chat with me in Melbourne 2018, literally days after submitting her PhD. Jo Clubb spoke with me on over skype and then spent time responding to my emails around internal load monitoring for team sport athletes.

  • During the conference I attended in Melbourne in 2019, I listened to presentations from Heidi Thornton, Shona Halson, Dee Jennings and Leigh Russell - 4 women at the top of the pile in their respective roles.

  • Brisbane and the Gold Coast brought about an opportunity to meet with Suzy Russell, who was doing her PhD, and to meet Heidi Thornton properly when I visited the Gold Coast Suns.

While everyone on the list is unique, each person brought an outstanding diligence to their work, and generally promoted collaboration within their group. Almost all of the women I have mentioned had completed, or were in the process of completing their PhD. All were making a significant contribution to their work environment. All challenged me to become a better practitioner.

My experiences of Women in PE - female PE teachers

Currently, I am doing my second PGCE teaching placement in a school in Bradford, and the PE department is reasonably big, with 5 male and 3 female PE teachers. Each week I must complete a review of progress form, which includes some of my reflections from each week. Last week I wrote:

"A positive week with lots of exposure to various teachers. One of the biggest differences with this placement and this school is that all groups are mixed, and I am spending time with female PE teachers and getting a different perspective on connecting with students. Holly (PE teacher) creates an incredibly safe and homely environment in form, and is polite to all her form class – addressing them by name, greeting them as they enter the room, and wishing them good luck for the day as they leave. Charlotte (PE teacher) deals with a lot of the problem girls as Head of Year, but when they come into the PE office to work, they are polite and work diligently – they are reciprocating Charlotte's approach to them, which is compassionate and empathic to allow the students to feel safe and diffuses any negative confrontation. The strength of the team is in its diversity – different skills, different experiences, different primary sports, male and female views, and most importantly an open dialogue between all members."

This week I wrote:

"The PE office is almost like a refuge to provide pastoral care for students who are struggling. One pupil came in from class to get many things off her chest, and Kate (female PE teacher) listened and encouraged her to keep trying, but kept the door open (metaphorically) if she wanted to come back. The PE department are close nit as a group, but they also are close to the students, and this is evident in the way students interact with the PE staff. The open dialogue that exists within the PE department extends to the students."

Just focusing on the last line of last week's reflections - the strength of the team is in it's diversity... and most importantly an open dialogue between all members. It is clear diverse characters can add significantly to an environment, but only if there is a safe space for each character to express themselves and their views authentically. That is something that exists in the school I am at currently. The team is diverse in a number of ways, which adds to their strength. The team has depth and breadth of knowledge, and an open environment that allows information to be shared without fear of judgement or ridicule (Brene Brown's work is immense here). Because of this culture of openness, the female PE teachers in the department have a monumental impact within the department, and the department as a whole has a massive impact on the school.

What impact does this have on female participation in PE?

My experience has mostly been in male team sports, or in boys only PE. Some environments have had no women involved at any level. Some have been vast majority male, with the ratio between 1:15-1:30 males to females (players + coaches + support staff). When working with a male playing squad, it is inevitable that the majority of individuals within the environment will be male.

As the tweet above states, diversity of thought and experiences increases creativity, but having a female involved also enhances the behavioural standards of the group. There have been numerous times in team meetings that I have heard from a male speaker (coach or manager) something along the lines of "I must be careful what I say, there are ladies present". This indicates that if there were no females in the room, men have, or feel they have, a free pass to say what they want.

Rightly or wrongly, men behave in a more respectful way when women are present. Having a female presence (or a number of them) within a male dominated environment elevates the levels of esteem among the group. It is right because men should respect women, but it is wrong because men should uphold this level of respect even when women are not present. Without females present, "locker room talk" is encouraged and normalised, which leads to toxic masculinity. This article offers a nice explanation on how toxic masculinity develops within varsity sports in the US, and how it can lead to severely negative consequences. When I was growing up in sport, it was a put down to be compared to a girl. Backhanded compliments still exist today - when watching the All-Ireland ladies football final, my Dad said to me about Emma Duggan, "she's quite accurate for a girl.", to which I replied " She's quite accurate. Full stop." People aren't even aware of how deeply rooted toxic masculinity is, and how the accumulation of seemingly harmless interactions can have a major impact in the long-term.

One of the biggest eye-openers for me on the impact males have on female participation in sport came on my first placement during my PGCE. An all-girl group of Year 9 girls were playing football in PE, and I've never seen a group enjoy their game as much. Everyone participated, and if a mistake was made, they just laughed it off and continued playing. This is not something that could happen if boys were present, part of their toxic masculinity is that they have to win and mistakes are not allowed etc. The narrative the girls just aren't as interested in sport as boys are is false. Human beings, male and female, love to play. I have yet to meet a human being who likes to be judged or ridiculed. Play (which I previously spoke about here), can be defined as an activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children. There are numerous barriers for sports participation for women and girls listed on this document by Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, and rightly so - it is a complex topic. In my opinion however, the single biggest barrier to female participation in sport and organised physical activity is male presence.

While there are advantages for having boys only and girls only PE groups, for me the value of having mixed groups and sets within PE is part of a cultural shift that needs to happen to contribute to the long-term education of society, males in particular. Boys learn to respect girls from a young age, and learn to work with girls to achieve a common goal. Obviously it is not suitable for boys and girls to share a changing room, and that specifically has to be policed be male and female PE teacher respectively. So for that 5-10 minute period, it is unavoidable that it will be only boys present in the male changing room. However, having boys-only and girls-only PE or having mixed group PE is only part of a potential solution. Regardless of how a school wants to break up their PE groups, leaders (in this particular instance the PE teacher is a leader, in particular male PE teachers) must:

  • create a safe space for people who need help to open up. Female PE teachers do a great job of this, and part of the reason why having a PE department with male and female PE teachers is so valuable. Strength in Diversity.

  • Call out inappropriate language and behaviour among pupils. Male PE teachers have a major responsibility here.

  • Be more aware of the presence of toxic masculinity in our environments in general.

These 3 points are relevant to leaders in any environment - PE, sport or otherwise.

"Diversity is having a seat at the table. Inclusion is having a voice. Belonging is having that voice be heard." - Liz Fosslien

My commitment to diversity

Over the last 10 years, my experiences have been enhanced through my interactions with people with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. In some way, I have been an outsider for most environments that I have entered over this time, and I have always been welcomed. As I mentioned in my previous article, welcoming people is something I have had to work on, but I want to commit to 2 things:

  • Creating a safe space for all people, pupils and players especially, to open up. This applies to everyone I work with, but boys in particular.

  • Creating an environment that encourages all pupils to participate in sport and physical activity. Especially girls and especially pupils with disabilities.

"In a wicked world, relying on experiences from a single domain is not only limiting, it can be disastrous." Range, David Epstein


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