Where Have All the Women in Sports Gone?

COVID Is Impacting Women's Participation

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc


August 03, 2021

Participation in sports is one of the most powerful experiences a girl can have, at least in my experience. I first started fencing around the age of 14, which was considered a late start. I always had an interest in participating in school sports but never quite had an opportunity to join a team or league. My parents are academically oriented, so sports were on the backburner. Not to mention, they had a more traditional view of things and thought I might've enjoyed dance or the arts more than the "rough and tough" of sports.

However, that wasn't the case for me.

I loved being able to train, compete, and travel. Fencing has taught me how to appreciate my physical and mental self, refine lifelong skills (such as tenacity, determination, commitment), and increase my confidence. It showed me that I could compete with anyone and everyone. Most of all, I was able to prove to myself that I can do anything I set my mind to.

COVID-19 may have changed all of that for other women. The pandemic is having a profound impact on the world of sport. Whether it's an athlete, coach, or spectator, COVID-19 has affected all levels of sport, but the effects of the pandemic are heterogeneous.

Prior to COVID-19, fewer girls participated in sports compared with boys. Despite efforts toward gender equity and inclusion, the reported participation of females vs males was considerably lower. For example, the 2020 Rally Report found that by the age of 16, 1 in 3 girls drop out of sport compared with 1 in 10 boys.

Canadian Women & Sport, in partnership with E-Alliance and Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, conducted a survey called the Pandemic Impact on Girls in Sport to explore the impact of COVID-19 on female participation in sport and recreation. This survey (N = 5000 families) was conducted from the end of March 2021 to the beginning of May 2021. Participation in sport was defined as involvement with an organized or individual sport at least once a week.

92.9% of girls ages 6-12 are playing less during COVID-19

  • 69.3% halted participation

  • 23.6% decreased participation

  • 6.8% reported no change

  • 0.3% increased participation

94.1% of girls ages 13-18 are playing less during COVID-19

  • 68.3% halted participation

  • 25.8% decreased participation

  • 5.9% reported no change

While this report found no significant gender differences with respect to participation in sport during COVID-19, there was a striking finding wherein 1 in 4 girls would not commit to returning to sport after the pandemic.

Female participation in sport is a lifelong investment. Benefits include improved physical and mental well-being, greater confidence, improved leadership skills, more social connections, and potential education and career opportunities. Given that girls are less likely to return to sport as they edge closer to adulthood, communities may face long-term implications for reduced participation in sport post-pandemic (eg, increased healthcare costs, decline in sport participation of future generations, decreased proportion of females in athlete and coaching positions, and potential decreased creative and decision-making skills).

Participation in sport has a significant effect on the body and mind. From social connectedness, reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements in self-confidence and cognition, and improved resilience and mental health performance, sports are critical for both physical and mental health.

"If girls don't return to sport soon, it could impact their physical health with cascading impacts in other ways." - Pandemic Impact on Girls in Sport

Exacerbation of Existing Barriers to Sport

According to The Rally Report, these are girls' top barriers to sport participation:

  1. Decreased access to recreational facilities and sport programs

  2. Declining quality of sport programming (eg, lack of design and delivery of programs for girls specifically, need for more supportive environments)

  3. Limited alternative programming offered by sport programs; consequently, girls have sought out other means of social connection (eg, social media)

  4. Cost to play: Approximately 1 in 5 households experienced a negative impact on financial security as a result of COVID-19.

  5. Self-confidence: Girls may be less likely to return to sport if they're self-conscious about their skills, fitness, and appearance.

Female participation in sport is a vehicle of empowerment. Promoting participation is critical for supporting a stage of equitable sport, greater inclusion and diversity, and improving physical and mental health.

I truly believe that it can dramatically change the way one sees and approaches the world. It's a lifelong commitment not only to physical activity but also to a healthy life.

How do you feel about the report? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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About Leanna Lui
Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc candidate. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence. In her spare time, she is a fencer with the University of Toronto Varsity Fencing team and the Canadian Fencing Federation.


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