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Opinion: The gender gap in sport is narrowing – let's keep going in the right direction

Women and girls are participating more in sports, and more consistently, in part because of strong examples set by homegrown female athletes.

Michael Ring

IN 2005, THE Government recognised a great need to increase the level of women’s participation in sport and physical activity. Research conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) into participation rates in 2004 showed that less than one in five women were reaching the levels of physical activity recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The research noted that women’s participation, particularly in structured sport, tends to fall off as women get older – due, in part, to increased family responsibilities. In 2005, the Women in Sport initiative was launched by the Irish Sports Council to address the clear gender gap in sports participation. Figures from the latest Irish Sports Monitor report, released last week, show that that programme was a great success.

Irish Sports Monitor (ISM) reports show a continual increase in the number of women participating in sport or physical activity since the research started. In 2009, 26.9% of women participated compared to 41.2% of men. The proportion of women participating increased in 2011 to 39% compared to 50.9% of men.

I am delighted to note that the recently launched 2013 Irish Sports Monitor (ISM) Report shows a further increase, with 42.7% of women participating in sport or physical activity compared to 52% of men. It also shows a considerable narrowing of the gender gap from 11.8% to 9.3%. This is a very welcome development, as one of my key goals is to encourage more girls and women to get involved in sport and physical activity both from a lifestyle and enjoyment perspective.

Encouraging sports at all ages

The 2013 ISM Report shows a notable rise in participation levels among females aged between 25 and 44, while increases are also evident among older age groups. This increase is encouraging, as sporting participation among females has previously been shown to decline sharply through their 30s.

Much of the rise is due to increased participation in running, however participation levels are also higher for many other popular sporting activities. I believe that one driver was the increased provision for Women in Sport programmes like “Fit for Life” and other “Meet-and-Train” groups. In 2014, €950,000 was provided to the National Governing Bodies of sport and to Local Sports Partnerships under the Women in Sport initiative. The latest positive figures on increased women’s participation show that this was money well spent, with the growing number and variety of races to take part in also having an impact.

Of course, the huge success of our female elite athletes both nationally and internationally across a broad range of sporting disciplines over the last few years has resulted in the creation of wonderful role models for our young people. We expect that this will also result in a further increased uptake of many sports, such as boxing and athletics.

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As Minister for Sport, I want to ensure that all people are encouraged and given opportunities to participate in sport and to enjoy all the benefits that sport can bring through developing a healthy lifestyle. I am very hopeful that these positive trends in female sports participation will continue into the future and that we will see more and more girls and women involved in sport and physical activity.

Michael Ring TD is Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport with Special Responsibility for Tourism and Sport.

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