Running (things) like a girl: the women tackling inequality in Sport and Exercise Sciences



When it comes to female participation in sport, we've come a long way. But the playing field is by no means level yet...

Women in SES

The year is 776 BC and the first Olympic Games ever recorded is taking place. A cook named Coroebus wins the only event – a 192-meter footrace. Sadly, it would be almost three whole millenniums later before a woman would ever be permitted to participate in the games…

Thankfully, when it comes to participation in sport, we’ve come a long way since 776 BC. And while there’s no doubt that women’s participation is very much on the up in 2021, there’s still much more to be done to level the playing field completely. Luckily for us at LJMU, we have a host of inspiring leads and students in our School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, all of who are blazing a trail across the landscape of sport and exercise, setting some truly amazing examples for the young women they teach and mentor. 

With International Women’s Day approaching next Monday (8 March), we thought there was no better time to catch up with some of them about their motivations and experiences of being women in the sporting world – as well as hearing how they’re pledging to #ChooseToChallenge this year, in celebration of the big day.  

So, what motivated these ladies in particular to get involved in a sector that has historically been associated with so much masculinity? For Gemma Miller, a LJMU Lab Technician and Physiology PhD student, it was all about debunking the myth that this is a ‘man’s world’:

“It’s frustrating that often women who are interested in elite sport, such as football, can be deemed as ‘tomboys’ or are perceived as not being able to hack the responsibilities or ‘banter’ experienced within sport. This just isn’t the case! 

“For me personally, I’ve always had a passion for sport and was fascinated by what elevated athletes to an elite level. I also love to promote exercise, that’s ultimately what got me into my role.”

Obipiseibima Priscillia Aggokabo, a PhD Student in Cardiac Physiology, reveals that one reason for choosing the subject was so she could narrow the, still prevalent, gender inequality gap:

“The world of sport exercise science is a very competitive field which can definitely be enhanced a lot further with equity and equality. Though a male dominated landscape, it presents lots of opportunities for women like myself to contribute to its development for improved healthcare and lifestyle. I personally intend to do as much as I can to minimise the gender gap and create equality in the field of Sport and Exercise Sciences (SES). The desire to make a contribution towards this was definitely a motivation for choosing SES as a learning path.”

But what about when it comes to tackling gender stereotypes in sport? We’ve all heard them. Whether you’ve been told you “run like a girl” or you’re a woman being told (wrongly) that “you can't play football” – gender based typecasting seems to run deep in the world of sport, perhaps deeper than in any other sector. But are these well-worn gender labels finally becoming obsolete? 

Dr. Amy Whitehead, Reader in Sport Psychology and Coaching for LJMU, thinks so:

“I really do think that stereotypes like these are at last changing, and in my experience, they feel less evident. In terms of gender stereotypes and sport in general, women have always had ‘masculine’ tropes associated with them. The world of sport and exercise science has traditionally been a very male orientated environment, and when working in male dominated sports such as football and rugby, it may sometimes feel difficult for women to ‘fit in’. I do feel this is becoming less of an issue as time goes on though.”

Professor Zoe Knowles, who specialises in Engagement and Learning at the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, believes that the key to stamping out sexist undertones in the sporting industry once and for all, is to move past them altogether in wider society too...

“I feel like biases against women are very much linked to the wider stereotypes in sport, in science, and in society more generally. We have to tackle all of these head-on to impact on the sport and exercise science sector and vice versa. I also think there’s definitely a misconception that you have to be good at sport to succeed in this career too – and you don’t! What you do need is a commitment to understanding people, performance and science, which is what a lot of my job is about.”

Back in 2018, a report conducted by Women In Sport hit the headlines when it revealed that a shocking 40% of women faced discrimination of some form in sports related jobs. More recently, the same charity also published findings that stated there are over 700,000 more inactive women than men in England, with nearly 60% of girls not meeting the recommended daily exercise guidelines. It’s easy to see then, why it’s more important now than ever for women to feel heard, empowered and encouraged when it comes to sport and exercise – whether it’s within a senior SES job role, or signing up for try-outs for the school football team. 

When it comes to women thriving in the SES workplace, lecturer in Performance Analysis and Analytics, Dr. Sigrid Olthof, believes that challenges must be met by breaking through the glass ceiling that exists for women in the industry:

“The next step is for women to take leadership positions in sports, and in other industries, which are predominantly occupied by men up to now. In my opinion, the next challenge for women is to secure decision-making positions. These could be managerial roles in male football teams or other sport teams and organisations, in committees for grant applications, or in the hiring process for academic positions. This is the only way to break the ceiling for other women and redefine the male-driven perspective on academic success.”

But what about young women in the classroom? What can be done to make sure they feel able to dream big in the world of sport? 

LJMU Professor of Sport Psychology, Joanne Butt, believes having many more positive role models holds the key to unlocking the women of the future in this sector:

“We need to have more women role models in SES and it’s important that we can all be leaders in our own disciplines within the sport sciences. Together we can pave the way for future generations of women wanting to pursue sport science in academia and in the applied world. Not only pursue it, but aspire to management positions and ultimately become world leaders in their field.”

LJMU Biomechanics PhD student, Phatcharapa Osateerakun, also believes that it’s key to have women in these roles in order for them to offer up a fresh perspective:

“Looking to the future, it’s important for more women to take up roles in the sports and exercise sciences field because I believe that sometimes, as women, we can see things from different angles to our male counterparts, which can have an interesting impact on the research field. To succeed, I truly believe that women going into this area of work should simply be themselves. Be confident and really believe in the important work that you are doing!”

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #ChooseToChallenge and is all about speaking up to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality, while seeking out and celebrating the achievements of women. We asked each of our inspiring academics how they will be pledging to #ChooseToChallenge this year…

Dr. Amy Whitehead: My pledge is to always support and celebrate colleague’s successes, whether they’re men or women, and to call out any gender bias I see, both within and outside of my job.

Professor Joanne Butt: First, I can continue to celebrate the successes of women, and particularly, colleagues in sport psychology. Second, I want to challenge and call out language that can potentially preserve challenges. In sport psychology, for example, we still read about “the founding Fathers” ...

Obipiseibima Priscillia Aggokabo: I pledge to encourage young women to come together and change the perception of gender inequality.

Dr. Sigrid Olthof: I’m committed to making a positive impact on every woman who has the ambition to work in sports, to lead by example, and to inspire women to break through the next glass ceiling in sport. 

Phatcharapa Osateerakun: I pledge to try and do my best within my career and show how women can achieve success through hard work. 

Professor Zoe Knowles: I choose to challenge where I see unfairness, barriers to opportunity, and low aspirations that can affect women in sport and exercise science.

Gemma Miller: I am committed to challenging inequality and stereotypes, calling out bias to help to build a more inclusive world.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, LJMU’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences will be holding two special events aimed at inspiring the women who will become the future of the sport and sport science world. Monday 8 March from 4 - 5:30pm will see the event, Inspiring the next generation of Sport Scientists: Women in Sport & Exercise Science - Panel Discussion, take place online. You can sign up here for a space on the talk. 

Tuesday March 9 will also see the Women in Football: Dare to Dream event take place, featuring a panel discussion with Liverpool FC Women's players Rachel Furness and Becky Jane. Sign up for your free Eventbrite ticket before they sell out. 

If you wish to explore the school of School of Sport and Exercise Sciences further, take a look at the courses on offer on our website. Our faculty is recognised as a world-leading department and offers everything from Nutrition courses to postgraduate degrees in Sport and Clinical Biomechanics. Visit us today to see how we can help you to unlock your potential. 

You can also follow @LJMUSportSci on Twitter to see what staff and students are up to, as well as checking out what other members of staff have chosen as their #ChooseToChallenge pledges. 

Running things like a girl



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