Why sport matters in the education of girls

By Helen Fraser

Helen Fraser’s speech to the GDST Annual Conference ‘On your marks… the role of sport in a balanced education’ delivered on 11 June 2014

Does sport matter – or not – in the education of girls? Would it be fine for girls to sit at their desks or in the library all day, studying hard, and never running around on a hockey pitch or a netball court? Are we here to educate the brain – or the whole person?

Obviously, given our speakers assembled this morning, and our audience today, the answer to this is not going to be ‘sport doesn’t matter’. But I would like to tease out this morning some of the subtle and important ways in which sport can be the making of a woman – which is in the end what we, at GDST, are all about. We are trying to ‘make women’ – women who will make their mark in the world, will ride the white water rafting of careers and come out on top.

I should say – right from the start – that I was not a sporty girl at school.  My inability to coordinate hand and eye meant that I never played for school teams and watched in awe as schoolmates smote the rounders ball or popped the netball into the net.  On those cold hours on the hockey field my view was that if the ball showed any sign of coming towards me I would move smartly away from it.  That didn’t mean, though, that I didn’t like physical activity – I loved gym, and Scottish dancing (at which my school was a whizz), and ballet and skating which I did outside school. But I would definitely have classed myself as ‘not a sporty girl’. However I think that those hours out of the classroom – even when your legs were blue from cold – gave me some really good things.

First – I had to learn that there were some things I really was not good at. As you will all know, experiencing and overcoming failure is a key tenet of GDST philosophy. We want girls to realise that no one is perfect, and that actually, as Anna Maxted put it in a recent piece in the Sunday Times, trying to be perfect destroys people.  So finding that there are things you can’t do – but the world doesn’t come to an end – is helpful. I think also that even the modicum of exercise I got – and the much greater amount that my talented friends got – was good for our brains. There is a mass of scientific evidence now that anything that speeds up the circulation in the body actually wakes up the brain and helps our mental function. There is also a lot of evidence now that for girls in particular, weight-bearing exercise in adolescence helps build bone strength and protects them from osteoporosis later on. Active girls are less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression, are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. It matters not just for the health of the individual woman but for the health of the nation. Also sport builds habits – girls who get lots of exercise in their school years are more likely to be exercising in their twenties, thirties and forties with all the benefits to health that brings.

Active female role models have also been with us since classical times. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. The Amazonian warriors, ruled by Queens like Otrera, Penthiselea and Hippolyta. Atalanta, who would only marry a man who could beat her in a foot race.

We can trace a line of warrior women – both real and fictional – across the histories of many cultures and to the present day. In the past couple of decades, physically active women have been enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in popular culture. Fifteen years ago it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena Warrior Princess seizing the popular imagination. The female characters in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series are just as fierce, strong and smart as their male counterparts. And whatever we feel about the violent dystopias inhabited by Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games or Tris Prior in the Divergent series, those teenagers are strong.

It is heartening to see fictional heroines who can hold their own in a fight, who endure physical hardship and aren’t just waiting to be rescued by a hero on a white charger. It is important to have cultural representations of women and girls who are physically powerful, and fast and strong.

As some of you may know, last week I chaired the judging panel for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the winner, Eimear McBride said “to be a woman is to be fearless”.  And one of the things that competitive sport teaches girls is a certain type of fearlessness, one that is a vital component of leadership.

Taking your team to a fixture, captaining it, building the strategy, enjoying victory, facing defeat – these are building life skills. A 2002 US survey of 400 senior women business executives found that 80% played organised sports growing up, and 69% said sports helped them develop leadership skills that contributed to their professional success. 86% believed sports helped them to be more disciplined; 68% credited sports with helping them deal with failure; and 59% noted that sports gave them a competitive edge.

A more recent survey commissioned by EY (as Ernst & Young now prefer to be known) has linked women in senior management positions to experience with sports, finding that 96 percent of the highest ranking female executives played sports, 55 percent of them at university level.

When you think about it, it’s not really that surprising. Sports, whether team or individual, is all about competition. In an article on the Confidence Gap, US authors Claire Shipman and Katty Kay cite research that girls who play team sports are more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and be employed in male-dominated industries. There’s even a direct link between playing sports in high school and earning a bigger salary as an adult. They say “Learning to own victory and survive defeat in sports is apparently good training for owning triumphs and surviving setbacks at work.” Or to put it another way, in order to win, you have to be prepared to lose. This is one of the reasons why so many of our schools are looking at ways to help girls to take risks, build resilience, and lose their fear of failure, and sports plays a real role in that.

And one of the barriers to women progressing in the workplace isn’t that they don’t win the race, it’s that they don’t even make it to the starting line as they lack the confidence and courage to compete.

The authors of the Confidence Gap also quote Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, who calls confidence “the stuff that turns thoughts into action”. It is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action. And taking part in sports, win or lose, certainly helps to boost a girl’s confidence.

The EY report I quoted earlier also highlights some of the women leaders who have a sporting past: the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff played volleyball; Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, was a member of the French national synchronized swimming team; Condoleezza Rice was a competitive figure skater and tennis player. Closer to home, Helen Grant, the Minister for Sport and Equalities, represented her county in hockey, tennis, athletics, and cross-country, and was the regional under-16 judo champion.

Then – in an all girls’ school – there is something wonderfully physically unselfconscious about throwing yourself into sport. I have been in our schools when a class of teenage girls is returning from a sports lesson, pink in the face, tousled, throwing themselves down on the floor – with never a moment of ‘am I having a bad hair day’, or ‘does my bum look big in this’ – really great inclusive sport takes girls away from all those unhelpful thoughts of bodily perfection and focuses them on the team and the goals. Three of my daughters and stepdaughters played rugby for their college or university. I remember watching one from the side-lines as they tackled each other in the mud, the occasional trickle of blood down the cheek. And thinking ‘how character forming is that?’ And also thinking how few occasions young women get to roll around in the mud and throw themselves at an opponent. Maybe that is why women’s rugby is such a fast-growing sport.

Schools have a challenging task with sport. At all of our schools there are elite young sports women. I can’t mention them all, but among them we have the range and calibre of sportswomen like the gymnast Rebecca Tunney at The Belvedere Academy; long-distance runner Sabrina Sinha at Bromley High; the trampolining team at Sheffield High, who are national champions; also at Sheffield High, Maxine Yu is on the international development team for figure skating; Sophie Vingoe from Shewsbury High is an international karate champion; Ipswich High’s Ruth Hole has represented Great Britain in dressage; and on our panel after the break is Jessica Riley, a student at Croydon High and a competitive diver. Our schools have to support them (which sometimes means being very flexible with timetabling) and also our schools want to win, so they want to develop top teams.  At the same time there are lots of girls – as I was – who would join in if they didn’t feel that they were useless at sport. So our schools now have to have a twin track strategy – of continuing to develop elite sportswomen but ensuring that even the most butterfingered girl has fun and runs around until she is out of breath.

Lorna spoke about how we want one of the outcomes of today to be a much clearer understanding of the GDST’s philosophy and ethos when it comes to PE and sport. In my view, the first plank of our philosophy should be ‘sport for all’ – that every girl with an interest in sports, or dance, or other physical exercise should have that interest supported and nurtured, whether or not she will ever make the A team or its equivalent. That’s why I love it when our schools have A, B, C and D teams, and beyond, so that all girls who enjoy a sport have the chance to play it. John from KKP will be addressing this in more detail later this morning.

Across our schools we have such a range of sports and exercise – from acrobatics and archery through to yoga and Zumba – that there will be at least one or more that a girl can enjoy and, possibly – through training, and hard work and dedication – at which she can come to excel.

But – as with so many other fields – all is not equal on the sports field for men and women. It was only in 2007 that Wimbledon prize money was equalised for men and women.  Women’s football and women’s cricket gets less funding, less media attention (unless the men’s cricket team has lost their test and the women have won theirs). Premier League bosses send sexist emails. Newspapers print allegations that Jessica Ennis is fat (that was before she won her gold medal). Around the issue of sport come all those issues that beset women – and especially young women. Is it ok to compete, to get hot and sweaty? Is it unfeminine to win, and to leap in the air with joy when you do? (I think the raft of fabulous British Olympic athletes, from Katherine Grainger to Jessica Ennis to the boxing champion Nicola Adams helped prove that it was good to win.) Are muscles ok on a woman? What on earth has happened to the word fit, which used to mean that you could run a few miles without collapsing but now just means ‘fanciable’?  I think sport, and exercise is one of the ways in which women can reclaim their bodies from the kind of obsessions of the tabloid press and celebrity magazines. It is not about being fat or thin, it is about being fit. It is not about how you look, but about what you do. Women made up 44% of Olympic competitors at London 2012 — the greatest show of gender equality in Olympic history, and for the first time ever, every single competing nation fielded female athletes.

But girls still need to get this message. Nationally, girls start doing less activity than boys as soon as they’re eight or nine. By the time they’re 14, only 12% of girls are as active as they should be. Despite PE being compulsory in schools, one in five girls still does no activity in a week, twice the proportion of boys. And by the time they leave school, they have habits and perceptions that are hard to shift. And that continues into adult life, with men far more likely to be involved in sport than women.

So I hope that today will be a day when we can explore together what we can do in our schools to help our girls develop their sporting prowess and physical fitness.