Dr Laura Gubby explores the importance of encouraging female students and staff at university to become active. 

Inspired by Sport England’s, ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, Monday 19 November marks the start of the British Universities and College Sport (BUCS) female-focussed week of physical activity. As BUCS states “the ultimate objective of the week is to get more women at university active and demonstrate how much Higher Education does to engage female students and staff in sport and physical activity, creating an active lifestyle which students sustain after completing their time at university.

The broader ‘This Girl Can’ campaign celebrates women who are already active, as well as aiming to persuade more women and girls to become active in ways that suit them.  Since the launch of the campaign in 2015, Sport England has persuaded nearly three million women to become active.

So why is there such a need for active promotion for women and girls in physical activity and sport?

Previous research in schools has suggested that some of the reasons that girls are concerned about their participation in physical activity relates to a dislike of getting sweaty, a fear of getting hurt, and a concern with how physical assertion may be perceived as aggression by peers and friends. Through various structures, many girls learn that sport and physical activity is not for them. Within the UK, research has shown that PE is the subject where boys and girls are most frequently separated. Additionally, within PE, girls and boys are commonly provided with different activities to participate in. Reasons for this have been based on arguments of natural biological differences between boys and girls, which contributes to the general understanding of gendered ability in physical activity and sport.  When this reason is considered in more detail, assumptions are based on all girls being of the same ability and all boys being of the same ability, and each individual holding the same sporting and physical activity interests as everyone else from the same gender as them.  It does not account for some girls being very able, strong and fast in comparison to some boys being less able or less interested in sport or physical activity. Ultimately, this structure does not allow for difference.

This brings into question the argument for PE classes being divided by gender when rationales are based on assumptions of ability and interest. Whilst this separation exists, without any account for difference within the gendered boundaries, it continues to reinforce and teach gender norms and difference to children and their parents. This learned gender difference is often the basis of sport and physical activity being perceived as more suitable for boys than girls. Whilst physical education classes have been shown to help shape the future enjoyment of boys and girls within physical activity and sport (both positively and negatively) maybe the messages that the current, commonly accepted structure sends out need to be reconsidered, so that girls understand that physical activity and sport also offers a space for them. #ThisGirlCan

Dr Laura Gubby is Senior Lecturer in Physical Education in the School of Childhood and Education Sciences.