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Girls as young as five years old feel they “don’t belong in sport”

Girls as young as five years old are made to feel as though sport is not a place for them, according to research from charity Women in Sport.

Released last week to coincide with International Women’s Day, the report shows how girls are being bombarded by messages and labels that undermine their self-belief, crush their confidence and imply that they are not as competitive or as good at sport as boys.

The report, called Sport, stereotypes and stolen dreams: Why girls still feel they don’t belong in sport, is based on two nationally representative surveys over 2,000 parents of girls and boys aged 5-11 years old, as well as in-depth work with 24 families who have daughters.

It found girls are heavily influenced by parents, family, peers and the school environment, with marketing and media playing more of a role as girls get older.

The research discovered young girls are internalising gender stereotypes and negative messaging which can make them feel as though there is limited value in taking part in sport and physical activity. It also showed how phrases like; ‘sport isn’t for girly girls’, ‘girls are delicate’ and ‘you throw like a girl’ can reinforce negative perceptions around physical strength, capability and potential.

Stephanie Hilborne OBE, CEO of Women in Sport said: “Girls aren’t born underconfident, they are being held back by gender stereotyping. All children deserve the opportunity to reach their full potential in sport and in life.

“Rather than girls being encouraged to achieve whatever they set their mind to, they’re surrounded by messages telling them they’re fragile, weak and don’t like competition. We know that sport can teach pivotal life skills like resilience, courage and self belief, but far too many girls are missing out as they’re being pigeonholed into what society expects of them.

“We want to inspire more women into leadership positions within government, business and sport and see them celebrated for their achievements. But currently girls are competing in the race of life from a staggered start point. We must all recognise this disparity and work together for change.

“If we are to give girls an equal chance to thrive we must unburden them from gender stereotypes, lift the labels and surround them with the expectation they will succeed.”

Women in Sport says that the long-term consequences of girls being felt that sport isn’t for them can be difficult to reverse.

This is shown by data from the Reframing Sport for Teenage Girls: Tacking Teenage Disengagement report which shows that, by the time girls reach 17-18 years old just 28% describe themselves as ‘sporty’, compared with 58% of boys.

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