Women in sport. An Interview with CEO Stephanie Hilborne OBE.

The very spirit of sport demands fairness and equality. It promises a world where athletes are measured by their skill, their dedication and their passion for their chosen game. Unfortunately, we are not in that world yet, and until we are, we can show support to the people who are fighting for it day and night. #Sportsider caught up with the CEO of Women in Sport Stephanie Hilborne OBE.

Sportsider: When was WiS founded and what was the main motivation?

Stephanie: Women in Sport was founded in 1984 by Prof. Celia Brackenridge (then England lacrosse captain) and Dr Anita White (then England hockey captain) alongside other leading lights in sport including Baroness Sue Campbell.  They were not just great sportswomen of their time, but scholars and activists. 

Our organisation was rooted in taking an evidence-based approach to tackling sexism in sport, promoting women’s interests and raising awareness of the contribution sport could make to the lives of women. Our current vision is that no-one should be excluded from the joy, fulfilment and lifelong benefits of sport.

Dr Anita White was instrumental in founding the first international conference on Women in Sport in Brighton in 1994, which has shaped the trajectory of women’s sport beyond the UK.  We have published major reports that seek to understand and address the roots of gender inequality in sport at all levels.  We were delighted to lead the campaign that led to the 2016 governance code that all publicly funded sports governing bodies must be made up of at least 30% women.  We have led partnerships that found ways to engage more girls from disadvantaged backgrounds through our Project 51 campaign and built an unmatched body of insights.

Sportsider: What was your background previous to WiS?

Stephanie: I’ve been the CEO of Women in Sport since October 2019.  I lived for sport at school and played netball, badminton and lacrosse. After school I went on to advocate for nature and during my 27 year long career as an environmentalist, I drew from the skills that I learnt on the court or field of play.

I was CEO of The Wildlife Trusts movement for 15 years before taking on my current role with Women in Sport.  There I led calls for people to transform how children were raised so future generations were more in touch with nature and were active outside.  The 46 Wildlife Trusts have 850,000 members between them and an unmatched presence in communities on the ground, manages over 100,000 ha of land and has over 100 education and visitor centres.  My national role focused a great deal on achieving improvements to legislation and policy whilst leading a federation and I realised how much I’d drawn on my team sport for my resilience and leadership capability.  I also recognised how privileged I’d been to have that experience of sport and that most girls don’t have it.

Sportsider: How far do we still have to go to find equality in sport? And how is this going to be best achieved?

Stephanie: We still have a long way to go in most areas of sport, and it’s already been a long haul.

There has continued to be a big gender divide in activity levels. At its worst, two million more men were active than women in England. This has improved over the years, but today we still see 700,000 fewer women engaging in physical activity than men.  And there are bigger gaps in participation in team sports with around a 20-25% gap between girls and boys and men and women in this area.  Given the undoubted exceptional benefits of team sport to personal development this is simply not right.

The culture is however changing and 2018 and 2019 saw the first real strides forward in visibility for women’s sport through netball, cricket and football.  Last year’s Summer of Sport gained millions of fans and viewers. But gender equality in sport remains a long way off.

The only way we’re going to change this is to deeply understand the needs and aspirations of women and girls and the issues affecting them, and then influence every point where we can make a change.

Our understanding is that gender stereotypes and institutional bias are holding girls and women back in life and sport; and many women and girls are still denied equal access to sport.

This doesn’t affect every girl and woman in the same way, as other factors such as economic inequality, disability and cultural and ethnic issues can also have a significant impact.

We believe that inclusive sport can help tackle some of the particular challenges women and girls face whether this be around body image or self-harm, or exclusion from the work force during the perimenopause.  Sport can help address social and economic inequalities and should be designed to reflect the distinct attributes of women and girls.

Our purpose is to give every woman and girl the opportunity to take part in sport and inspire her to do so.  To do this we aim to raise the profile of gender inequality in sport and the impact on women; develop policy positions and identify solutions; and campaign and influence to inspire change. 

We understand the challenges around the invisibility of women’s competitive sport in the media as we emerge from lockdown and are currently talking to National Governing Bodies to ensure we understand the unique barriers they face to sustaining engagement from women and girls or in some cases continuing a long overdue transformation of their sport. We want them to make their community programmes for women and girls as well as their elite women’s game central to their crisis recovery plans.

We need more people to understand that women face different barriers to sport at different life stages. Deeply entrenched gender stereotypes are affecting girls as young as 5, 6, or 7 and this significantly shapes their engagement with sport in later life. At the other end of the spectrum, we have found that 84% of women going through menopause want to be more active, but do not feel confident in doing so.  This has been exposed even more so by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many women have been forced to deprioritise their own activity due to the pressures of juggling home schooling, working and housework.

Sportsider: How would you describe the services and duties of WiS?

Stephanie: We are the leading charity dedicated to researching women’s and girls’ relationships with sport and physical activity. We use our insight to drive equality through campaigns, programme delivery and partnerships, with the aim of ensuring that women and girls stay engaged with sport and physical activity at times when they are at risk of losing interest.

We have a strong track record of insight work with women from different life-stages and a bank of highly valued reports.  We use this as the basis for innovative programmes with sports bodies and others to help those active on the ground to identify solutions to barriers they face.

We also work hard to secure a high profile of these issues in the print and broadcast media, social media and amongst those working in sport.

Some examples of our work include:

  • Ground-breaking research into the lives of teenage girls and how we can make sports more relevant to them as just 40% meet the recommended daily activity levels.
  • Delivering our Daughters and Dads Active and Empowered programme across 6 locations. This is an 11-week programme which aims to increase physical activity levels, sports skills and social-emotional wellbeing of primary-school aged girls by challenging stereotypes and playing sport and physical activity.
  • Launching our new menopause research, addressing the barriers and challenges women face in being active at this time in their lives.


Sportsider: How is WiS funded?

Stephanie: As a charity we are reliant on the fantastic support of those who share our beliefs.  Our largest supporter is Sport England and their annual grant over many years has been fundamental to our success.

Complementing this we seek grants from other bodies and have been delighted to win the support of Comic Relief for a few of our programmes, most recently for our work to change the culture of sport so it is more gender equal and for our research into women in lockdown.

The National Lottery has funded our Daughters and Dads programme, and Players of People’s Postcode Lottery are supporting our menopause insights work.

Vitally we have some generous corporate and individual supporters. There are many ways we look to get partners involved, from sponsoring a piece of research and insight or event, to funding the delivery of a programme of work or campaign, to individually raising money for our work through challenge events.

We are indebted to our supporters and with more to be done, we are seeking to ensure our income base is resilient in the coming years.

Sportsider: What are the plans for the remainder of 2020 going into 2021?

Stephanie: We will be launching a revised strategic framework in the autumn. Key issues such as supporting women in later life to stay active and healthy, continuing to improve sport for teenage girls in schools, communities and families, and improving the representation of women across the sporting workforce will stay critical to our plans.

We will stay agile to respond to the unique circumstances facing society, seeking to understand the particular impact on how women in all their diversity are interfacing with sport and exercise in a new normal.

We want more people who champion equality and fight social injustice to understand how sport can change the lives of girls and women.  We want girls and women to feel empowered by sport.  We will continue to drive hard the importance of sport and physical activity in transforming women’s and girls’ lives. They simply cannot miss out.

We will also be seeking to work with some of our youngest audiences, since we know as early as 5, 6, or 7 years of age, girls start to miss out on sport and physical activity. When gender stereotypes are so deeply entrenched in our society as young as this, it causes inspiration and aspirations to fall away, this simply is unacceptable.

We will work with National Governing Bodies and wider stakeholders including the media to continue to maintain momentum of the women’s sporting game and to ensure we are well placed as a nation to keep moving and keep celebrating the joy of sport.

We are also looking to build on our current base of key allies in this drive for change and to collaborate with a wide set of partners.  We must find ways to build physical activity and sport into the everyday lives of as many women as possible.

Read July’s issue of #Sportsider here.

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