social cohesion & integration

Sport England: Removing barriers to get more women more active

Aug 31, 2018

In England, there is a significant gender gap, with two million more men than women exercising or playing sport regularly at almost every age. However, a research shows that 75% of women would like to do more. But something is stopping them.
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To engage women and so help to close the gender gap in sport and exercise, Sport England conducted a research study which includes a collation of all the best thinking from its research projects and learning from other partner organisations. This article reviews its main findings.

Barriers, motivators and triggers to getting more women more active


It is possible to categorise the barriers to women’s participation in sport into two broad types:

  • Practical/logistical challenges such as time and cost. This type of barriers is often presented as the justifiable excuse for lack of action.
  • Personal/emotional reasons. A fear of judgement – on appearance, ability or how they chose to spend time on themselves – puts women of all ages off exercising. This type of barriers may be less explicitly stated but represent the underlying real issue.
  • It is important to note – in reality these are often interlinked and inseparable. It is therefore crucial to address both the practical and emotional barriers.

The need to exercise is understood by many, but often framed negatively. Women tend to think: “I’ll get fat and flabby if I don’t get active” or “It’s unhealthy not to do sport”. However, there are other more positive forces which can be leveraged to encourage women. These differ for different types of women but can be about having fun, achievement or realising social benefits. Delivering on these is what will make sport and exercise appealing and keep women coming back.


Whilst addressing barriers and motivations is important, a trigger is often needed to create the spur to take action at a specific point in time. These can operate at different levels including small scale offers/incentives, personal invitations or larger scale events to build up a community of change. Information in the right place, the right form at the right time can also be powerful on its own.

This Girl Can

Sport England responded by creating the ground breaking This Girl Can campaign which aims to empower women and encourage more to get active.

It is the first campaign of its kind to feature women who sweat and jiggle as they exercise. It seeks to tell the real story of women who play sport by using images that are the complete opposite of the idealised and stylised images of women we are now used to seeing. The campaign has clearly captured a nerve: 13 million people have now viewed the flagship This Girl Can film online.

The campaign doesn’t hold back in trying to encourage women to beat their barriers. “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox” and “I kick balls, deal with it” are among the hard-hitting lines used in the campaign to prompt a change in attitudes and help boost women’s confidence.

Key principles to engage women in sport

Below are seven of the most important things to keep in mind when delivering sport and exercise to women and girls:

1. Change the offer to suit the women you are targeting – don’t expect women to change to fit sport and exercise

The current offer doesn’t appeal or appear to be relevant for many women who would like to be active. Listen to what your audience care about and tailor the activity, marketing and customer experience to deliver what they want.

2. Don’t just talk about ‘sport’ – for many women, sport has baggage

The word ‘sport’ and its traditional image can trigger negative associations for many women. Address this by considering how you present the experience women will have.

3. Differentiate sport and exercise from other interests by promoting (not preaching) the additional benefits – sell what your audience is asking for

In addition to health benefits, which many women do already recognise, sport and exercise can provide the opportunity to socialise, develop skills and spend time with the family. Makes sure your activity promotes these benefits that many women prioritise other activities for.

4. Seeing is believing. Making sport the ‘norm’ for women relies on local women of all ages, sizes and faiths not only becoming active but celebrating it and encouraging others to join in

Relatable women and girls visibly enjoying being active, at their own pace and somewhere local feels more attainable. Take activity into the community and attract new people by becoming part of their everyday sphere rather than waiting for them to join yours.

5. Use positivity and encouragement to drive action – stimulating action through fear of consequences will have little traction

Reassure the women and girls you are targeting that they are in safe and understanding hands. Don’t let women beat themselves up about what they do or don’t have.

6. Make it easy for women to act: right time, right place, right welcome, right company, right gear

Address both practical and emotional barriers together to ensure that neither outweigh the motivation to be active. A more convenient crèche facility may only attract those who feel confident with the activity or in a sporting environment already.

7. People make or break the experience – ensure your audience are appropriately supported along the way

Invest in the people that shape the experience of sport and exercise the women you are targeting have. Ensure your audience are welcomed, feel cared for and are regularly communicated with – whether they are familiar faces, new or have recently stopped attending.

Of course, one size does not fit all. Women and girls will vary both between themselves – in terms of attitudes and behaviours – and within themselves as they age and pass through different life stages.

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