Debunking the myths about period and sport
Many of us have experienced this strange feeling: one day you’re playing football in the school courtyard with your male friends in a perfectly normal way, and the next one people start frowning at you: adults saying that maybe you should spend less time with boys, boys saying that they don’t want to play with girls anymore… yes friends, puberty it is.
So, with mixed feelings of incomprehension and frustration, head down, you look at yourself and realise that, even though you’re still the same, people are now seeing you differently.
From now on, you’re a girl or a “young woman” as they say, and you belong to this world. Forget about football and all the other boyish stuff you used to enjoy: it’s not for you anymore.
This might sound caricatural, but at this age (around 12 years old) my sister was convened by the school director because she was “spending too much time with her (male) best friend”; and I was called a “whore” because I was playing football with boys – which was interpreted as flirtatious back in these days. And I am sure so many of you can relate to these stories.
The gender gap in sports is still a reality
“Traditionally, the sport has been dominated by men, both in terms of participation and governance. Women were excluded from the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, and were only allowed to gradually start joining four years later. Even though women’s presence and involvement in the Olympic Movement have progressively evolved, girls and women across the world still get fewer opportunities and less investment, training and corporate attention when they play sport.”
This statement, extracted from a report from the European Parliament on gender equality in sports, highlights the fact that – despite significant progress – a considerable gender gap remains in sports worldwide, visible in participation, governance, media representation or in the persistent gender pay gap.
Zoom on India
A recent BBC research revealed a significant gender gap in sports in India: only 29% of women participate in sports, against 42% of men.
Interestingly, the data suggest that participation in sports drops significantly as one move from childhood to adulthood. Indeed, many adolescent girls experience restrictions to going out and playing sports as they enter puberty, mainly due to increasing safety concerns and social stigma. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, by age 14, many girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys!
“Gender equality in sport:Getting closer every day”. EPRS | European Parliamentary Research Service (2019)
“Attitudes towards women’s sports, sportswomen and women in India” BBC (2020)
This is a problem because sport plays a key role in physical and mental health. It is also an important empowerment factor and can help girls take control of their bodies.
Regarding attitudes towards women in sports, strong prejudices remain:
- a third of the Indians surveyed believed that sportswomen are not as good as sportsmen.
- 37% of respondents said female athletes are not feminine enough.
- 38% said sports featuring women are not as entertaining as sports featuring men.
For respondents who believed that some sports are not suitable for women, the top reasons were:
- It’s not safe for women to play
- Women are not strong enough to play the sport
- Women are not able to play sports during all times of the month (i.e. you can’t play sports during your period)
The gender pay gap in sport
Research shows that the gender pay gap in sports is more important than in any other sector! Indeed: “Even though the gender pay gap in sport has been narrowing over the years, it still very much exists. A total of 83 % of sports now award men and women equal prize money, with cricket, golf and football displaying the greatest pay gaps.”
In the 2022 Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid athletes, there were only 2 women out of 50 athletes: Naomi Osaka And Serena Williams.
This is critical because, the lack of proper remuneration for female athletes is a key barrier to narrowing the gender gap in the sport since it obliges many professional female athletes to have a second job on the side, giving them less time to train and develop their skills, leading to fewer opportunities to grow their athlete career. Imagine if Messi needed to teach Spanish or babysit kids after training. He would probably not be 7 times Ballon d’Or today.
An example of a professional female football player is Natasha Thomas, 26, who has scored 114 goals for Ipswich, and she also works “30-40 hours a week” as a personal trainer.
“It is hard because I am a contracted player but unfortunately it doesn’t pay out as much for me not to have a second job,” she said.
“Even in cricket-loving India, the top female cricketers command a fraction of the endorsement fees that top male cricketers do. At the very least, the finding from this study that as many as 85% of respondents believe men and women sportspersons should have equal prize money is surely one reason for Indian sports organisers to close the sports gender pay gap where it exists.”
Check out the Part 2….
- Bruinvels, G., et al. Sport, Exercise and the Menstrual Cycle: Where Is the Research? 2016. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1502923/
- “Attitudes towards women’s sports, sportswomen and women in India” BBC (2020)
- “Gender equality in sport: Getting closer every day”. EPRS | European Parliamentary Research Service (2019) https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2019/635560/EPRS_BRI(2019)635560_EN.pdf
- “Exercising During Your Period: Benefits and Things to Avoid” Flo, https://flo.health/menstrual-cycle/lifestyle/fitness-and-exercise/exercising-during-period
- “2022 highest paid athletes”, Forbes https://www.forbes.com/athletes/
- “Women’s football: ‘I’m a pro footballer but I have a second job’”, BBC article https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-suffolk-62386612