Women in Sport: Why is there such a high dropout rate?

We need to have a serious look at how we approach sports

Every 1 in 2 girls drop out of sport before they reach the age of 20, according to the Women’s Sports Federation. That is a ridiculously high number for a country that prides itself on the great outdoors. Assuming the population is 50% girls and 50% boys: that is 25% of the population that is not taking part in any physical activity on a regular basis. These worrying statistics highlight the need for a revolution in the way in which we approach women’s sports. I don’t mean just from the media and the top down; I mean in the way each and every one of us does.

Unfortunately, this is not just a phenomenon that is specific to Ireland as there are similar levels of drop out rates across Europe and the developed world, with the Scandinavian countries typically reporting higher rates of participation. According to the Australian Youth and Confidence Research, over half of the girls quit sport by the age of 17 with a similar trend in Canada which has seen a constant decline in participation rates over the last twenty years. The Women’s Sport Federation (WSF) and project Play have concluded that girls of color play less sport than white girls—a worrying statistic for bodies looking to increase their diversity. So why is it that so many girls stop taking part in sports?

The gender gap in sport participation is a situation that has gained recognition recently as brands such as Nike and national federations such as the Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI) have begun increasing the awareness around women in sport and facilitating easier access through improving sportswear and active campaigns. Although these are having an impact by destigmatizing the reality of women participating in sport, there is still a long way to go to reach parity in genders being physically active.

When looking at the reasons driving women to drop out there seems to be a general theme: fear. Women taking part in sport is only a recent development and for years there has been a general stigma surrounding this participation. This is mostly due in part to the historical emphasis placed on men being the only engagers of sport. Traditionally, women would only do so for leisure and must at all times retain decorum. As a result, men have had hundreds of years of a head start in mastering and monopolising the industry leading to little space for women to make an impact. Examples of this are the gender pay gap whereby outside of tennis which introduced equal pay in 2001. The highest base salary for a star in the WNBA is $117,000 and for the NBA it’s $40 million, a gap of $39,883,000. A similar scene arises in soccer. The best paid footballer ever was Lionel Messi who made £141 million in comparison with Carli Lloyd who earned $518,000. Messi earned 272 times more than Lloyd. While this large gap can be explained by the lack of publicity surrounding women’s championships, it is only the beginning of the self-fulfilling perpetual circle of gender disparity in sport. It is also only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reasons for girls dropping out of sport.

As previously mentioned, fear plays a large part in the drop out rate of women which can largely be attributed to the cultural messages we are sending to young girls. It is very common in mixed schools that priority is given to male teams who typically gain more supporters and more funding from the school. On a familial level, it historically was very rare for a family to sit down and watch the Saturday night women’s game or the women’s Six Nations, if they could even find coverage of them. Educationally, girls are receiving an entire set of messages at institutional, instructional and interpersonal levels which does not include women in sport, thus failing to help young girls acclimatise to the normality of women in sport.

This is also further supported by the lack of sporting role models for girls both on social media and mainstream media. 65% of girls don’t know of any sporting role models in their chosen sport but could name a male one, which was discovered in a study done by the WSF. To fill this vacuum, many girls have turned to Instagram models and influencers for their role models where impossible beauty standards are prevalent, many of these body types are unachievable if partaking in sport due to the lack of visible muscle which develops through exercise. For many girls this is a deterrent as women who are perceived as muscly are likened to men and deemed too big to be attractive: an understandable disincentive for even the most confident of girls. A girl’s experience of sport is constantly being devalued by the prevailing social norms.

“There is a perception that boys have superior sporting skills than girls with more resources and time being devoted to male sports as a result.”

As a corollary to the stigma surrounding athletic female builds, a large number of girls feel insecure and self conscious about their bodies. According to Vera Lopez of Arizona State University, girls often felt ashamed of their knowledge of sports, especially if they didn’t play them when they were younger. They were afraid to make mistakes in case of teasing so it is easier to not participate at all and avoid this possibility. There is also a general perception that boys have superior sporting skills than girls with more resources and time being devoted to male sports as a result.

On a more practical level, many girls reported that they were struggling to balance school work with the commitment of sport. The “her life depends on it” report by the WSF discovered that 39% of girls who dropped out were prioritising academics while 46% of them saw no future for themselves. The lack of investment in support for girls has directly led to a lack of resources available to help girls deal with the pressures associated. This then leads to a larger drop out of girls as they cannot sustain an active lifestyle. This has also directly contributed to a lack of leadership of girls in the sporting industry as they fail to enter into the corridors of power.

Through the lack of participation girls are missing out on a number of opportunities which can be afforded to them as a result, both mentally and physically. According to the State of the Nation’s Teenage Girls and Sport quantitative report, 96% of females belonging to the C suite (higher positions such as CEOs) played sport at a young age. Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, was on the French synchronized swimming team and Hilary Clinton played Soccer and baseball at university level. Being physically active releases endorphins which help to improve focus and as such productivity contributing to a healthier lifestyle. It also teaches perseverance and grit which teaches girls to keep going even in the face of adversity.

Fortunately there has been an improvement in the outlook for women in sport as the movement begins to gain more traction. The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) have put women’s rugby front and centre of their recent strategic plan and the Irish Times have announced their Sportswoman of the Year Awards, which will both help to increase the visibility of women in sport. The Federation of Irish Sport has introduced its 20×20 platform which has three aims: increase media coverage, increase female participation and increase attendance with the motto: “if she can’t see it, then she can’t be it”. These will help to create a cultural shift in our perception of girls and women in sport. There is also an increase in sports role models such as Katie Taylor or Ellen Keane, the para-swimming European Champion. There is also the women’s hockey team which recently qualified for the Olympics. On a more international level, Mikaele Shiffrin is en route to become the best alpine ski racer in the world aged 23.

With this increased visibility and resources being invested in women’s sport, it is now an exciting time to be a girl in the sporting world. The traditional old guard which has monopolised the sporting world for years is disappearing, as can be seen with the new committee of the OFI and a new age of sport is occurring that is much more women focused.