Guest blog – Levelling the Playing Field: young women’s relationship with sport and physical activity

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In this guest blog, we hear about the work of the Young Women Lead Committee and their recent inquiry into barriers to participation in sport and physical activity. As with all our guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author, and not those of SPICe or the Scottish Parliament.

About the Young Women Lead Committee

The Young Women Lead Committee is a committee of 30 young women between ages 14 and 30 who live in Scotland. The Committee is part of Young Women Lead (YWL), a leadership programme which focuses on increasing political participation. Launched in 2017, the programme creates model committee sessions held in the Scottish Parliament.

The programme aims to support and empower participants to feel confident and comfortable representing the Young Women’s Movement in giving oral or written evidence to a Scottish Parliament Committee, on issues affecting their lives. The idea being for young women to become more visible and greater participants in parliamentary business, whilst gaining skills to enhance their employability, political engagement and voter engagement.


YWL Committee at the table

This year, our aim was:

To explore the relationship young women have with sport and physical activity, with particular regard to issues that might prevent participation.

We chose this topic because of the Scottish Parliament’s existing work and personal experiences of Members of the Committee. Focusing on young women’s relationship with sport and physical activity is important to us, not only because of its physical benefits but because women face socio-economic barriers for participation at a young age. As our report was due to launch during the Women’s World Cup, we thought it would be timely too!

YWL members attending the Scotland-Jamaica pre-Women’s World Cup friendly at Hampden

Setting the goalposts

To kickstart our work, we divided the topic into four strands:

  • Socio-economic, protected characteristics, and intersectionality.
  • Provision in schools and how that influences attitude.
  • Societal pressures and external influences.
  • Examples of good practice.

In conducting our research, we looked at existing work and reached out to experts, practitioners, and the general public with the aim of being as representative as possible. This included understanding the value of role models, how puberty and social media affects young women’s perceptions of themselves, the impact of pregnancy and maternity, and socioeconomic status and protected characteristics.

Hitting the ball out of the park: our research methods

With four meetings in total, the YWL Committee took evidence from experts, created a questionnaire, held focus groups, discussed our findings with the Committee, and engaged with UN Women.

The YWL Committee during a meeting.

Game, set, match!: our findings

Some of our key findings were:

  • The proportion of respondents to our survey who stated that they enjoyed Physical Education (PE) declined from 83% to 54% between primary and secondary education.
  • The inflexibility of PE, physical changes, and lack of education on issues surrounding puberty negatively affected young women’s relationship with sport.
  • 36% of respondents who did not partake in sports outwith school stated that this was due to body confidence issues.
  • 81% of respondents told us family income and disposable money negatively impacted their relationship with sport.
  • Evidence from experts indicated that role-models in sports should be active across diverse areas of the sporting industry and represent a broad spectrum of abilities. This was reflected in our Instagram poll on who young women considered their sporting role models to be; eight respondents mentioned well known athletes and 14 spoke of people they know, such as their mum, sisters, and coaches.

Respondents to our survey also told us about negative experiences of PE in school. For example:

“sports became segregated. Boys would go outside to play football and rugby while girls would play netball and rounders. Day in, day out, it was and still is exceptionally sexist.”


“[I] hated being in class with boys. They would make fun of girls and start at our breasts and bums.”


“I have very, very low confidence when it comes to my body and it got even worse as I got older and so I hate getting changed or running in front of people.”

While the evidence and responses collected reflects bad experiences associated with sport and physical activity, we also heard from organisations that encourage, create, and promote positive relationships with sport:

  • From our evidence, we found that by creating a well-rounded approach to PE which emphasises wellness, fun, and healthy diet, the experiences which follow young women from school will be positive.
  • By changing the white shirts pupils wore for PE to be a different colour that is not see-through, participation increased.
  • Shifting the focus from the technicalities of sport to learning about how to work as a team encourages children to get involved and makes physical activity more inclusive.
  • Educating parents and teachers on the changes and challenges young women face can also improve their participation in sport.

Extra-time: our recommendations to the Scottish Government

Some of our recommendations include:

  • More guidance for schools in involving young women and girls in the development of PE classes.
  • Partnerships with youth organisations to co-design an information portal with, and for, young women to support them on issues relating to health, puberty, body changes, and sport or physical activity.
  • Working to improve changing facilities to increase privacy, PE kit options, and opportunities for inclusive, women-only classes.
  • Support and monitor sportscotland to fund and deliver non-competitive, community-based sports programmes for women.
  • Extra training and guidance for teachers to equip them to deal with the additional barriers and sensitivities around protected characteristics of young women and their relationship with sport.
The YWL report launch and farewell! (Photo by SPCB)

Post-match interviews: 

Below are a few testimonies from members of the Young Women Lead 2018/19 Programme.

Beccie White

“It was amazing to be a part of this committee. As well as finding more about women’s relationship with sport, I also learnt a lot more about the Parliament Committee process, something I previously had very little knowledge of. Many of our findings aren’t positive, but a massive positive thing we weren’t expecting to find was how many young women had positive female sport role models. Many young women’s role models weren’t famous athletes, but rather their mum or other family member, a friend or a coach. I think it’s really important that these positive role models are present in their lives. It was interesting to see how some young women preferred looking up to someone they knew, instead of a famous athlete.

I hope that our recommendations are taken on board and we can improve women’s relationship with sport and physical exercise.”

Janis Wong

“Although our time on the Young Women Lead Committee was short, it was a great experience to have met, worked with, and shared personal stories with a group of intelligent, dynamic, and inspiring young women. It was wonderful to work with Scottish Parliament’s Deputy Presiding Officer Linda Fabiani MSP as our convener, who was extremely supportive of our work. Overall, I learnt a lot about the parliamentary process and how we can reach out to others to produce change from within politics. I look forward to seeing how Scottish Parliament takes our work further. I will definitely be continuing my engagement with Scottish Parliament and am excited about I can make a positive impact to politics!”

To find out more, our full report is available on the Scottish Parliament website.


You can also watch our Committee evidence sessions on the Scottish Parliament’s YouTube channel.

Janis Wong, Young Women Lead Committee