Sex, gender and inclusivity in sport: Senedd briefing

At the end of November we held a briefing event at the Senedd in partnership with Fair Play for Women. The private event was sponsored by Laura Anne Jones (thank you to Laura and her staff) and held under Chatham House rules in order to encourage open debate. We were absolutely delighted by the number of attendees, and particularly delighted that all political parties were represented, no doubt encouraged by our focus on finding ways to ensure that sports is truly accessible to all.

We heard from three expert speakers: rowing coach Jane Sullivan; Dr Jon Pike, Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association; and Fiona McAnena, Director of Sport at Fair Play for Women. The remainder of the session was given over to comments and questions from the attendees. They considered the particular barriers that women and girls face – cultural, social, biological, economic – and the need to balance fairness and safety alongside inclusion.

Jane Sullivan began by endorsing Sport Wales’ mission to create a more active healthier nation. She pointed out, however, that girls are dropping out of sport in secondary school and this has a lifelong impact. A Women in Sport study of 4,000 teenage girls and boys found that 43% of girls who used to be ‘sporty’ in primary school no longer feel that way by the age of 15 (compared with 24% of boys). And by the age of 17-18, when compulsory school sport ends, 55% of girls have disengaged with sport.

She spoke about just some of the many barriers faced by girls and young women.

  • Coping with periods. 70% of all girls are less active during their period for a range of physical and social reasons, including concerns about a leakage of blood.
  • Stress incontinence. This problem affects nearly 49% of girls under 19 taking part in elite sport. It is likely that all girls are impacted to some extent but, to date, no research has been undertaken on this issue.
  • Body image & clothing. 61% of girls feel judged when doing sport. For obvious reasons, therefore, girls who wear what they want are more likely to keep active.
  • Equipment. Girls are not mini-boys. Equipment needs to be designed for the female body; it seldom is.
  • Sexual harassment and abuse. Abuse by sports coaches is known (but often glossed over); the problem of peer-on-peer abuse must also be recognised and tackled if girls are to remain in sport.

Jane also offered some solutions to improving the experience of girls in sport. These included: single sex spaces; female coaches and support staff; support from parents to encourage girls in sport; an emphasis on enjoyment, friendship, and fun; more coverage of women’s sport in local and national media; mentoring schemes; and the use of ‘normal’ women in publicity campaigns. This Girl Can is a great example of the latter.

It was a sobering presentation. Girls and women are clearly facing an uphill struggle if they wish to participate in sports. If inclusion in sport is to mean anything, then female inclusion must surely be prioritised, just to get us to an equitable baseline.

Jon Pike’s focus was on the concept of ‘fairness’ and the implications of transgender males being included in women’s sport – at any level. His approach was both philosophical and ethical, underpinned by his own involvement in policy-making in this area. He argued that there are three criteria that must be considered by governing bodies – safety, fairness, and inclusion – in that order of priority.

Given the significant biological differences between the sexes – differences that remain regardless of testosterone reduction in males – Jon’s conclusion was that any ‘trade-off’ that favours male inclusion can only be at the expense of fairness and safety for women and girls, and that that is unacceptable. Further, at a policy level, prioritising male inclusion suggests that female sports, and by implication, women themselves, are second-rate.

The solution he proposes is for the female category to be retained as a protected sex category, and the male category to be opened up to all-comers (with appropriate age restrictions).

Following on from Jon’s presentation, Fiona McAnena drew our attention to the UK Sports Councils’ recently published guidance on transgender inclusion.

This is unequivocal:

As a result of what the review found, the Guidance concludes that the inclusion of transgender people into female sport cannot be balanced regarding transgender inclusion, fairness and safety in gender-affected sport where there is meaningful competition.

The Guidance makes it clear that you cannot allow people who’ve been through male puberty into female sport without compromising on the essential values of fairness and, in some sports, safety. Sports bodies have to choose.

Fiona provided examples from a range of sports showing how transgender inclusion in female sport leads directly to the exclusion (or self-exclusion) of women, whether due to past sexual trauma, fear of injury, feeling it’s unfair, or loss of privacy. Some sports bodies say it’s not a big problem – but they are not counting or asking, and females are often told not to report concerns. A schoolgirls’ football team were told they would be facing a trans girl – a biological male – but that they must not comment. University students were told they could be thrown out of university if they complained about trans-identifying males in an opposing team. An adult women’s team that voted to be female-only was thrown out of the local league. A breast cancer survivor who asked discreetly why there was a male in a female-only swimming session was told the person said they were a woman and that was the law (see FPFW’s website for more stories).

Fair Play for Women suggest that categories are the way to maximise inclusion (alongside fairness and safety). It’s how we make sure there’s a place for everyone. Only females should be eligible for female sport.  Letting males in, no matter their identity or their testosterone level, is not inclusive. It’s causing exclusion of females. Sport Wales have given us a clear steer with the Sports Council Equality Group guidance. Sports governing bodies need to be encouraged to say we need sport to be inclusive of everyone, but that cannot be at the expense of women and girls.

The presentations were followed by a lively Q&A and thoughtful discussion. We hope to expand on this conversation at a second Senedd sports event in the new year.

Thanks to all our speakers, and to attendees.

Please get in touch with us if you would like a copy of the post-event briefing sheet which includes all references via [email protected].