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Allison Sandmeyer-Graves discusses the latest research about girls in sport

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Canadian Women & Sport, an organization dedicated to building an inclusive and equitable environment for girls and women in sport, recently released the 2022 Rally Report.

The report highlighted the Canadian sports system is ill-equipped to handle the unsafe conditions in girls’ sports, and the lack of necessary training and education needed to see girls thrive in sports.

The Shift recently spoke to Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, the CEO of Canadian Women & Sport, about the key findings from the report and how the organization is helping combat those issues.

Hi Allison, thanks so much for doing this with me. What is your role as the CEO of Canadian Women & Sport and what does that entail?
Allison Sandmeyer-Graves:
My role is CEO, so Chief Executive Officer, at Canadian Women & Sport. I work with the board of directors to set up the strategy for our organization. Our mandate is to advance equity and inclusion for women and girls across the sport system from playground to podium. Then I work with our team, to bring that strategy to life. One of my favourite things to do is to talk about the latest research and the calls to action, what we heard from the girls and their parents [in our survey] and what we should be doing now

Yeah, like you mentioned, the 2022 Rally Report was released in partnership with Jumpstart. There’s so much interesting data and insight from it. A few things stuck out to me that I want to ask about, the first being that 50 percent of girls are not participating in sport by the time they reach adolescence. Why do you think that is?

Sandmeyer-Graves: It is a really troubling stat, especially for those who know what sport does for all kids, but especially when you consider the power that sport holds for women and girls to help them have the confidence, leadership skills and connections, to thrive in their education and well beyond in their careers. The world needs more women leading, and sport is a fantastic platform for that.

So why are we losing so many girls from sport? Unfortunately, of those who are playing through adolescence, the dropout rate continues, and one in three girls are saying they’re not sure if they’re going to keep playing through to adulthood. So what's going on? 

Research shows us that when kids are younger, [boys and girls] play very similarly. They have a similar sense of physical literacy and other things that enable them to show up and have a good time and feel motivated to play. Then a gap starts to form, and girls, by the time they’re in their teen years, are really talking about struggles with body image. They’re talking about struggles with their confidence and their skill. They’re talking about injury and safety. 

We also know that there are challenges with access to sport. Girls in many cases, and many communities, have less access to sport opportunities and choice of sport opportunities than boys do. Parents and girls talked a lot about the quality of sport not meeting their expectations. Girls [told] us that they do have unique needs and interests, for instance, around body image, confidence and skill, and they don’t feel like sport matches what they need in order to keep them engaged.

Obviously, you mentioned that sport is important for young girls, how important is it in the future of their lives?

Sandmeyer-Graves: We talked to girls and their parents, and they expressed a ton of value for sport. They recognize the physical benefits of sport. They talked a lot about the mental health benefits of sport. They talked about community, social connection, and all the benefits. They get it. So it is really troubling that so many of them are ultimately finding other places to be, especially in those teen years where if they don’t keep playing, they’re not going to get that lifelong habit of being active and they’ll lose out on other things. 

Research shows that kids who play sport tend to have better educational attainment. It assists them with their careers. 94 percent of global C-suite women executives played sport at some point. So there are many benefits and I think what’s really key is, in those teen years, making sure that sport is really delivering every day for girls. They have so many choices for where to spend their time, so sport has to show up.

Another interesting stat to me was that 56 percent of girls aged 13 to 18 cite a lack of quality experience as a barrier to sport participation. Reading that reminded me of another stat I saw in relation to the job market where it said men apply for jobs or promotions when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet one hundred percent of them. It’s interesting that in sport as well, girls feel like they have to be overqualified to participate. So while that’s a societal issue, I’m wondering is there anything that your organization is doing to help combat that issue?

Sandmeyer-Graves: I think there are a few different levels where we can affect change. One is that we know boys get more messages reinforcing the value of sport for them specifically than girls do. When you consider that we’re still hovering around the four percent mark for women in sports media on our screens and in our papers compared to 96 percent celebrating men playing sport, there’s a real imbalance in the messages that kids are getting. Girls are bombarded by a lot of other messages that fixate more on what their bodies look like rather than what their bodies can do. So really working with the media to get more coverage of women’s sports, and more quality coverage of women’s sports as well is definitely one of the things that we’re working on.

But then right at the program level, working with the coaches. There’s great coach education in our country. A lot of it, however, is based on a male model of sport through a male worldview. What girls tell us is that what they’re looking for in sport can look different than what boys do. They still want fun, and they want skill mastery, but girls are socialized differently than boys. They need more social connections in order to feel confident enough to perform. Boys get social connections by performing in sport.

Coaches who get training on how to coach girls specifically tell us there’s a huge difference in their effectiveness as opposed to trying to apply a general model to girls. So training and education are key parts of it as well.

Another barrier was obviously safety and that concern has increased by about 10 percent since 2020. Obviously so much has happened since 2020. The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, the high-profile killing of Black people, both young and older, and the rise in anti-Semitism right now due to high-profile celebrities and athletes. Is there anything that can be done to make sports spaces safer and more inclusive for girls?

Sandmeyer-Graves: I think it’s a really important conversation to be having right now. Obviously, this report lands in the context of some really significant conversations about safety in sport. It’s critical that we’re having those conversations because this has already existed. It’s just that we weren't talking about it. We can’t create change without having these sorts of critical conversations.

I think there’s a risk of associating unsafe sport or safety in sport only with abuse, and really egregious abuse in sport. While that is absolutely part of it and needs to be addressed, there is really a spectrum that we’re talking about. It has to do with addressing racism, misogyny, sexism and other forms of discrimination that create really unsafe environments for different people in our sports system. Girls are saying we expect more, we need more from the people designing and delivering sport for us so that it is truly safe for everybody to participate. If it’s not safe, people will opt out and then we’re leaving those who might need and value sport the most on the sidelines.

The last thing from the report that I wanted to touch upon is that girls want more representation from women in sport at all levels. They want more women in leadership roles, they want role models, they want to see more women’s sports content on TV and online. We’ve heard the saying “representation matters,” but how does hearing from young girls change your perspective on how important representation truly is to them?

Sandmeyer-Graves: There’s so much value in listening to the girls. We can often make a lot of assumptions about them not playing because they’re just not interested and they’re choosing all of these other things. That choice gets made for them in a lot of respects by not creating safe, welcoming, and inclusive [sport] environments. 

Representation absolutely matters and I’ll touch on a few things. One is representation at the decision-making tables. Unfortunately, the perspectives and needs of girls and women have been so absent from those tables for so long. Obviously, great progress is happening recently, but we need women and girls to be considered in that moment. If we’re considering them after that, it’s almost too late. 

I should also say representation on the sidelines. Coaches, umpires or referees, having women in those positions of authority to directly influence the experiences of girls and boys, can go a long way to creating environments that are much more inclusive for girls and for all people. 

Then, representation on our screens matters too. The amount of media coverage and analysis that go into covering sport really communicates what we value and respect as a society. All the things that we love to see with men’s sport, if we can have more of that from women’s sport, it's going to send very powerful messages to girls that in sport, you are valued and you are respected. That can go a long way to keeping girls in the game so that they get all of those benefits and then they become our next leaders in sport.

Lastly, do you want to touch upon the four calls to action from this report?

Sandmeyer-Graves: If I were to summarize them, I would say education and investment. We want to see a higher level of commitment from the sport organizations to make this a priority at the board level and to have the education and training to make those informed choices. [We want] to have that education flowing throughout the organization to the sidelines of the play so that everybody has the tools that they need to recognize and combat gender bias, and to put girls at the center of the decisions.

When you’re changing a system this large and in such a substantial way, all of that requires money. We know that having new investments will be an important driver of change and we’d like to see that investment be more long-term. Having government investment and sponsors come in as partners in the process of change and create those long-term funding opportunities for organizations will make a big difference. That’s what we would love to see coming out of this report.