“You can’t play football, you’re a girl.”

Guest blog post by By Natalie Jackson, Co-Founder of Totally Runable and all-round fan of empowering girls to be who they want to be. 

I first met Nat a couple of months ago and we immediately hit it off when realising we both had a a passion for empowering our next generation of children. Have a read of what Nat has to say about girls and sport and why she and former Olympian, Emily Freeman, joined forces to co-found Totally Runable which is a Yorkshire-based girls-only holiday club and school course provider. It makes for some tough reading when you see the statistics.

“You can’t play football, you’re a girl.”

In a class of 25 ten and eleven-year old boys we ran a lesson with earlier this week, only 2 didn’t admit to having used those words. How many adults might think the same, even if they wouldn’t say it?

girl playing football

To be fair, it’s very easily said. And, as with anything we grow up hearing, it is all too easy for it to become part of our vocabulary and part of our everyday assumptions about the world around us. If you wouldn’t say that, think for a moment about your own assumptions about what boys and girls do or don’t do, by virtue entirely of their gender. If you are comfortable with girls and football, are you as comfortable with boys and dance? Are there certain sports you’d be more comfortable with your own children taking part in than others? The science about differences between boys and girls and men and women based on their gender simply doesn’t support a theory of pure and inherent gender-based differences. Yes, people are different. Any given girl and boy might have very different personalities, but equally so might any given girl and girl, or boy and boy. We are all, to some extent, a product of our environment, and the environment we grew up in. The trouble is we (as a society) keep making assumptions based on gender alone, and that’s really limiting for us all.

I co-founded a company called Totally Runable with Olympian and former UK Number 1 Sprinter Emily Freeman. We do a lot of work in schools, particularly with girls, using running as the tool to build confidence in sport, exercise and life. In the schools we work in, more often than not, it is boys (and football!) dominating playground activity, but this isn’t surprising when you think about our lives as adults and the focus we put on male and female sport and physical activity. In 2014 the “No More Page 3” Campaign looked at pictures of men and women in the Sun Newspaper and in 6 months were unable to find one photograph of a woman playing sport. Stats for female sports coverage since then are equally depressing, with figures like 10% quoted for the percentage of TV coverage time given to female sport. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve come a long way. The Women’s Football Show is a thing now, which is awesome. But it’s a thing that happens around midnight on a Sunday evening, hardly prime time viewing. In a country with top 3 teams in the world in Football, Hockey, Rugby and Cricket in the last year it seems crazy that we don’t see more of those teams on TV. And even crazier that some people reading this might not have known how well our female sports teams are performing until they read that last sentence.

team gb hockey team

The issue with all of this is that “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it” – or at least it is a lot easier to be it if you have strong role models with whom you identify, and the belief that what you’d like to do is possible, encouraged even – for girls and sport right now I’d take it simply not being discouraged. That would be a starting point.

From our own research, although 80-90% of girls and boys at every age group from 7 to 11 will identify as being either “quite sporty” or “very sporty”, girls will more commonly say that they are “quite sporty” and boys “very sporty”. Girls at age 7 are 22% less likely to identify as “very sporty” than boys of the same age. Physically, girls and boys are equally as strong until the age of 12. Girls tend to go through a growth spurt slightly ahead of boys and so at age 10-11 girls might even be more physically mature than boys. But would you think of the average 10-year old girl as more “sporty” than the average 10 year-old boy? Probably not.

There are clearly stereotypes on both sides, and of course the stereotypical limitations we place on boys should not be underestimated either. If our work with girls and boys around their attitudes towards sport has taught us anything it is that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and definitely shouldn’t judge a child by their gender. The more we pigeon-hole children into gender, whether by referring to them as “girls” or “boys” when asking them to do things, or by justifying things using gender (“boys don’t play with dolls” or “girls don’t like to get muddy”) the more we are allowing their gender to define what they feel they should and shouldn’t do. This defines what they do and don’t do and ultimately what they can and can’t do. The more we tell them who they are allowed to be, the more we are limiting the people they become.

We run holiday clubs for girls age 7-11 mixing running based physical fun with mindset challenges. Each has a theme running through the 3-day club aimed at inspiring and empowering girls to be who they want to be. “Running Like A Girl” is all about stereotypes and not judging others and helps girls to identify stereotypes for what they are. “My Personal Best” is all about believing we can improve at anything if we try our best. “Running My Own Race” is about controlling the controllables and not worrying about what other people are doing. “Being Brave” is about just that! We’re all about having positive, empowering discussions with girls and sending them the message that they really can be who they want to be. But it’s a minefield, and as they say “it takes a village” to raise a child – so the messages they receive at school and at home are equally as important.

Clothes limit who girls and boys can be expertly. The average “girls” aisle of clothing shops consists of unicorns, cupcakes and the colour pink. For boys it’s all about army camouflage, adventures and causing trouble. What message is this sending to girls and boys about gender, and how to “get it right”?

What I love about We Are Scamp is that they do the opposite – their clothing and accessories are bright, fun, but most of all empowering – allowing children to be “fierce”, “brave” and “strong” irrespective of their gender. We all have things we think we can’t do. Some of those might be true… but what if we were limited by beliefs that started out as expectations of us based on something as silly as our gender. For me, the more people out there talking about what we (and our children!) are capable of, rather than the things that limit us, the better. And We Are Scamp are a brave, strong and fierce example.

Natalie Jackson is Director and Co-Founder of Totally Runable, based in Yorkshire. For more of her thoughts go to www.totallyrunable.com/news.

To hear more about Totally Runable go to www.totallyrunable.com or find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/totallyrunable and Twitter at www.twitter.com/totallyrunable

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