When it comes to sports and physical activity, girls and women often find themselves on the sidelines, both literally and figuratively.
One only needs to look at a typical playground to see the divide between boys and girls. Often, the largest space is dedicated to a football field, which is predominantly used by boys while girls are relegated to the sidelines. This discourages girls from participating in physical activity and perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes.
These patterns persist into adulthood, largely due to the way urban environments are organized. Women are often less involved in sports, particularly those that are considered to be traditionally “male sports”, such as football, rugby, and weightlifting. This has a range of negative effects, from limiting women's opportunities to lead active and healthy lifestyles to perpetuating gender inequalities more broadly.
This calls for a change in public places to allow women to fit in.
This article presents the efforts led to create inclusive public spaces for girls and women in relation to sports. This means more than just providing access to facilities and resources; it means designing environments that are safe, welcoming and accommodating for all.
1. Tackling the issue from the (play)ground
According to Charlotte Groppo, Vice President of the National Committee for United Nations Women France, “the first vector of stereotypes is education and the choice of sports and leisure activities from an early age.”
This analysis reflects in the statistics. The drop in female participation in sports begins with habits formed on the playground and intensifies during adolescence. In France, only 20% of girls between the ages of 11 and 14 meet the World Health Organization's recommendation of 60 minutes of daily physical activity (compared to 34% of boys), and a third of middle school girls no longer participate in any sports at age 9.
School playgrounds participate in gendering leisure spaces as they serve as a place to learn norms and gender roles. The report from the High Council for Gender Equality on the training for gender equality, published in 2017, highlights girls often use the margins of the playground, and their games involve little mobility, while boys position themselves in the center, occupying most of the space. The sociologist Edith Maruéjouls describes a highly gendered “geography of the playground”: girls jump rope or chat in corners and occupy little space, while boys dominate the playground with mobile and noisy games (football, playing war, etc.).
According to sociologist Edith Maruéjouls, the best approach to remedy this situation is to avoid prescribing specific activities, such as soccer, which can create a sense of exclusivity. Instead, playgrounds should be designed to be flexible and adaptable, allowing each individual to make use of the space in their own way.
In France, there has been a growing movement to improve the design and function of playgrounds and school environments to promote gender equality in sports. Some schools have taken steps to redesign their playgrounds to encourage girls and boys to interact more and to avoid situations where girls feel excluded. For instance, at the Michel-de-Montagne school, in Trappes, the central soccer field was replaced by synthetic turf and more mixed games.
That said, playgrounds are not the only vector of inequality: urban planning extends and reinforces the habits and behaviors formed in the schoolyard.
2. Gender and Urban Planning
2.1. Understanding the challenges and opportunities in creating gender-sensitive sports environments
To date, urban orgaization perpetuates the prejudice and norms set on the playgrounds. According to Charlotte Groppo, 75% of city budgets in France are spent on facilities that are mostly used by men, women are in the minority among users of these facilities. The 2023 report on women and public spaces by Hubertine Auclert Center clarifies that while facilities for free sports practice (skate parks, city stadiums, etc.) are open to all, “numerous studies have shown that they are in reality largely frequented by young men, with estimates of the male user rate ranging from 85 to 100%.”. Thus, “there is no gender mix in these spaces, and girls are effectively excluded from them.”
However, urban planning can play a crucial role in promoting gender equality in sports by considering the needs and perspectives of women when designing public spaces. To create gender-sensitive sports environments in urban areas:
- Charlotte Groppo suggests rethinking the budget through a gender lens to achieve equality and balance expenditures,
- The authors of the 2023 report claim women's presence in public spaces can be facilitated not only through gender-sensitive urban planning but also through political actions that make them feel more legitimate in occupying space.
Some cities have started tackling this issue.
2.2. Innovative programs to promote women's sports participation in urban Areas
2.2.1 Urban planning with a gender perspective in Barcelona
The Barcelona city government is integrating a gender perspective into all urban planning policies to achieve a fairer, more equal, safer city. This includes considering small details such as bench placement and zebra crossings, as well as larger projects like neighborhood renovations.
The strategy recognizes the role of women in the public sphere and promotes the universalization of care values, applying them to the city's ecosystem (people, society and nature). It also provides “Feminist Methodological Notebooks” to conduct safety audits from a gender perspective.
2.2.2 “One Win Leads to Another” Program
For the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, UN Women implemented a program called “One Win Leads to Another”. The program aimed at encouraging adolescent girls from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in sports in one of the 16 participating Olympic villages. Twice a week, girls from Rio were invited to participate in sports and attend workshops on gender-related issues. This had a significant impact, with 89% of the girls who took part in the program considering themselves leaders compared to 46% before the program was implemented.
Sport is an excellent way to combat the self-esteem issues that young girls face during adolescence. This program also provided an opportunity to discuss other topics, deconstructing stereotypes around sport and gender. For example, the issue of violence against women was addressed and following the program, 68% of the girls had a better understanding of gender-based violence and 93% knew who to contact to report violence.
In France, a tweet proposing “non-gendered” cycle lanes by Lyon’s City vice-mayor Fabien Bagnon sparked controversy. Bagnon later regretted the controversy around the use of the term “non-gendered” and clarified he intended to create an infrastructure suitable for everyone, with women being considered in the Lyon lanes.
According to a 2018 CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) study in Bordeaux, using a gender approach to the design of cycle lanes is necessary:
- Women use bicycles more in the late afternoon, while men are more numerous during leisure hours (mornings, evenings, Sunday afternoon). The gender gap widens at night and in rainy weather: 78% of cyclists are men. The percentage of men never falls below 56% of cyclists, all locations, times and observation days combined,
- Women cyclists also have specific requests as they “recommend separate and well-lit cycle lanes, racks and bike garages at home, school, and work, signage, and financial support for electric bicycles.”
Wishing for accessible paths for everyone requires making them safer as well. A study published in mid-May in the American scientific journal “Cities” confirmed that the number of female cyclists increased by 4 to 6% on roads where secure arrangements were made.
2.2.4 “The Ridiculous Run” campaign
Adidas launched “The Ridiculous Run” campaign – in which participated Lucie Agras (whose portrait is presented in details in another article) – to illustrate the lack of security women face while running in the city. The video displays female joggers accompanied by a team of bodyguards who stay by their side both on foot and in various vehicles such as cars, motorcycles, horses, and quads.
The campaign was inspired by a poll commissioned by Adidas with the White Ribbon association where 92% of women reported they did not feel safe while running, with 38% having experienced physical or verbal harassment.
This project was made to drive awareness on the efforts women must put into force to exercise freely in the public space every time they go on a run (running with one earphone in, bringing an alert whistle, wearing loose clothing, notifying friends and family before and after a run) and “encourage men to educate themselves on the issue and learn more about allyship”.
By designing school playgrounds public spaces that are safe, accessible, and inclusive for girls and women, we can create more opportunities for them to participate in sports and improve their health and well-being. As cities continue to grow and evolve, it is important to prioritize gender equity in urban planning and design to ensure that everyone has access to the benefits of sports and physical activity.
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