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| 6 minutes read

Women are not small men: what are retailers and manufacturers doing to support the evolution of women’s sport-focused technology and kit?

Whilst technology and science are increasingly utilised to optimise the performance, safety, comfort and fit of sports equipment and kit, retailers and manufacturers remain predominantly focussed on male athletes. Female athletes are often treated as an afterthought and expected to perform with kit, boots and equipment built for men. This has, at best, caused mild discomfort and, at worst, increased susceptibility to serious injury.[1]

The Women’s World Cup kicked off recently with many of the game’s biggest stars absent due to anterior cruciate ligament (“ACL”) injuries. The eye raising number of high-profile absentees calls into question the need for more technology and kit tailored to women’s needs and body shape.

This article emphasises that women are not small men and analyses what manufacturers are doing to help support the evolution of women’s-sport technology and kit.

Football boots

Traditionally, all football boots are based on a generic male foot. The female foot is fundamentally different to the male foot. Female athlete’s pressure load and land in a different way, their foot arches are higher, their heels are shaped differently, and the widest part of their foot is in a different place.

Following a recent survey conducted for the European Clubs Association (“ECA”), athletes and sports scientists have called for a revolution of the female boot. Speaking with 350 female club footballers across Europe, the ECA found that:

  • 82% felt discomfort on a regular basis which could affect their performance;
  • 34% felt discomfort specifically in their heel; and
  • 40% did not feel the current football boot market offers good injury prevention.[2] 

Wearing boots designed for the male form and biomechanics is not only inefficient and impractical, but unsafe. Research has linked issues relating to Achilles tendons and metatarsal stress fractures, amongst other injuries, to incorrect footwear. In a study published in the Sports Engineering Journal, injured England Captain Leah Williamson alluded to the link between the prevalence of ACL injuries and female boots being designed for men.[3] 

Responding to the feedback from athletes and sports scientists, a well-known brand has spent more than two years researching, trialling, and designing a boot fine-tuned to the needs of female footballers. The boot is anatomically designed with a lower cuff to accommodate the female ankle, while the higher collar provides increased lockdown to reduce rotational traction at the knee, thereby reducing the risk of ACL injuries. The boot is available in a range of arch heights and the design attempts to combat Achilles irritation to reduce break-in time during fast-paced matches. It also has a new and innovative circular stud pattern which will allow players to move more freely with agility, precision, and security on the pitch. [4]

Sports equipment

Following debate amongst female rugby players and coaches regarding modifying the official World Rugby ball specifications for the women’s game, a smaller ball will be trialled as part of a number of initiatives to “enhance player and fan experience”. This comes after suggestions that reducing ball size from a size five to size four will improve handling skills and increase attacking play, helping to improve the game and create a better spectacle.[5] Former England player Danielle Waterman commented: "Personally my handling was significantly better with a size four because I could hold it with one hand, and therefore had the ability to offload with confidence. I couldn't do this with a size five unless in two hands, because I couldn't grip it properly".[6] Such debate is not unique to rugby. Female footballers are similarly calling for ball specifications to be modified for the women’s game.  

Sports equipment has also notably been adapted for female athletes in both cycling and boxing. In cycling, saddle companies have started from scratch to meet the needs of female cyclists and replace bikes based on the default male which were previously causing saddle sores. In boxing, the male groin guard has been replaced by a “sleek, pelvic guard, specifically for women”. This comes after findings that female boxers who had undergone ultrasounds after sparring had found inflammation on their ovaries.


Women’s dress codes in sport have often been determined by traditions which are both outdated and gendered. Whilst progression has been made in recent years, there are clear gaps in the research and production of kit for female athletes, despite demands of those playing and working in the women’s game increasing.


Female athletes continue to perform in kit that has not been designed according to their desires and kit requirements. Women’s football shorts are short and perceived by some players to be exposing and sexualising them as compared to their male counterparts. Female footballers have also voiced concerns that the choice of white shorts to match their male teammates creates anxiety in relation to their menstrual cycles. Players often ask staff to keep an eye on their shorts when playing in light colours and some have even said that they have struggled to focus during matches due to concerns about exposing themselves on television with visible blood stains on their shorts.[7]

The Lionesses are notably wearing dark shorts for both their home and away kits at the World Cup, after discussion between the players, the FA and kit supplier. The dark shorts also consist of an ultrathin absorbent and ‘leak protection’ liner that is built into the shorts so that players can bleed more comfortably and discreetly during a match.[8] This is a move that mirrors other sports, such as tennis and rugby, to introduce non-white clothing.


Inappropriate and ill-fitted kit is a reason commonly cited by women for dropping out of sports and has been linked to the significant drop-off of sports participation amongst female adolescents. 

Speaking to concerns regarding barriers to entry and participation in netball, female netball players and coaches have suggested that the dresses and skirts traditionally worn by netballers and the rigid rules around them have deterred women and girls from the game. Considering this, Netball Australia has recently released an updated uniform policy that will cater for all participants and recognise the various individual preferences and religious beliefs of all netballers. Glenn Turnor, Netball Australia's executive general manager for strategy, government and community, said: "We are excited to implement these inclusive uniform guidelines going into 2023 and ensure that everyone can feel comfortable playing netball." The changes to Netball Australia's uniform guidelines have been embraced by all eight of the governing body's member organisations and some believe they are already seeing the impact of those options for participants at grassroots level.[9]

Sports bras

According to research carried out by Portsmouth University: 

  • 75% of British elite female athletes from Olympic and Paralympic sports had never had a sports bra fitted;
  • 26% of British elite female athletes reported that breast pain affected their ability to ‘give their all’ in training or competition; and
  • 46% of schoolgirls reported their breasts affected their participation in sports.

An ill-fitted sport bra can make exercise feel harder, impact breathing, onset fatigue through increasing muscle activity in the upper body, increase ground reaction forces and reduce stride length by up to 4 cm. This is particularly concerning given that many athletes are required to wear branded sports bras by the kit sponsors, which can negatively impact the fit, support, and comfort of the bra.

Athletes and sports scientists have pointed to the increased use of technology and science in sportswear and called for such technology to be applied to sports bras. This approach was successfully adopted at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, where several Team GB athletes across a range of different sports were provided with bespoke bras to address their specific breast issues. Similarly, in combat sports such as boxing, breast impact protection and is just one area where the sport is continuing to explore ways to better protect female athletes.

Concluding thoughts

Female athletes are increasingly challenging the lack of development in sports technology and equipment. Whilst there has been a shift towards women-specific products, these changes are slow and limited by the lack of existing research. To prevent injury and optimise performance and engagement in women’s sport, manufacturers and sporting bodies must concentrate efforts into researching and designing equipment and kit that reflects the desires, anatomy, and biomechanics of a female athlete. This call is not only to focus on women in sport today but the future generations of young girls starting out in sports.

[1] New women’s football boots – a big step forward or a marketing ploy? | Sport | The Guardian

[2] 82% of top European female footballers report issues with their boots (

[3] Ten questions in sports engineering: technology in elite women’s football | SpringerLink

[4] Female football boots could be revolutionised after findings reveals 82 per cent of players suffer regular discomfort | Football News | Sky Sports

[5] Smaller ball to be trialled in women’s rugby (

[6] Smaller ball to be trialled in women’s rugby (

[7] FA to consider white shorts U-turn after England's women raise period fears (

[8] Nike introduces anti-period leak shorts for athletes - Bizwomen (

[9] 'Netball is ever-evolving' - Australia embraces inclusive uniform choices | Netball News | Sky Sports


women in sport, sport