This browser is not actively supported anymore. For the best passle experience, we strongly recommend you upgrade your browser.
Skip to main content
United Kingdom | EN-GB

Add a bookmark to get started

| 6 minutes read

Sexism and health inequalities in sport: a welcome step forward

The interest in women’s sport is growing exponentially, with the industry estimated to reach £1 billion in 2024[1]. Despite this, many women still face significant barriers to participation in sport. In March 2024, the UK’s Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) prepared a report ‘Health barriers for girls and women in sport’[2]the purpose of which was to highlight the inequality of support for, and lack of understanding of, the health and physiological needs of women and girls across sport (WEC Report). In what is a welcome step forward for women in sport, the UK Government[3] has accepted most of the recommendations set out in the WEC Report. 

The WEC Report

The WEC Report found that most of the research carried out into sports and exercise was overwhelmingly carried out by men, looking at issues which affect men. As such, the “sports science sector’s response to the ACL issue has been disparate and slow”. 

The WEC therefore made a series of recommendations to the Government, categorised into four key areas: (a) barriers to girls’ participation; (b) midlife and menopause; (c) sports and exercise research; (d) pregnancy and maternity. The WEC’s recommendations and the Government’s responses are summarised below. 

The Recommendations and the Government’s Response 

Barriers to girls’ participation

1. Recommendation: The Department for Education (DfE) must urgently review the quality and timeliness of education on girls’ health and physiology, including the effects of puberty, the menstrual cycle, and periods in the context of physical education (PE) and school sport. 

Response: The Government partially accepted the recommendation. Menstruation is taught as part of the statutory Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) curriculum and Ofsted inspectors discuss with schools whether they are teaching RSHE in line with statutory guidance. The DfE has no current plans to change the national curriculum for PE, but will conduct further work to review PE delivery to develop an understanding of how the PE national curriculum is being delivered and how it supports equal access and increased physical activity.

2. Recommendation: The DfE and National Physical Activity Taskforce should review guidance for schools on school PE kit, with the aim of ensuring all schools permit the widest possible choice for girls. 

Response: The Government accepted this recommendation. 

3. Recommendation: Sport England should launch a new strand of the “This Girl Can” campaign aimed at parents, tackling early years gender stereotypes around physical activity and sport. This should include a specific focus on the positive role fathers can play in encouraging girls in sport and exercise. Sport England should also work with the DfE to roll out the “Studio You” platform across all secondary schools and should further update its School Sport and Physical Activity Action Plan (SSAAP) to include measurable targets for closing the “enjoyment gap” in PE between boys and girls.

Response: The Government partially accepted the recommendation. The Government did not accept the proposal to update the SSAAP but confirmed that it was “committed to ensuring that all pupils have equal access to PE and sport and recognise that enjoyment is a key driver of participation.

4. Recommendation: Given the very distinctive issues for girls, and to ensure their needs are not overlooked, WEC recommended the Minister for Women and Equality Hub officials attend the National Physical Activity Taskforce, alongside organisations with data and expertise in this area, including Youth Sport Trust and The Well HQ. The Taskforce must consider as a priority the best available evidence, including from the Youth Sport Trust’s “Girls Active” survey series, on which to base interventions designed to address girls’ health and physiology-related barriers.

Response: The Government accepted this recommendation. 

Midlife and menopause

5. Recommendation: Sport England should prioritise another phase of the “This Girl Can” campaign focused on women in midlife, showing real life examples of women in the 40 to 60 year old age group participating in a wide range of sports and physical activities, to inspire others.

Response: The Government and Sport England accepted this recommendation. 

6. Recommendation: The Department for Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) should update its “Get Active” strategy for the future of sport and physical activity in relation to women in midlife. It should work with organisations including Women in Sport and The Well HQ to include an analysis of the key barriers faced by women in this age group, measurable targets to increase their levels of activity, and specifically tailored interventions.

Response: The Government accepted this recommendation. 

Sports and exercise research

7. Recommendation: The DCMS and Department for Education should establish a taskforce, including UK Sport, the UK Sports Institute, women’s health and fitness experts including The Well HQ, sport and exercise research institutes, and the UK divisions of leading sportswear and sporting goods brands, to develop a long-term strategy to tackle sportswomen’s health and physiology-related issues. The strategy should set out key priorities for research; actions to increase availability of suitable, female-specific sportswear and kit (and given the associations with discomfort and injury, football boots must be a priority); and steps to achieve equal representation of women, as authors and study participants, in the field of sports and exercise research.

Response: The Government accepted this recommendation. 

8. Recommendation: UK Sport, Sport England, UK Coaching, the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity and the national governing bodies should come together to convene a female health in coach education working group. It should draw on emerging best practice from programmes such as NETBALLHer to develop a strategy to better educate coaches at all levels in female health, including, where appropriate, through mandatory qualifications, alongside an action plan setting out how this will be achieved. 

Response: The Government accepted this recommendation. 

9. Recommendation: Swim England must restore trust in swimming’s coaching practices and culture, and Sport England must oversee the change process until this is achieved. 

Response: The Government accepted this recommendation.

10. Recommendation: Issues of bullying, harassment, abuse, and discrimination are not limited to swimming, with issues emerging across several sports in recent years. WEC welcomed the DCMS’s call for evidence on integrity in sport, which closed three months ago, and expect to see tangible actions as a result. In response to this Report, the DCMS should set out in detail: (i) insights from the call for evidence on integrity in sport; (ii) the proposed next steps in improving how concerns and grievances are dealt with in the sector; (iii) its evaluation of the effectiveness of the Sport Integrity pilot; and (iv) a timetable for further change in the sports sector. 

Response: The Government accepted this recommendation.

Pregnancy and maternity

11. Recommendation: DCMS, UK Sport, Sport England and the sports’ national governing bodies should establish a permanent working group on best practice in pregnancy and maternity policy, including maternity leave and pay and wider policies to support pregnant sportswomen and returning mothers. This working group must consider a road map to equal access to leave and funding/pay in line with statutory maternity rights, across all international sports.

Response: The Government partially accepted this recommendation as an individual’s employment rights are determined by their employment status, not the type of employment contract they have, or the type of work they do. Employment status is based on the nature of the relationship between an individual and the person for whom services are provided.

Could more be done? 

The Government’s responses to the WEC Report are in addition to its acceptance of similar recommendations made by the Government commissioned Independent Review of Women’s Football. In particular, the Government is investing in facilities, most recently with the £30 million Lionesses Futures Fund which focusses on supporting more opportunities for women and girls. It has also committed to over £600m investment across the 2023/24 and 2024/25 academic years to improve the quality of PE and sports in primary schools to help all children benefit from regular physical activity. 

Notwithstanding this investment, the Chair of the WEC, Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP commented that the WEC is “concerned there is insufficient specific focus on health issues in new developments like the National Physical Activity Taskforce and the Board for Women’s Sport”. Her view was that Ministers need to go further on issues such as reviewing and acting on the quality and timeliness of education on girls’ health and physiology, including the effects of puberty, the menstrual cycle, and periods in the context of PE and school sport”. The Chair also highlighted the disappointment that the Government was not taking faster action “on the issue of maternity pay and leave and wider policies to support pregnant sportswomen and returning mothers”. 

In addition, issues of abuse and harassment in sport remain a significant concern. Whilst the Committee and the Government have pledged to keep a close eye on the progress made by the Sport Integrity service and its effectiveness, these issues have been prevalent for decades and sporting bodies and organisations have been pushing for an independent regulator such as a Sports Ombudsman or a Sports Duty of Care Quality Commission to ensure that there is adequate safeguarding and duty of care for everyone involved in sport. Therefore, it is arguable that the Report and the Government should have pushed harder on this front, or at the very least ensured that organisations are embracing and implementing safeguarding policies and training. 

It would also have been helpful for the Government to consider establishing clear targets to increase representation in female leadership in sporting governing bodies as a means of achieving good governance. 

Therefore, whilst the Government’s response has been positive, there is undoubtedly more to be done to ensure parity between the sexes when it comes to health and psychological needs in the sporting community.  




[3]Health barriers for women and girls in sport: Government Response to the Committee's Third Report ( 



sport, women in sport