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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 28, 2023


Female Participation in Sport and Physical Activity

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-11455, in the name of Clare Haughey, on behalf of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, on female participation in sport and physical exercise. I invite members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as possible.

I call on Clare Haughey to speak to and move the motion. You have approximately 10 minutes, Ms Haughey.


Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

As convener of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, I am pleased to open this afternoon’s debate on female participation in sport and physical activity. On behalf of the committee, I thank everyone who engaged positively with our inquiry for their input and place on record the committee’s thanks to the clerks for their work.

I joined the committee as convener at a late stage in the inquiry, but I know that it was originally prompted by a key finding from the committee’s previous inquiry into the health and wellbeing of children and young people, which found a significant decline in the number of girls participating in sport and physical activity as they reached puberty. The current inquiry subsequently found evidence of a gender gap in the rates of participation that persists up to women in their early 40s.

We wanted to find out more about the reasons behind that worrying trend. The purpose was to identify key barriers to participation in sport and physical activity for females of all ages and to make recommendations for breaking down those barriers.

Teenage girls face particular barriers when taking part in sport and physical activity, both in and outside of school. A lack of understanding and awareness of menstrual health and negative attitudes among boys are important factors that contribute to the decline in girls’ participation from the age of adolescence. We need to improve learning and normalise discussions in school about the impact that menstruation can have on girls’ participation and to remove the stigma around managing periods. We must also do more to tackle misogynistic attitudes and foster mutual respect between boys and girls when they take part in sport and physical activity.

The committee heard about the positive impact that the active schools programme has had in broadening girls’ access to a wider range of sports and physical activities. However, the most recent full evaluation of active sports took place almost 10 years ago in 2014, and an updated evaluation of the programme is needed, with a particular focus on how it is helping girls to access the same range and quality of opportunities for sport and physical activity as boys.

Beyond school settings and teenage years, a lack of understanding, education and appropriate support creates barriers to the participation in sport and physical activity of women of all ages. It means that they lose out on the benefits of remaining physically active, with knock-on impacts on their long-term health.

Leadership is equally important in giving more women the confidence to be physically active. We need to do more to break down the barriers that prevent women from putting themselves forward for coaching, leadership and volunteering roles. That will create a virtuous circle in which the existence of more positive role models will encourage more women to participate at all levels. We also need to find solutions that will help to make it easier for women with childcare and other caring responsibilities to be able to participate regularly in sport and physical activity, including in leadership roles.

Sadly, the inquiry heard extensive evidence of girls and women being subjected to harassment and abuse while exercising. That is completely unacceptable. In sport and physical activity settings, we need to improve processes for receiving, handling and dealing with complaints to ensure that they are clear, transparent and easy to navigate. Too often, sport and active travel infrastructures and facilities are designed, constructed and maintained in a way that fails to take account of basic safety requirements for female users. Our report recommends encouraging the systematic use of feminist town planning to improve the safety of basic infrastructure, so that it is better suited to the needs of female participants.

Clare Haughey said that she thinks that some active travel infrastructure is not suitable for women. Can she explain that a bit more?

Clare Haughey

That is based on written evidence and evidence that the committee heard in its sessions. Simple things such as lighting in parks or on cycle paths would make them much safer places for women, and they would certainly feel safer there.

The Scottish Government’s commitment to doubling investment in sport and active living to £100 million per year over the current session of Parliament is welcome. However, a significant proportion of that funding needs to be targeted at increasing rates of female participation in sport and physical activity, particularly among those who face intersecting barriers to participation such as disability; ethnic, religious or socioeconomic background; or being from the LGBTQ+ community. On that subject, the committee heard evidence in support of greater use of equality impact assessments to ensure that sports infrastructure and facilities are designed to facilitate access for all.

Imagery and messaging aimed at encouraging greater participation in sport and physical activity should actively promote inclusion and diversity. We should be improving equalities education in schools to help overcome stigma and discrimination that might otherwise discourage girls who face intersecting barriers to their participation in sport and physical activity. Moreover, decision makers need to work together to identify and promote positive role models who properly reflect diversity and inclusion, and to pursue strategies aimed at recruiting a greater diversity of female applicants into coaching and leadership roles.

Although we have come a long way in recent years, there is still much further to go if elite female athletes are to achieve anything approaching parity with their male counterparts. The Scottish Government should consider setting up an independent women’s sport trust for Scotland, which could help grow revenue from women’s sports and reduce reliance on men’s sports for funding.

Women in elite sport need sustainable career pathways that enable them to pursue their sport while earning a sustainable income. The industry also needs to do more to produce clothing and equipment that meet the needs of women in elite sport.

In addition, there is a chronic lack of research into female physiology and the impact of menstruation and women’s health conditions on training and performance. Women in elite sport still lack appropriate support when it comes to decisions around pregnancy. It cannot be right that so many elite female athletes continue to be forced to make a choice between continuing their career and starting a family.

Sexism and abuse are on-going concerns. To address them, our report calls on the Scottish Government to consider setting up an independent body to tackle cases of misconduct and abuse in elite female sport. The media, too, has a crucial role to play in its promotion of women’s elite sport. There has been progress in that respect, but much remains to be done. Shockingly, the Scottish women and girls in sport advisory board’s 2019 report “Levelling the Playing Field” found that more than a fifth of online news articles relating to women’s sport included sexualised reporting and images. That has a hugely damaging impact on self-confidence and self-esteem, and undermines female participation at all levels.

Television sports coverage remains significantly skewed towards male sports. While the quality and quantity of the coverage of major women’s sporting events has improved, levels of coverage outside the window of those events drop to a small fraction of the overall sports coverage in the media. At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that the public has a real appetite for following more women’s sport in the media. The number of people watching TV coverage of women’s sport in the first half of 2022 doubled to more than 36 million compared with the same period a year before.

To further stimulate and encourage growth in coverage of, and public interest in, women’s sport, our report recommends that the Scottish Government consider whether additional public investment might be needed and, if so, where to target it for maximum effect. It would also be helpful to receive an update from the minister on the planned Scottish sport media summit and on what bearing the outcomes from the summit might have on further improving the quality and quantity of future media coverage of elite women’s sport.

For good or ill, social media have an undeniably huge impact on female attitudes to, and engagement with, sport and physical activity. Sports organisations and governing bodies can play an important role in disseminating and amplifying positive messaging around the health benefits of regular participation in sport and physical activity by girls and women, and in challenging misogynistic attitudes and behaviours.

The Scottish Government can also play a role by providing support and guidance around social media strategy development. The United Kingdom Online Safety Act 2023 could also provide a framework for stronger action, including sanctions, to address the harmful impact of the negative body image content that exists on social media.

In order to effectively benchmark progress towards closing the gender-based participation gap, we recommend commissioning a new population-level survey to give us an accurate and comprehensive picture of current rates of participation in sport across all segments of the population. We should also explore incentives to encourage research organisations to direct additional resources towards research in sports science, with a specific focus on women.

In conclusion, I look forward to hearing both the minister’s initial response to the findings of our inquiry and the other contributions in this debate. As our inquiry found, breaking down the many persistent barriers to female participation in sport will require on-going determination and focus.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the recommendations contained in the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee’s 7th Report, 2023 (Session 6), Female participation in sport and physical activity (SP Paper 445).


The Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport (Maree Todd)

It is my pleasure to take part in today’s debate. Members will be aware that I am incredibly passionate about this area and am committed to creating the change that we need in order to see more women and girls getting active across Scotland.

I thank the committee for its report and I also thank those individuals who came forward to share their experience and knowledge. On Friday 24 November, the Scottish Government published an interim response to the committee’s report, which responds to a number of the committee’s recommendations. We will provide a full and in-depth response to all the recommendations in due course.

It is important to highlight that we recognise that there are barriers to women and girls being physically active and that it remains our priority to support participation by all groups and to tackle inequalities in participation. I was recently told that I am one of only three ministers in the whole world whose portfolio includes both health and sport. That that combination exists in a ministerial post in this Government is no accident: we understand that increasing participation by women and girls is absolutely crucial if we are to ensure improved long-term health outcomes and life opportunities. We must ensure that women and girls are given every opportunity to participate in sport and physical activity at all stages of their lives.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

The committee has produced a very positive report. Paragraph 132, which I found particularly interesting, deals with boys’ domination of playground spaces. Will the Government undertake the additional work to reach out to local authorities about the design, availability and openness of playgrounds and—which may be more important—the messaging about who those playgrounds are for?

Maree Todd

I am more than happy to do that. The member will be aware that I engage regularly with local authorities and with a diverse group of leaders in sport and physical activity across Scotland. That is exactly the sort of territory that we like to get into. As I said, my response to the report is an interim one. In some areas, you have asked for answers that lie outside my portfolio, but I am absolutely determined to get in about that and to ensure that we deliver real and lasting change for women and girls, which, I am persuaded, starts in the playground.

Although there are many pressures in our society that can lead towards less active lifestyles and a decline in activity levels, the good news is that Scotland is bucking the trend. The most recent Scottish health survey showed a significant increase in the number of women meeting the UK chief medical officer’s recommended level of activity—a 4 per cent rise, from 61 to 65 per cent. The survey also showed that the gap between men and women in levels of participation is closing.

Although that is positive news, I am not complacent. We must continue working to ensure that more women meet the CMO’s guidelines, given the consequent impacts on long-term health and wellbeing. We await the results of the 2022 Scottish health survey, which will be published on 5 December, and I hope that we will continue to see a positive trend. We know that a higher proportion of boys than of girls meets the physical activity guidelines. That difference is significant among those aged 13 to 15, where there is a 20 per cent difference, with 73 per cent and 53 per cent respectively meeting the guidelines.

That particular drop-off in female physical activity is one that we have all been aware of for some time and I am grateful that the committee has focused on that. The reasons for that are multifaceted and require different interventions, but a lot of fantastic work is going on across the sector to address the issues. Our active schools programme is successfully engaging girls in sport and physical activity in every local authority across the country, and we have committed to ensuring that that programme will be free for all children and young people by the end of this session of parliamentary session.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Does the minister recognise the evidence that was given to the cross-party group on sport on the premises that are used by schools and local authorities that sometimes lie empty for a long part of the day? One way to engage with local authorities would be to try to improve the usage of those facilities, which could encourage more women to take part in sport at a time when, at the moment, they are prohibited from doing so.

Maree Todd

I recognise the point that the member is raising. It is a vexing issue that has been around for a long time, and we see it many parts of the country. I am determined that we will work together to try to unlock and free up the school estate and make sure that those assets become part of the community, in order to encourage the participation of the whole community. We need to be doing that, particularly in these financially constrained times.

The work that we are doing with active Scotland will provide more children with more opportunities to take part in sport before, during and after school. It takes an inclusive approach, with a particular focus on poverty, additional support needs and care-experienced young people. During the 2022-23 academic year, more than 124,000 girls made more than 2 million visits to active schools sessions, making up 46 per cent of the participants.

The “Fit for Girls” programme, which was delivered in partnership between sportscotland and the Youth Sport Trust, provides support to local authorities, governing bodies and other national partners that have identified a need to improve the provision for girls and young women and are committed to empowering girls as part of that process. There is also the incredible partnership between Scottish Sport Futures and the Sweaty Betty Foundation, which aims to reduce as many barriers to participation as possible, as well as encouraging important conversations about breast health, periods, hormonal changes and other issues that affect girls and young women.

However, we know that, before adolescence, many girls have already decided that they do not belong in sport. Earlier this year, Women in Sport published research that highlighted that the message that girls as young as five hear and see daily undermines self-confidence and makes them feel that sport is not for them.

Providing positive experiences that develop physical confidence and competence from the earliest age is key. Our active play development programme targets areas of disadvantage and will support more children from more deprived backgrounds to develop the skills and confidence required to enjoy being more physically active.

Progress in relation to other inequalities remains a concern, and it is therefore vital that we understand and address the intersectionality of additional barriers to participation. Disabled people, those from ethnic minority communities and those living in more deprived communities all have lower levels of participation.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to provision, and those who deliver locally are best placed to identify the needs of their communities. This week is Scottish disability sport week 2023, which is led by Scottish Disability Sport, and today’s theme focuses on overcoming barriers to participation. It is the first year of the campaign, which is a nationwide celebration of disability sport and a chance to inspire and support disabled people throughout Scotland to get active.

We are working closely with sportscotland and partners to ensure that we embed a culture of inclusion across sport. In October this year, we celebrated Scottish women and girls in sport week, our annual campaign that is hugely important in increasing the visibility and participation of women and girls in sport and physical activity, as well as highlighting the many health benefits that it can bring to their lives. The theme for the week was celebrating inclusion, and it was encouraging to see the positive stories shared during the week and the buzz right across the sector.

I was pleased to see that there was support from the leadership and relevant spokespeople of all five parties in Holyrood. Many MSPs supported the motion lodged by the convener of the cross-party group on sport, Liz Smith, in recognition of the week, and all five parties were represented in its signatories. There is genuine consensus on the importance of access to sport and physical activity for women and girls, in recognition of the benefits that it brings, and there is significant desire to collaboratively reduce barriers to access.

Early data from the evaluation of that week showed that there were more than 38 million campaign impressions on Twitter alone, demonstrating the campaign’s powerful reach to engage partners across the sector.

Sport and physical activity bring a great deal to our communities. I feel strongly that they have the power to lead the way on the many challenges that wider society faces. Leadership and visibility are vital. We are working with the Scottish Sports Association to support its on board for sport programme, which focuses on improving the diversity and skills bases of the boards of Scottish governing bodies of sport. The young ambassador programme created by sportscotland has been successful in attracting large numbers of young women into leadership roles in sport and physical activity. They are role models for and leaders of other young people. The young ambassadors can have an absolutely pivotal role in their schools and wider communities.

Minister, you must conclude.

Maree Todd

There is more that we can do, and I expect that to be our focus for the coming year. To reiterate, I want to see a change to support women and girls of all ages and backgrounds in being physically active. I know that there is a real appetite for change among us all, and consensus is welcome and necessary.


Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests. I am a general practitioner in the national health service.

I thank everyone who has contributed to the committee’s evidence-gathering process. Participation in sport, or simply making physical exercise part of our daily or weekly routines, is crucial for health and wellbeing. That applies to each and every one of us. Exercise reduces the risk of chronic diseases and fosters a much healthier population. As the statistics show, Scotland is not healthy. As parliamentarians, through our communications and policies we must be able to create the conditions in which more and more people adopt healthier lifestyles. With regard to women and girls, however, we need to go much further.

Our Health, Social Care and Sport Committee has discussed in depth how female participation in sport and physical exercise empowers women, and builds confidence, resilience and a sense of accomplishment that extends beyond the playing field. Moreover, increased female participation contributes to breaking gender stereotypes, advances inclusivity and cultivates a more equitable society in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Of course, participation comes in many forms, from groups of walkers to the local boxercise class, and even to competing at high level.

Participation is not just for school pupils or for the under-30s, though. Last Friday, the 2023 Scottish women in sport awards ceremony was held in Glasgow. The awards recognise and celebrate the hard work, dedication and commitment that enable young girls and women to participate in every aspect of sporting life. Guess who won the award for team Scotland team of the year? It was Scotland’s over-60s masters hockey team. Our over-60s women players were crowned European champions, after beating England in a nail-biting final.

The Scottish Sports Association has been following our committee’s work very closely. It is reassuring to know that the SSA feels that our recommendations provide a strong foundation from which to advance female participation in sports and exercise. However, the SSA goes further and highlights a number of areas that will be of particular importance if we are to optimise the sporting environment for our women and girls. I would like to cover some of those in my remaining speaking time.

To create the conditions for greater participation we need to change our culture around spending on sport and physical activity, which should be seen not as a cost but as an investment. I will give an example of why we need to change our thinking about funding for sport. I will stick with the example of hockey.

On the edge of Glasgow Green is a fantastic facility—the national hockey centre, which was built in 2013 at a cost of £5 million. It is one of the city’s 2014 Commonwealth games legacy venues, but it is not fully open. Since last September, Glasgow Life, which is owned by the city of Glasgow and runs its culture and sports facilities, has continued to rent pitches for training and competitive matches. However, it has not yet opened the changing facilities, the first aid room or the cafe, despite the fact that Scottish hockey’s governing body is a legal tenant of the facility and will be so until 2032. That seems to be strange, does it not?

With their having no use of the changing or other facilities, hockey players are expected to walk to a neighbouring football ground to change before and after matches. Let us all close our eyes and picture the scene. A hundred yards away, football players have changing facilities, but the people who enjoy another key sport, hockey, are provided with a second-rate service in a relatively new facility.

Glasgow Life currently seems to be happy to take payments for pitch bookings, but it is not so keen on providing the full facilities. I am told that Glasgow Life does not have the funds to operate the national hockey centre normally. Too many of Scotland’s cultural and sporting assets that are based in Glasgow do not receive the national funding that they need in order to operate—they are often squeezed by Scottish Government funding cuts to our local authorities.

We need to look at solving such problems not through the prism of cost, but through that of investment. The social return on such spend comes in improved physical and mental health. Investment in sports and exercise remains one of the best buys in population health and wellbeing—it is miles better than any black Friday deal.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

Sandesh Gulhane made an excellent point about the national hockey facility, which, of course, is less than a decade old and was meant to be part of the legacy of the 2014 Commonwealth games. Does he agree that allowing that facility to languish in the state that it is in destroys the legacy of the Commonwealth games to Scotland?

Sandesh Gulhane

Yes, I agree. Allowing that to happen does not show the equitable approach that we need to have to all sports—especially one that is as important and key as hockey.

The investment that I was talking about cannot be a one-off. Just as the best laid plans have multiyear targets, sports and exercise need multiyear funding so that we can improve certainty in delivery. Local authorities, which are responsible for much of the targeted spend, must be more accountable for meeting sports and physical activity targets.

Of course, ideally, a love of sports or simply of experiencing the benefits of physical exercise should be instilled in us when we are young. Physical education and games in schools should not be an afterthought. As our children grow older there should, when they reach 15, 16 and 17, be a concerted effort to encourage girls in particular to keep fit and healthy. That can extend beyond playing a sport: there could be opportunities for coaching.

We need to change the narrative around sport: it is not just for those who are good at it. Although there is a place for competitive sport—that should always be encouraged—for most people, sports and exercise should be about having fun, clearing the head and keeping healthy.

However, we cannot ignore what young women experience when participating in sports at school. According to the Young Women’s Movement, 74 per cent of young women who were surveyed say that their body image had stopped them from engaging in sports or exercise activities. They describe feeling vulnerable, exposed and scrutinised by boys in mixed sports classes. There is a case that teenage girls in particular would benefit from women-only spaces.

Finally, I would like to focus on an area that is of particular importance to me as a GP. SAMH—Scottish Action for Mental Health—is calling for an expansion of the GP links worker programme to help to improve knowledge and access to exercise referral schemes. Community links workers provide general practices and patients with invaluable support. I fully agree that they do much to encourage physical activity, in particular within marginalised communities and among women who are in the menopause life stage and would benefit from a personalised approach to mental wellbeing and physical activity.

Investing in participation by girls and women of all ages in sports and exercise will contribute to a healthier Scotland in terms of physical wellbeing and fostering confidence. The benefits far surpass any costs. By providing a diverse range of opportunities, we can ensure inclusivity and recognise the needs of individuals, be they teenage girls or much older women. I fully support efforts and initiatives that champion the cause of female investment and involvement in sports, so let us reap the rewards of stronger, more vibrant communities.


Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on the committee’s report on the vital issue of female participation in sport and physical activity. I am not a member of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, but as Scottish Labour’s sports spokesperson, I welcome the important publication, which highlights the significant gender gap between male and female participation.

I commend committee members and the clerks for their work on this extensive and thorough report. It highlights the many and varied barriers that women and girls face and the challenges that we need to overcome.

I have spoken in the chamber about the importance of sport to our society. If we seriously want to tackle gender inequality across society, we must tackle it in sport. I have also spoken about the power of sport and its ability to change lives. Not only does sporting activity promote physical and mental wellbeing, it has the power to tackle antisocial behaviour and many other societal problems.

The power of sport should therefore be harnessed to change the lives of women and girls as much as men and boys. That is, in part, why the committee’s findings are so concerning.

I am a man who loves sport, but I believe that it is vital that the voices of women are heard and elevated. I am pleased that the committee has done so much to listen to and take evidence from women in producing its report. It is clear that we need to address not only the barriers to participation but the challenges and attitudes that many women in sport face every day, on every level, from the grass roots to the elite.

Tennis champion Serena Williams was once asked about being considered one of the greatest female athletes of all time. She responded:

“I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.’”

She highlights an inequality that women in sport face every day—their gender rather than their sporting ability is seen first and foremost. If that is the attitude towards a sports star at the top of her game, it is clear that all women and girls face a culture that must change. We must change that culture from an early age, which the minister and the convener spoke about earlier.

The report highlights that the current gender participation gap begins at puberty, with just 11 per cent of girls aged 13 to 15 meeting Scotland’s physical activity guidelines. Barriers faced by teenage girls include restricted offerings of sport as well as negative attitudes from boys, which has been mentioned.

It is deeply concerning that girls are given limited opportunities to participate in male-dominated sports such as football, rugby and cricket. It is even more concerning that when girls participate, their male classmates often make comments on their bodies and sporting abilities. We must tackle that body shaming and inequality of opportunity. That is why I fully support the committee’s recommendations to carry out an updated active schools programme evaluation, with a focus on supporting female participation.

The committee also heard, as has been mentioned, extensive and alarming evidence on harassment and abuse towards women while exercising. That is totally unacceptable. Safety is paramount, and I agree with the committee that there has to be a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to the perpetrators of such harassment and abuse.

Active travel infrastructure should also be improved in order to allow physical activity. That should include adequate street lighting, as the convener mentioned, which would allow more women to safely access the outdoors and sporting activity. We know that budgets are limited at present, but active travel is one of the budget lines that is increasing significantly. It is therefore vital that communities and the voices of women are heard on what investment in active travel they want. That is particularly the case when so few women are in senior positions administering that funding, as the report highlights.

Facilities and funding issues were also identified as key barriers, and I have spoken about those with many stakeholders. It is not that long ago that women’s football clubs such as Glasgow City Football Club were forced to use car headlights as floodlights to train at night.

I consistently hear concerns that access to facilities is more restricted for women—for example, men’s teams often get priority bookings on football pitches, and I am glad that that has been acknowledged by the committee. I echo the committee in welcoming the Scottish Government’s commitment to doubling investment in sport and active living to £100 million a year. That is badly needed.

However, that is taking place against a background of savage cuts to local council budgets, which provide so many sporting facilities. Continued cuts to local council sports provisions will hit everyone, but will undoubtedly have a disproportionate impact on women and girls.

Does the member agree that those savage cuts are a false economy and that taking money out of that page of the ledger means that a much bigger number will appear on another page of the ledger?

Neil Bibby

I absolutely agree with Mr Whittle. I was just about to come on to that point. He is absolutely right. Investing in sport and physical activity is preventative spend. It is the preventative spend that we talk about in the Parliament. That is why we need to protect those budgets.

It is equally important that we acknowledge some of the barriers for women at the elite level. As has been mentioned, women’s funding, pay and media coverage in comparison with those of men are not only a barrier; they are an injustice. The committee reported that 84 per cent of elite female athletes in the UK felt that sportswomen were not paid enough and that, between September 2022 and 2023, there was 28 times as much coverage of men’s football as there was of women’s football and 26 times as much coverage of men’s rugby as there was of women’s rugby.

In tackling those barriers, I support the committee’s call on the Government to explore the creation of an independent women’s sports trust for Scotland to support growth in women’s sport, including funding and media exposure.

It is important to note, as has been mentioned, that the report highlighted that many disabled, LGBT and ethnic minority women face intersecting barriers to participation. We know that role models are important in showing young women that anyone can get involved in sports and compete at the highest level. That is perfectly illustrated by the gymnast Simone Biles, who said:

“Growing up, I didn’t see very many black gymnasts, so whenever I did, I felt ... inspired”.

She said:

“I remember watching Gabby Douglas win the 2012 Olympics and I was like, ‘if she can do it, I can do it.’”

It is therefore welcome to hear about the success of the Welsh Labour Government’s “Anti-racist Wales Action Plan” in encouraging participation in sport by women and girls from minority ethnic backgrounds. The Scottish Government should explore the possibility of a similar initiative.

I want to touch on the power of social media. Unfortunately, the committee heard evidence that there has been an increase in misogynistic behaviour towards women. That needs to be tackled. We need to look at regulations following the UK Online Safety Act 2023, while recognising that it can amplify women’s voices.

It is vital that we understand the barriers to participation in sport for women and girls. The report highlights many of them. We now need action from the Scottish Government and others to break them down.


Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I like running in the mud when it is wet and cold in the middle of winter. I love going up and down hills for hours on end—but I am weird. Most people do not enjoy that. It is not for everyone, particularly women and girls, and neither should it be. Everybody should be encouraged to do their own sport in their own way. However, we also need to ensure that it is attractive and enticing, and that there is a wide and varied offer for people.

Sport and exercise improve my mental health, my memory and my sleep. I think that I come up with my best ideas when I am at the top of hills—I know that there are many of them. I enjoy sport and exercise, and I want everyone to enjoy them in their own way.

It is worth recognising the improvements that have been made in sport for women and girls. In particular, I pay tribute to the minister. I know from the sporting community that it appreciates her contribution to sport. It knows that she is passionate about sport, and it recognises that she is a woman who is passionate about sport and who ties her work to health. That is critically important. We have heard from her today how much she cares about it.

Sport and exercise are a microcosm of wider society, and the problems that we experience elsewhere in the attitudes, stigma and harassment that women experience are also reflected in sport. That is no excuse for sport in any way whatsoever, but it indicates that we have a much wider problem in society that we need to tackle.

Can Willie Rennie expand on what he, as a man, thinks the male population can do to tackle the misogyny that women experience in sport and physical activity?

Willie Rennie

A bit more encouragement and a lot less mocking are at the centre of this. I have seen that mocking for myself, and I am embarrassed when I do not challenge it. Men have a particular responsibility. When they see harassment and stigma before them, they need to say something. We need to stop that. We know that that laddish male culture exists as much in sport as it does elsewhere, and we all have a responsibility to challenge it. It is all about culture, attitude, responses and language—all of that is incredibly important.

We have seen improvements recently, such as those in sports kit to meet women’s desire to wear kit that makes them feel comfortable, addresses differences and recognises changes that they go through in their lives.

The active schools programme is a great advancement. We need the evaluation of how effective it has been, but bringing experts into schools to improve the range and quality of the sport offer—and the exercise offer, because this is not just all about sport; it is about having alternatives in school—is part of the answer to make sure that we have something that is suitable for everyone.

I heard mention of the Scottish Women in Sport awards, where a great picture was taken of two sportswomen—Eilidh Doyle and Isla Hedley, who is a young sportswoman. They first met when Isla was about 12 or 13. Isla won the young sportswoman of the year award, and her role model was Eilidh, who had previously won sportswoman of the year. That shows clearly the position of role models—people like us who we can look up to and who are performing exceptionally well. The more excellent sportspeople we have such as Eilidh, who is prepared to take time out to encourage the next generation, the more things will improve.

We have made progress on pay for women in elite sport. Now, 83 per cent of sports pay men and women the same, but the big differences are in golf, cricket and football—the old offenders. The gap is narrowing, but it needs to narrow much more. We need to recognise and praise sports that are closing the gap and send a clear signal to those that are not that they need to do much better.

I now notice a difference in the language that is used on television and in other broadcasts. When people refer to football, they are describing football for men and women; they do not say “women’s football” any more or say “football” when they mean men’s football. The term is neutral now. That is a subtle and small change, but it is important. There are many more female presenters on television for football and many other sports, which makes the approach less laddish. It is more open and the language is different, which is a big improvement. Many more sports are being covered. Smaller, more niche sports are being covered, and women are often taking part in them.

In closing, I will say a few things. When Madras college in St Andrews got a new building, it scrapped the hockey pitch and replaced it with rugby and football pitches. A group challenged that but did not succeed. That should never have happened. Men play hockey, too, but it is a predominantly female sport. That change should never have happened. The excuse was that more women are now playing football and rugby, but that is not good enough. A much wider range of facilities needs to be available to suit everyone.

Of leaders in sport, 80 per cent are men. We need to change that. If we have women leaders in sport, we have a greater chance of changing the culture.

We need to stop the reduction in the hours of community sports centres, because women feel—rightly—much safer in those centres.

I am a big fan of jogscotland—

You need to conclude, Mr Rennie.

Willie Rennie

I will say a final thing. Jogscotland is one of the best innovations that we have. We get an awful lot more people involved through jogscotland, which offers easy entry at low cost, with brilliant leaders. We should be progressing that model.

We move to the open debate.


Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Sport is so important, and I welcome the report by the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee. We know instinctively how important sport is for our physical and mental health and for social and cultural connectivity, but there is also extensive evidence of the benefits of regular exercise for physical and mental health and for wellbeing.

We all need a tribe or a team to be part of. Sport, particularly in our younger years, can provide that shared purpose and belonging that is so important—a good gang to join, if you like. However, that does not just apply in our youth. It is important for us as adults to have opportunities for social connection, and sport provides that.

We should all be concerned about the persistent gap between boys’ and girls’ participation rates in sport and physical activity, which begins at the age of puberty and persists up to women in their 40s. That is a substantial part of a woman’s life, and we have to understand the barriers and dismantle them.

The committee’s report found that teenage girls face barriers around puberty. To date, there has been some welcome progress in implementing the Scottish Government’s “Women’s Health Plan: A plan for 2021-2024”, which has included learning about menstrual health as part of the Scottish curriculum. I share the committee’s hopes that that will be beneficial in normalising discussions about menstrual health, improving awareness and understanding about the impact that menstruation can have on girls’ participation in sport and physical activity, and removing stigma around managing periods, particularly as that relates to girls’ participation in physical education classes.

I support the committee’s calls on the Scottish Government to set out how it will evaluate the impact of improved learning about menstrual health as part of the school curriculum in addressing the significant decline in the participation of girls in sport and physical activity that is connected with puberty.

We are debating the matter during the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, so the minds of many of us will be on wider matters of inequality for women and girls. It is important to acknowledge how all those issues connect and overlap.

The committee highlighted negative body image and a lack of self-confidence as a barrier to participation, recognising that many may be deterred from participating in sport and physical activity because they lack self-confidence or experience negative body image.

From a very young age, our girls are bombarded with airbrushed sexualised images of unattainable aesthetics and content that can give the entirely wrong message about who and what their bodies are for. Participation in sport can be a healthy counter to that and help individuals to love their bodies for what they can do, not for how they look to others. Being surrounded by teammates of all different shapes and sizes reinforces that, as do many of the wonderful sportswomen and coaches that we have in this country.

I share the committee’s concern, but I was not surprised to hear extensive evidence that negative attitudes of boys continue to create a major barrier to girls’ participation in sport and physical activity, particularly during adolescence. The committee highlighted and commended the “Don’t be that guy” campaign to tackle sexual harassment that Police Scotland runs and the positive impact that it has had in addressing negative attitudes by boys, which in turn has helped to foster an environment of mutual respect between boys and girls when participating in sport and physical activity. There are some messages in the campaign that might be helpful for male colleagues who wish to address behaviour that they witness.

The committee is right to call on the Scottish Government to consider what more it could do to learn lessons for future policy development from the implementation of the “Don’t be that guy” campaign and to consider how a wider roll-out of it and other education programmes across schools could help to tackle misogynistic attitudes and behaviours.

I see that there was a mixed response to the topic of single-sex sports, and I agree with the committee that there should be no one-size-fits-all approach. That said, I absolutely recognise the benefit of female-only activities and competition, and there must be retention and protection of female-only space and sport for girls and women who need it.

I will close on a success story. The active schools programme is one that we can look to as just that. It successfully engages girls in sport and physical activity, and it offers a range of fun activities in schools across the country. In my North Ayrshire area, I am always particularly impressed by the range of activities that are going on and the young leaders who are doing sterling work.

In 2022-23, girls and young women made more than 2 million visits to active schools sport and physical activity sessions, and females made up to 46 per cent of participants in the active schools programme, so there is definitely learning for us in that. I was interested to read that the highest participation activities among females were netball, football, multisport, dance and movement, and basketball. Active schools teams have worked hard to engage girls and young women, people with additional support needs and young people from areas of socioeconomic disadvantage. In reviewing that, we can learn what is working well and where we need to make that investment.

I thank everybody who contributed to the report, particularly the legion of volunteers in this country who run the clubs and activities that support women’s and girls’ participation in sport.

I advise members that the limited time that we had in hand has now been exhausted, so I will have to urge members to stick to their time limits from here on in.


Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am delighted to contribute. During the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee’s inquiry into female participation in sport, MSPs visited the Fighting Chance Project (Scotland) in Dunfermline. That project, which inspires young people to make positive changes in their lives through judo, is transformational. For me, the physical and mental benefits of doing martial arts have been massive. I have worked in industry all over the world, and karate has given me the confidence to travel alone and hold my own in what often felt like a man’s world. As a contact sport, it taught me when to pull my punches and when to land them. Karate also taught me the importance of perseverance and how to push through failure. Sport is often so much more than physical activity.

In the committee, I fully supported doing an inquiry into female participation in sport, because we need to understand the barriers to participation and find ways to finally overcome them. Some of those barriers are systemic—they include misogyny, sexism and stereotyping, as we have heard today. The media have a huge role to play in shifting the dial on that.

Some of the barriers are structural, with funding and resource allocation and access to facilities particularly coming to mind. The leisure sector in Scotland is under significant pressure, as I know all too well following the closure of Bucksburn swimming pool in my region earlier this year. The Scottish National Party Government must step up and do all that it can to protect such facilities, because the unintended consequences will be considerable.

Finding innovative new ways to access facilities is important, too. I was especially interested in the Scottish Sports Association’s recommendation that we look at access to the school estate, and I hope that we can take that forward as we build on the inquiry. I was encouraged to hear Maree Todd say today that she is supportive of that.

There are other factors that deter women and girls from sport. In her evidence to the inquiry, Baz Moffat from The Well HQ persuasively made the point that,

“Until we educate the people who look after girls about female health ... and implement that into our coaching education ... we will still see a gender gap in female participation and performance.”—[Official Report, Health, Sport and Social Care Committee, 23 May 2023; c 42.]

Given the issues of self-consciousness, managing periods, changing physiology, women’s health conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome, pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum recovery, pelvic floor dysfunction, urinary incontinence, lack of time owing to caring responsibilities, perimenopause and hormonal changes, it is little wonder that the gender gap in sport begins at the age of puberty and persists until women are in their early 40s.

We have different physiology, different patterns of mental and physical development and different milestones, from menstruation to menopause, that impact us profoundly. Fair Play for Women, in its submission to the inquiry, shared the point that some sporting injuries in women

“occur more at certain times of the month ... because ligaments are affected by variation of female hormones”

throughout the menstrual cycle. I echo that organisation’s calls for greater funding and research in that area.

Earlier this year, triathlete Emma Pallant-Browne shared on Instagram a powerful photo of herself bleeding through her swimsuit during a race. That sparked an international conversation, some of it positive and, sadly, some of it not. Emma simply said that she felt that it is not healthy to feel ashamed of your period. Other female athletes and Olympians celebrated Emma’s pragmatic approach to periods. She managed to destigmatise menstruation by showing that she was comfortable with it.

In her evidence to the inquiry, former athlete Eilidh Doyle highlighted the importance of sportswear and of feeling comfortable when competing. It is not just about fit; it is about colour. I know from first-hand experience of karate the anxiety that wearing a white gi can cause. Sport associations and governing bodies must show sensitivity in that regard.

A further consideration relates to the safety of women in sport and the implications of trans inclusion for competitive fairness. Sport should be welcoming, but not at the expense of women’s safety or fairness, and that extends to the changing room, too. One of my constituents told me that she no longer takes her granddaughter swimming because a local leisure centre has introduced mixed changing facilities and her granddaughter no longer feels safe or comfortable. Women and girls must have safe and protected spaces where they can get changed.

Our inquiry covered a huge amount of ground, and I wish that I had more time to do it justice. Following the shared passion that we all have, I hope that our inquiry will be built on by the sports leadership in Scotland to bring about the change that we need.


David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

I very much welcome the opportunity to participate in this committee debate on a subject that is very important to me. Sport has always played a significant role in my life, and it continues to do so to this very day, albeit through slightly less vigorous activities these days.

It has therefore been insightful and concerning to sit on the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee while hearing at first hand evidence about barriers to female participation in sport and physical activity. Opportunities to take part in all forms of sport should be available to everyone, so the question that we faced was: how do we make that happen?

I very much welcome all the work that has gone into the committee’s inquiry, and I have confidence that our report, which was published in October, can serve as a call to action and, more important, a blueprint for change.

There is undeniable evidence of the benefits of regular participation in sport and physical activity for both physical and mental health and wellbeing. However, despite those benefits, we face a persistent gender gap, which begins at puberty, extends into early adulthood and persists until women are in their early 40s. That gap is not just a number; it represents a loss of opportunities, untapped potential and a failure to provide equitable access to the benefits of sport for half of our population.

I thank the Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport for her thoughtful and detailed interim response to the committee’s report on behalf of the Scottish Government. It is encouraging to note that the Scottish Government has been working diligently to bridge the gap in funding support for women in sport through initiatives such as the active schools programme, Scottish women and girls in sport week and the women’s health plan. It is clear that that work, along with positive media coverage of women’s elite sport, has been instrumental in creating change.

A 2022 Women’s Sport Trust report showed that 36.1 million people watched women’s sport on television between January and July 2022. That was an increase of 18.6 million from the equivalent period in 2021. We know that the media plays a crucial role in promoting female participation in sport. Historically, women’s sport has received far less attention and coverage compared with sport played by their male counterparts. Lack of representation and invisibility have contributed to stereotypes and barriers for women in sport.

However, with the rise of digital media and social platforms, there has been a clear and positive shift towards increasing the visibility and recognition of women’s sport. Make no mistake—the power of the media cannot be overstated. They can reshape societal norms and challenge gender stereotypes by highlighting female athletes’ achievements and telling their inspiring stories. Through comprehensive coverage, documentaries, interviews and features, the media can showcase women’s sport as exciting, competitive and noteworthy. Such exposure not only legitimises women’s athletic abilities but creates role models for young girls and encourages them to participate in sport at all levels.

That is why we continue to build on the progress so far and why the Scottish Government continues to take ambitious action, including its commitment to double the funding for sport and physical activity to £100 million a year, although it is important to recognise that there are competing demands for that funding. In that context, I look forward to the Scottish Government setting out its plans for funding to be suitably targeted to ensure that the goal of increased participation and visibility of women and girls in sport and physical activity is made a key priority.

Crucially, we must acknowledge the intersectional barriers that are faced by girls, particularly those from minority backgrounds, and we must ensure that diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of the Scottish Government’s strategies.

During the committee’s inquiry, we heard evidence, supported by the findings of UK-wide research, that suggests that many girls and women are given limited opportunities to participate in sports and physical activities that are stereotypically viewed as being male-dominated and, therefore, unlikely to be of interest to them or suitable for female participation.

Some members might know that I am a passionate member of the Scout Association, have been a scout leader in Kirkcaldy for too many years to mention and spend most of my summer recess leading a mixed-gender scout group. Throughout my years, I have seen at first hand how important it is to encourage girls of all ages to participate in diverse sports opportunities and physical activity, particularly in co-educational settings and at community level.

A 2009 Observatory on Sport in Scotland report found that, although girls are more active than boys between the ages of five and seven, their participation drops significantly from the age of eight onwards. By the age of 13 to 15, approximately 11 per cent of girls in Scotland meet physical activity guidelines, compared with 24 per cent of boys. Those alarming statistics are echoed by what I have seen time and again on the ground. Negative body image, poor confidence and issues related to puberty are all major barriers to participation in sport. It is vital that we provide safe spaces for girls to overcome those issues and learn important life skills, such as teamwork and leadership.

The matter transcends the boundaries of athletics and is about empowerment, equality and the celebration of talent and teamwork. The benefits of our efforts go far beyond the sports arena. They extend into society when we support women and girls in participating in sport and physical activity. We are not just creating athletes; we are nurturing future leaders, role models and advocates for gender equality.

Empowering women in sport and physical activity is not just about access to sports facilities or creating equal opportunities. It is about building a society where every girl and woman can realise their potential, unhindered by societal norms, physical barriers or gender bias. Let us all commit to that cause, not just in words but in actions, to create a more inclusive, healthier and equitable Scotland.


Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

I add my thanks to the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee for its report. I also thank the committee for bringing the debate to the chamber to give the subject the prominence that it deserves and provide an opportunity for all members to debate this important issue.

It was important that the committee decided to focus the inquiry on participation at not only elite level but community level. The interesting recommendations on how female participation in sport is supported, reported and promoted will help us all to move the dial forward with regard to preventing the drop-off and plugging the gender gap about which we have heard in the debate.

The committee aimed to identify actions that should be taken to help increase the numbers of women and girls who participate in sport and physical activity and, crucially, identify what can be done to ensure that they are able to remain active and engaged throughout their lives.

The reality is that we are talking about a long-standing issue that is a really tough nut to crack. Sadly, there is still a huge disparity between the participation levels of women and girls and those of men and boys. As I have mentioned in the chamber before, the figures are compounded by deprivation, with higher levels of non-participation in areas of high deprivation. We all wish for sport to be a great equaliser, but the figures suggest that, for too many people, opportunities are limited and that personal as well as national potential is not being realised.

During one of its evidence sessions, the committee heard from the Young Women’s Movement about the scale of the challenge:

“we were shocked by how much someone’s socioeconomic background impacts their ability to access sport. We assumed that there would be an impact, but 81 per cent of the people who responded to our survey indicated that that was a key barrier for them, which was disheartening. Although we thought that there would be an impact, we were surprised by how big it was.”—[Official Report, Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, 14 March 2023; c 26.]

In 2020, the Observatory for Sport in Scotland identified socioeconomic deprivation as the main barrier to participation in sport in Scotland. The reality is that, if we want to ensure that women and girls have the best chance to participate in sport and activity throughout life, we need to acknowledge the reality that affordable sports facilities are being closed as local government funding is squeezed. I hope that the minister will speak to that issue and bring it up again with those in power.

In the small amount of time that I have left for this speech, I want to focus on what young girls have told me about participating in sport. Last night I had the great pleasure of joining a session of the 3rd Mauchline brownies. As well as having my debating skills challenged by a very vibrant and able group of young girls, I was able to take the time and opportunity to ask them about sport and physical activity. There was great enthusiasm for sport and activity, with a big bubbly round of discussion about football, rugby, gymnastics, running and swimming. All the girls agreed that they loved sport, they knew that it was really good for them and they knew that it was important to participate in it.

I went on to ask them if it was easy to participate in all those activities, and that is where the discussion changed. The girls talked about getting time at school for sport. That was sometimes difficult, because “important lessons mattered.” They also talked about transport and facilities in their rural community. That is often more difficult there. Even at their very young age, they could identify that local community centres where they had participated in sport were closing, and that swimming pools were about to be closed in the local area.

By far the biggest challenge that they faced was boys. That is in line with some of the evidence that was collected by the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee. It struck me that the group of young girls in front of me were just approaching the drop-off range around the age of 14. The young girls speaking last night very much echoed the evidence gathered by the committee. They said to me that boys dominate the playground space, and that they often “exclude us girls” from the open areas.

The girls told me that boys sometimes say to them that girls are not very good at sport. They also told me that, although they loved to participate in certain sports such as football and rugby, sometimes the boys said to them that those were not girls’ sports. It was striking to me that that was the experience of young girls here and now.

Given the research and the committee’s report, we should be doing all we can to change attitudes and trends. Changing the participation of women and girls in sport is not just about speaking to women and girls; it is definitely also about having conversations with boys, men, teachers, sports coaches and the wider community. I do not believe that those attitudes are ingrained at an early stage; I believe that we can change them. However, it takes us all working together to change things for the good. It takes Government to acknowledge the barriers and to put the participation of women and girls in sport to the very top of the agenda, with funding sources to support it.

There is much more to say on this subject, but I do not have any time left. I thank members from across the chamber for raising other important issues that are addressed in the committee’s report, and I thank the committee and its clerks for all their work in this important area. I hope that we all move on together to make the necessary changes.


Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

There is a lot of chat these days about inspirational female hero sporting stars—in particular, female footballers—so I take the opportunity to acknowledge the success of the Scotland women’s team, which has recently gained growing support. It qualified for the 2019 world cup, whereas the last time the men’s team qualified for a world cup tournament was in 1998.

Women’s football in Scotland is not a new thing. It grew in popularity during world war one. While the men were away fighting on the front line, women kept those at home entertained with well-mannered matches. Lily St Clare was reported in The Glasgow Herald as being Scotland’s first-ever goal scorer, in a team wearing

“blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red belts and high heeled boots”—

which no doubt looked fabulous without being entirely practical. Those who played in the 1918 team demolished their English opponents 3-0—a stunning victory. Of course, they were told to get back to looking after their homes and children upon the men’s return from war.

We know the value of role models, not only in seeing their achievements but as they inspire us to relate to them and think that it is possible for us to get that job or play that sport, and to be valued equally with our male counterparts.

The accelerating popularity of female sports is contributing to that, but this year’s report on female participation in sport by the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee also highlighted that there is much more to be done. The fact that 25 per cent of elite female athletes earn less than £10,000 from sports tells us that there is a job to do in promoting female sport as an investment opportunity. Improved funding will open up greater earning potential for elite athletes, as well as improving training and equipment that is better suited to women’s bodies as opposed to those of their male counterparts.

We are getting much better at talking about women’s health. Having more women—and our male allies—in the Parliament has meant that we have been able to talk more openly about matters such as menopause, period health and endometriosis, but that has not yet filtered through to all corners of society. A survey of elite sportswomen that was conducted by the BBC in 2020 found that almost 60 per cent of respondents felt that their period affected their performance, with nearly 40 per cent saying that they felt uncomfortable discussing that with their coach. I know that the committee took evidence on that, and I urge members who have not yet had a chance to do so to read the report, particularly the parts where Scotland goalkeeper and captain Gemma Fay and judo champion Connie Ramsay discuss their experiences. I also echo the words of the minister, Maree Todd, who is quoted in the report praising the female athletes who have begun to discuss openly issues around menstruation, contraception, pregnancy and menopause in sport.

Of course, wider issues such as sexism, misogyny, personal safety and abuse, which are heightened by social media, remain major contributing factors to why fewer women feel safe or comfortable enough to participate in sport. The problem begins early. Girls get more active than boys in early years, but that changes by the time they become teenagers, as we have heard from colleagues. According to the Observatory for Sport in Scotland, by the age of 13 to 15, only 11 per cent of girls are meeting physical activity guidelines, compared with 24 per cent of boys.

Intersectionality plays a big part in discouraging women from participating in competitive sports. For women from ethnic minorities, that can be particularly pronounced. Glasgow Life has pointed out that research consistently shows that Muslim women have among the lowest participation rates for sport. Earlier this year, sportscotland, along with the sport funding councils from across the UK, published a report on tackling racism and inequality in sport. As part of the work on the report, forums were set up that were exclusively for women, where participants came together to discuss the pervasive impact of stereotypes on the involvement of women in sports across Scotland. The report delved into the early effects on confidence and motivation, and how individuals are made to feel out of sync with the expectations that are imposed by their coaches and team leaders.

Participants expressed a sense of being nudged towards certain sports in school based on perceived suitability, which led to feelings of objectification and being typecast. Those encounters were compounded by cultural expectations within communities and families, which resulted in experiences of microaggressions, casual racism and sexism. Many voiced the feeling of being overlooked in team sports, and raised concerns about the media’s portrayal of women of colour across various sports, which they felt contributed to a perpetually negative culture.

My time is running out, but I want to highlight the work of Women on Wheels, which teaches women and children, especially those from ethnic minorities, to cycle in a supportive nurturing environment. I was inspired by the recent world cycling championships, and I am taking lessons with Women on Wheels as an ethnic minority woman who is now on wheels. I do not expect to be an elite cyclist any time soon, but I am enjoying the physical exercise and working towards more active travel.

Ms Stewart, that is good to hear, but you need to conclude.

I commend the report.


Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

I follow other members in thanking committee members, clerks and witnesses for their participation in what was a very interesting and engaging inquiry.

As many members have already covered, the barriers to engagement and to on-going participation in sport for women and girls are multifaceted. From previous committee work, it was noted that there is a significant drop-off in participation among girls during their teenage years. During the inquiry, we found that there was an additional inequity in participation in physical activity up to the age of 40, and that there were often significant barriers to coming back to organised activity in particular.

One contributing factor that was raised with regard to participation by young women and girls was the focus on competition rather than fun. In physical education in school, a shift towards building skill levels and competition, rather than movement for fun and feeling good, has put some off engaging fully. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health noted that what constitutes fun varies, and it emphasised the importance of giving children the opportunity to try different sports. That is easier said than done, both in a school setting, where teachers are trying to cater for everyone, and for parents after school, in particular where there are multiple children in the family and where participation costs are high.

Eilidh Paterson from Scottish Student Sport said:

“Nobody should be sending a child to a class, session or sport with the aim of them winning. The idea is that they are there to enjoy themselves, to have fun and to make friends with other people. I therefore encourage that to be the central point of all sport and activity, no matter the age or stage of the people involved, although that should certainly be the case in the very early stages. After all, if people do not find sport fun, they will not come back ... they will ... see themselves as ... othered or will be inactive, possibly for life, because they will not see themselves as being welcome in that space.”—[Official Report, Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, 28 March 2023; c 60.]

We heard in evidence sessions of many adult sports clubs that have regular social sessions in football, hockey or netball, but getting women to the stage of engaging in adult clubs requires overcoming the barriers that we heard about during the inquiry.

The committee also heard that addressing the practical issues of managing periods and puberty, for example by bringing in dark-coloured kit and providing the right facilities, is essential in allowing girls to get on to the pitch or the court in the first place. Changing societal attitudes to menstruation, and providing coaches who have been given an understanding of the impact of periods on players, can also lead many young women and girls to feel comfortable in their sport.

For those who drop out of sport at that time, we need to make it easier for them to come back to physical activity, and to find new activities that they enjoy. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity at university to discover a love of both hockey and rugby—two sports that were not offered at my school. I knew that I was not as good as those who had been playing throughout their school career, but the environment was supportive and encouraging, and it allowed others to share what they had learned to help those of us who were new to those sports.

We also need to be aware of the practical barriers that persist for adults. As I mentioned earlier, cost is undoubtedly a factor in the current climate. Moving from education to the work environment, and the accompanying change in how we live our lives, is a factor, too. I know from my own experience, and that of many others my age who commute, that trying to make it home from work for a 7 pm training session—as I found even before I was in this job—is not something to which we can commit every week.

The other option is playing in a team in the area that you work in, which means that you get home later. At this time of year, the earlier, darker nights—as we heard from Clare Haughey—are perceived as not safe by many. I use that example because we need to be aware that some of the issues in this area cannot be solved purely by sports clubs and sporting bodies.

We have created working environments that mean that it is difficult to fit in all the other things that keep us well and enable us to lead fulfilling lives. Looking at introducing flexible working, a four-day working week and a universal basic income would be a help to many. In addition, adults can be frightened of taking up something new, going into a new social environment or potentially, at the outset, not being very good at something. We need to work on how we normalise trying new things throughout life.

There are many other contributing issues that I will not have time to cover fully, including maternity, sports facilities, caring roles, body image issues, a lack of positive role models and a lack of visibility of women’s sport. However, as this is the start of Scottish disability sport week, I note that more needs to be done on both representation and support in order to enable many of those athletes to engage in lifelong sport.

Many issues were raised in the inquiry, and we need to remember that many of them are interrelated and cannot be tackled in silos. We need to address them across portfolios in order to ensure that as many people as possible have the access to physical activity that they need to keep them well.


Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

I know how much pressure the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee is under and thank its members for using some of their precious time to look into the issue of sport, which I know is often left on the shelf. I really appreciate their taking the time to do that.

I declare a significant interest in sport, given that it has defined my life. I am a level 4 senior coach and have been since 2000, having coached football and athletics at all ages as well as rugby, hockey and mixed basketball.

I was amused by Willie Rennie talking about running through the mud, the gore and the wet and going up and down hills. I thought he was a strange man to enjoy that, but he said that he does a lot of his best thinking while he is out running, which really resonated with me. When I require thinking time, I pull on my kit and go out for a run. I am much slower than I used to be, and a lot of old ladies go past me carrying heavy shopping, but thinking is nonetheless done.

I am going through my third cycle of coaching youngsters all the way up to senior level, and all three of my daughters have gone through that process. Much progress has been made, especially in football, rugby, tennis and cricket, but we have a long way to go to reach parity and equal opportunity. I also heard Willie Rennie say that sport mirrors life. If we look at participation, we see that there are 645,000 members of sports clubs in Scotland but that only 102,000 of them are women and 67,000 are girls. So, 26 per cent of members of sports clubs in Scotland are female and we are starting from a point where there are three times as many male participants as there are female ones.

There is also a far greater drop-out rate for girls than for boys, and they drop out at an earlier stage. Puberty has been mentioned, and we have talked about how menstruation affects participation in sport. I see that as a problem in coaching and coach education. We must develop our coaches to understand the different physiological demands on female and male players, and not only in regard to matters such as puberty and menstruation. A male 800m runner and a female 800m runner experience different physiological demands, and the female will take longer to run 800m.

Coaches are also key to tackling misogyny. We must be strong enough to speak out, and I have done that myself when I evicted a couple of athletes from my own squad. I evicted one from an international squad and was actually challenged by other international coaches, who did not want me to do that, but I was not prepared to have that sort of attitude in my squad.

I also note that there is a central belt bias, because many opportunities for participation are in the central belt, with rural areas once again being the poor relation when it comes to access. Even when public transport is available—and as has been said before—many girls do not feel safe travelling on public transport after dark.

People continually raise the issue of poor body image. The irony of that is that participation in sport develops a healthier body and actually tackles poor body image.

I think that there has been a disparity in the bounce-back from Covid. I speak anecdotally from my own perspective, because I have seen fewer women than men coming back into sport. Incidentally, there was also a big drop-off in disability sport during Covid. One thing that greatly surprised me was that the women who have come back to sport are less competitive: they will come and take part in training, but they will not compete. I need to understand a little bit more about that.

We cannot overstate the importance of sport to society when seen against the backdrop of Scotland being the unhealthiest nation in Europe. I have spoken a lot about our need to tackle the £5 billion price of obesity and the £4.5 billion cost of mental illness, as well as the costs of diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease and musculoskeletal conditions. Poor health is the biggest drag on our economy.

Sport is such an inclusive activity, and it breaks down so many barriers. On the way through here this morning, I was listening to a radio programme and I heard that women are more prone to poor mental health and social exclusion because of their lifestyle. Sport is one of the big answers to that. Sport gives us confidence, resilience and aspiration—those intangible things that help us in the rest of our lives.

On a wall in my office, I have a poster that says:

“Food is the most abused anxiety drug. Exercise is the most underutilised antidepressant.”

As I said, poor health is the biggest drag on the Scottish economy, and the place to tackle that is in school. School is our battleground. We need to start in nursery, then continue through primary, secondary and beyond, giving our children more time and opportunity to participate. At the moment, they have to go home to go somewhere else.

Sport has become the bastion of the middle classes. All that we need do is look at the Olympic team and see how many were privately educated.

I know that I am running out of time—

Yes, Mr Whittle. Please conclude.

I will leave it there and say thank you once again to the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee for having this debate.


Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

It is nice to follow Brian Whittle in the debate, because he has a lot to contribute from his direct experience in sport.

As a member of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, I am quite happy to speak in this debate about our report. I add my thanks to everyone who provided input to the committee, including our clerks.

A lot of the points in the report have been well rehearsed by members this afternoon. The one thing that we all agree on is that more participation and visibility of girls and women in sport is essential. On the committee’s web page, there is a wee video submission by Daisy Drummond, which starts with this stark figure:

“By the age of 14 girls are dropping out of sport two times faster than boys of the same age!”

It is important to highlight that.

The inquiry has emphasised that being physically active is one of the best things that we can do for physical and mental health, and the minister and Willie Rennie have described how it benefits them individually. We know that sport and physical activity boost self-confidence and self-esteem, learning skills and socialising. More importantly, they are about having some fun. As a nurse, I think about health issues, and sport and physical activity help to prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes and a number of cancers, as well as playing an important part in helping people to maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of developing depression.

The number of women and girls in Scotland participating in sport and physical activity has increased in recent years, but the report shows that we must do more to address the barriers that stop women and girls taking part. Those who took part in the inquiry identified poor self-confidence and issues around body image as a barrier to participation in sport and physical activity for many girls and women. One person who responded to the committee’s call for evidence suggested that the relationship between body image and physical activity is a vicious cycle: the more self-conscious someone feels about their body, the less likely they are to take part in physical activity. Many people may be deterred from participating in sport and physical activity because they lack self-confidence or because they have a negative body image, as members have mentioned.

To combat that, the committee recommended that sporting venues should do more to demonstrate that they are welcoming and inclusive of participants of all abilities, and to offer tailored advice and support to those who may be reluctant. I would like to ask the minister whether any support, such as from sportscotland, could be made available to meet that aim.

Leadership and role models are crucial to overcoming barriers related to self-esteem. The committee heard that negative attitudes and behaviours among teachers and coaches and a lack of positive role models among women in leadership roles discourage female participation in sport and physical activity.

It was clear, through the inquiry, that men play an important role in increasing female participation in sport. We heard how it is crucial that men demonstrate a real commitment to promoting and encouraging female participation. That includes educating male coaches and leaders in their sport about the important role and responsibilities that they have in that regard, and encouraging them to demonstrate positive and inclusive behaviours.

As part of the inquiry, I wrote to 162 local sporting and activity groups across Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders. I received a fair few responses: I got 68 back. I also visited Wallace Hall academy, in Thornhill, to discuss female participation in sport with six young women who were themselves participants. A number of key issues were raised in that engagement and in the responses received, including many that were specific to my rural area. They included a lack of local buses to enable people to travel to and from venues, and the prohibitive cost of equipment and membership fees. Some women and girls reported that male domination of clubs was also a barrier. Those participants’ experiences were replicated by those of the participants in the inquiry overall, so it is useful to see that what is experienced in Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders is replicated elsewhere.

As the committee’s report states, Ewelina Chin from HSTAR Scotland noted that

“women who reside in rural places, and places that are more deprived, experience barriers to participation not only related to cost but because of”

the infrequency of public transport or

“safety concerns related to the use of public transport”

such as night-time or lone travelling.

In addition, the committee recognised that male dominance of clubs was a deterrent, particularly for young school-age girls. That has been outlined by members who have spoken about participation on school grounds. To address that issue, and to provide improved opportunities for girls to take part, the committee called on the Scottish Government, local authorities and schools to work together to develop support and guidance for teachers and playground staff, to help to ensure equal opportunity.

While I was visiting Wallace Hall academy, I met Barry Graham, the headteacher, and Kiva, Michaela, Zena, Daisy and Matilda, all of whom were inspiring young women who were involved with sport. They reported that a lack of access to, and the unavailability of, funding can be significant barriers to participation. One of their concerns was that schools, their sporting teams and community clubs often do not know about the funding streams that are available and that those can be complex to access. Will the minister tell us whether more emphasis can be put on advertising the various funding streams that are available for sports?

I will close there, Presiding Officer, because I am conscious of the time.

We move to the closing speeches.


Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

It is a great pleasure to close the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour. As many members have done, I begin by thanking the committee, its clerks, its witnesses and those who sent in evidence to tackle this most important question.

Scottish Labour is committed to seeing more women and girls live active lives and participate in sport at all levels. It is important that the committee considered participation from the very start, all the way through to the elite level. As we have heard, it is through such participation that so much good can be done for people’s physical health, mental health and the emotional health that comes from working with friends.

We have heard a number of members speak about involvement in teams or, as Kaukab Stewart put it, the tribe that someone belongs to as they grow up, and the ability to have a group around them who will support them when things go wrong. As I saw at the weekend, that might involve just slipping a football over to someone, but it can be turning to them to get good advice about more substantial matters. It is about a sense of belonging that allows young people to develop and test out their characters as they grow into adulthood.

There is so much that is positive in the committee’s report, from the initial summary in paragraphs 3 to 69 that identifies the importance of breaking down the barriers that women in sport face. Those range from women’s health, which we have heard so much about, to the problems with negative body image to which many members have drawn our attention, and to harassment, safety concerns and access to facilities. Above all, the positive aspects include someone being made to feel welcome when they walk up to a door next to a playing field, a squash club or whatever the sports venue might be, and when someone opens it, smiles and says, “Hello. Come in.” Receiving such a welcome is so important for everyone who participates in something new.

In a number of contributions we heard about the challenges that people face as they get older. It is hard to do something new at any time; it is even harder to do it when a young child does not even know that a sport exists, or when they do not see people who look or talk like them participating in it, or they do not see it on television or on social media or YouTube, which I find my young children watch frequently.

If people do not see those sports being played—like the recent women’s XV rugby tournament in which the Scotland team did so well against the rest of the world—they cannot decide to participate themselves.

The report is huge, and this afternoon’s debate cannot do it justice. It would be good to return to the topic to see where we are in a few months’ time.

There are some areas that were mentioned by several speakers that I would like to pick up on. The first is the issue of negative body image that the convener, Neil Bibby, Ruth Maguire, Brian Whittle and Emma Harper referred to, which comes up in so many reports, and meetings and talks that we have with young women. We hear that it is a real challenge being a young woman and growing up in this world because of the expectation placed on them by mysterious others on social media—or those who apparently earn vast amounts of money and live wonderful lives—about what they should or should not look like.

However, sport is one of those areas that, through just having fun in the playground, growing up and developing an understanding of the support—

Emma Harper

Martin Whitfield talks about body image, and I am thinking about evidence that we took during the inquiry about the Norwegian beach handball team that got fined €1,500 for wearing shorts instead of the regulation bikini bottoms. Does he agree that we need the leading bodies to champion comfort in uniforms rather than regulate something that might deter women from sport?

Martin Whitfield

Emma Harper makes a very powerful point. I recall a netball team that could only get sponsorship if they agreed to do a calendar in a certain way. That talks to sponsors and the finance that goes into sport. The fact remains that sport should be about the product of the sport—be that what it may.

We have heard about the data and research that are lacking, as well as the skills that are lacking, in order to produce comfortable, usable clothing for women to use in sport. That should take the priority. Sport should not be about what it is wrapped up in and what it looks like. Sport is the joy of watching someone do something brilliantly at elite level, participating at medium level and just having a go at the earlier levels.

I raised with the minister the point made in paragraph 132 of the report about the domination of playgrounds and physical spaces by boys. That speaks to the very heart of the change of culture that so many people have spoken about. If girls do not feel safe in a playground—be that a school playground, a local authority playground or just the field out the back of their house—they are not going to enjoy the physical experience of being there. It is interesting that the report goes on, in paragraph 179 and, in particular, paragraph 180 with regard to physical education in schools, to quote from the Children’s Parliament report, “Gender Equality in Education and Learning”, which calls for

“trained supervision in playgrounds and spaces where girls experience sexism and sexual violence”

so that they feel safe.

Brian Whittle rose—

I am afraid that the member needs to conclude his speech.

Martin Whitfield

I am very tight for time so I am going to conclude. I thought Mr Whittle’s speech was very powerful and I would love to have had time to discuss it.

If we look at the challenge in our playgrounds for young girls, we can see the challenge that exists in sport and participation for their rest of the life. It is an area where we understand the difficulties. It is an area where we can make a difference. It might be only a small start, but it is a significant one to making life easier.

I call Meghan Gallacher to close on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives.


Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

Scotland is lucky to have so many talented women in sport. Eilidh Doyle, Isla Hedley, our Scottish women’s football and rugby teams and many others were mentioned over the course of today’s debate. However, I have always admired Laura Muir and Eilish McColgan—not just because I was a member of a running club, the Bellshill Harriers, but because they are excellent role models for women looking to enter elite sports.

Members of the Scottish Parliament, including the minister, have expressed their passion for promoting women in all sporting roles and their commitment to increasing participation in sport and physical activity. We only need to look at the number of sporting motions that MSPs submit a year—motions that congratulate and recognise the efforts of clubs, organisations and sporting talent—to know that the Scottish Parliament backs women in sporting roles. However, those motions do not show us the whole story, and we need to understand why women’s participation in sport is so low. We have heard many arguments in the debate that highlight the barriers that women face when participating in sport and physical activity.

Clare Haughey mentioned the decline in the number of girls participating in sport, with the gender gap persisting up until the age of 40. She also mentioned the stigma around puberty that exists for many teenage girls wanting to participate in sport at school. That was a key takeaway from the committee’s report.

Scotland has come a long way in breaking down the stigma of menstruation during teenage years, including the roll-out of free period products in schools and public buildings. However, much more needs to be done to smash the taboo around menstruation, and the sports industry is key to breaking those barriers down.

Tess White rightly said that, until those involved in women’s sport fully understand women’s health, barriers to sport and physical activity will remain. From Wimbledon allowing dark-coloured shorts to national campaigns to spread awareness around menstruation, Parliaments and sporting bodies need to start telling women that they can and should participate in sport.

Culture is another key theme discussed during the debate. The pay gap for women in sport compared with their male equivalents remains far too wide. Women feel undervalued and unaccepted, and are less likely to pursue a career in sport. I am pleased that the committee highlighted that as a requirement for change. Golf, cricket and football remain the worst offenders, as members have pointed out.

Dr Sandesh Gulhane and Neil Bibby spoke about the current inequality of opportunity for women in sporting roles. We heard arguments that women are not seen for their talents but just for their gender, and it is concerning that cases of harassment and abuse prevent women from entering the world of sport.

Ruth Maguire mentioned the “Don’t be that guy” campaign. We need to break gender stereotypes and ensure that the zero-tolerance approach that we have frequently mentioned in the debate is put into practice. Many members raised the interesting point of community facilities being underused or not used to their full capacity. Dr Sandesh Gulhane raised the important local issue of the national hockey centre at Glasgow Green, because the asset is not being sufficiently funded.

I am sure that Willie Rennie was about to talk about the length of time that facilities are open so that we can maximise the hours and the types of sports that are available for women. As Brian Whittle said earlier, we need to ensure that women are not heading home in the dark, because most women would feel uncomfortable doing that.

Scottish Government cuts to councils are having a detrimental impact on sporting facilities, and many are under threat. That is particularly relevant for councils over the next three financial years. When only 26 per cent of clubs in Scotland have female membership, it shows that we need our local facilities to be open to encourage and support women into sport.

As this debate is about women’s sport, we need to speak about single-sex spaces, which Ruth Maguire rightly raised during her speech. We need to look at women’s sport and the safety of women while they participate in activities. I agree with Tess White that sport should be welcoming for everyone. We also need to ensure that women’s sport is fair and provides the correct safeguards; otherwise, we will further deter women from entering the world of competitive sport.

I want to finish on the most important point that has been mentioned. Sport is about having fun. Sport should be for everybody. That is why I back the #KeepHerPlaying campaign. Taking part in sport is not just about the cheers, the wins or the bragging rights, although all that is fun, too. It is about developing confidence and important life skills, such as resilience and discipline. It is about improving self-esteem and mental health.

There are far too many points to run through, but if we can all agree on something, I hope that it is this: we need to improve female participation in sport and physical activity.


Maree Todd

I thank members from across the chamber who have contributed. The debate has covered a lot of ground, and from listening to those contributions, I am hugely encouraged by the progress that we have made, but I am under no illusion that a lot of work remains to be done. I very firmly believe that sport should be a safe and enjoyable space for women, whether they are participating, coaching or watching. It is our duty to ensure that every girl and woman, regardless of her age or background, has access to the array of physical and mental benefits that come from being active.

The committee’s report underlines the importance of breaking down the barriers that have hindered female participation at every level of physical activity. We know that data remains a challenge. We publish data on participation from the Scottish household survey and the numbers meeting the CMO guidelines from the Scottish health survey. Although they provide a range of information on age, gender and socioeconomic status, for example, we are working to identify ways in which we can also report on ethnicity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, maternity and religion.

It is not, of course, just about increasing the number of women who participate; it is about harnessing the transformational power of sport to enhance wellbeing, foster community and empower individuals. Sport is also a critical part of improving the health of the nation. Through targeted work, community engagement and a diverse offering, we can definitely improve our sporting system so that it enables women to thrive on and off the field.

We are fortunate in Scotland to have committed individuals throughout the sporting sector and that our national agency—sportscotland—fosters an environment in which every female athlete has the chance to succeed and feels welcomed.

During Scottish women and girls in sport week, I visited sportscotland institute of sport and had the opportunity to hear about the work that it is carrying out on female athlete health and performance training. I also got the chance to speak to some Scottish athletes about their experiences and how they were being supported by the institute. However, that work does not support just elite athletes. The female athlete health group has developed a new e-learning resource that is aimed at anyone who works with female athletes at any level in sport.

True progress requires addressing challenges at every level, from local community clubs to the national stage, and the coverage of elite athletes in the media. It is clear that we still have some way to go, particularly in ensuring that women have the same sponsorship opportunities and investment, and that we are able to see women’s sport televised and reported on. There have been some huge changes over the past few years alone, but there is definitely more to be done.

I recently visited Ross County Football Club’s women’s team. I met players who hope to enter the Highlands and Islands league next year. Scottish Power has announced that it is sponsoring that league, and it is keen to ensure that it leaves a lasting legacy. It is the first time that that league has secured sponsorship. That further underlines the upward trajectory of women’s football in Scotland and highlights that women’s sport is worth investing in.

Earlier this year, I heard the secretary general of the International Working Group on Women and Sport, Lisa O’Keefe, speaking at the Scottish women in sport conference. The secretariat is based in the UK for the next three years. That provides a fantastic opportunity to create a real sustainable impact on women’s and girls’ sport beyond 2026.

As I mentioned earlier, leadership is likely to be a focus for the Government. That is an important topic, both to highlight those women in leadership positions and to open up conversations about the barriers or drop-off in leadership as well as participation beyond the teenage years.

It has long been recognised that there is no single solution to reducing inactivity across the population. We are working through our national leadership group for physical activity and sport to agree recommendations and actions for a whole-systems approach that reflect particular conditions in Scotland, based on the International Society for Physical Activity and Health’s “Eight Investments that Work for Physical Activity”.

Brian Whittle

I know that the minister and I share a passion about trying to promote sport in general. Does she agree that it is the educational environment in the broadest sense where we will get our biggest return for investment?

Maree Todd

That is certainly one of the areas where we will get a big return for our investment. It is a vital area, because it sets the culture for life.

It is clear that the issue is very close to my heart and to the hearts of many members in the chamber, and I have found much to agree with in this debate. There are a number of things that I want to pick up on.

For the record, I note that the most recent evaluation of the active schools programme was in 2018, not 2014, as several members said.

It was great to hear from Kaukab Stewart the long view of women’s football, although it was perhaps a little poignant, as many women today still face media reporting that focuses absolutely on their appearance more than their sport.

A number of members raised the Scottish sport media summit, which I will be happy to share information about with the committee when more information is available.

As I said, there is much to agree on. I agree that sport has the power to change lives, which is one of the reasons why I love it. I agree that sport is good for our physical health—that is obvious—but there is a solid body of evidence that it is also good for our mental health, and it is definitely good for our social health, from making friends to building cohesive communities.

I agree that spending on sport is an investment, not a cost. I definitely agree that sport and exercise should be fun—that is what drives me to participate—although I hear from many women that celebrating their competitiveness is important. It is not unfeminine to compete, and I acknowledge that I have more fun when I am winning.

I agree—dare I say it?—with Willie Rennie that he is weird, although I am clearly weird, too, because I like running my daily mile in the mud and, as a highlander, I have no chance of avoiding hills.

I agree that sport reflects society. We live in a man’s world. Women are not equal in our society. We face misogyny, discrimination and violence, and sometimes we face that in sport, too. However, I profoundly believe that sport can lead the change in our society. Sport has the power to change our world. I look forward to the halcyon days when our male colleagues from across parties challenge the misogynistic abuse that their female colleagues face day in and day out in this place, as well as abuse in sport.

Martin Whitfield kindly mentioned the women’s XV 2 tournament, which the Scottish women’s rugby team did so brilliantly at. The entire nation has watched that team develop and charge towards success. That was great to see.

It is clear that our shared commitment to gender equality demands that we address the multifaceted challenges for women and girls. Each challenge requires a collaborative response. The Government welcomes the committee’s report and the recommendations in principle, and we will respond fully in due course. I thank everyone who contributed to the discussion and I absolutely thank all who work tirelessly in our clubs and communities to provide opportunities for women and girls to be active.

I call Paul Sweeney to close on the committee’s behalf. If the member can take us as close as possible to decision time, that will be much appreciated.


Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

As the deputy convener of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, I am pleased to close this important debate on the committee’s behalf. As we have heard, the inquiry pinpointed a range of persistent barriers to female participation in sport and physical activity that need to be broken down. The committee’s report made important recommendations about how to achieve that. I am grateful for all the contributions to the debate and for the entire effort to build such a purposeful inquiry.

At the outset, the committee’s convener—the member for Rutherglen—helpfully set out the background to the inquiry and its purpose. The inquiry confirmed—as has been reinforced by many of the speeches that we have heard—that the root cause of the significant gender gap in participation in sport and physical activity lies in girls’ experiences during adolescence. As evidence that was submitted to the inquiry powerfully demonstrated, for too many teenage girls negative experiences of physical education in schools undermine their confidence and discourage them from participating in sport and physical activity for many years afterwards. The gender gap at that age continues for women and the rate is not surpassed by men until they are in their late 40s. It is really worrying that that extraordinary gap has emerged.

To tackle the issue at its root cause, our first priority must be to give teenage girls a more positive experience of physical education in schools, in order to make them feel welcome, included and positively supported. That extends to membership of sports clubs. We heard from one of the Conservative members for South Scotland—Mr Whittle—that male membership of sports clubs is three times greater than female membership of sports clubs. That is a significant difference. Indeed, that difference extends to participation in sport in youth clubs, as the member for Kirkcaldy mentioned in relation to his role as a scout leader. The issue transcends not just school environments; it applies to adjacent sports clubs and youth societies, as well.

As many members have said this afternoon—including the member for Cunninghame South, whom I welcome as a new member to the committee and commend for her valuable contribution to the debate—that means improving education around menstruation and managing periods and how they can affect teenage girls’ participation in sport and physical activity.

It also means tackling negative and misogynistic attitudes, and fostering a culture of inclusion and respect, as was mentioned by the Labour spokesman, Mr Bibby, who is one of the members for West Scotland, and by the member for North East Fife, who spoke about his experiences in his constituency.

Ms Mochan, who is one of the South Scotland members, spoke very powerfully about her experience of how young constituents are dealing with terrible attitudes in their school environment and how that has affected them. We have heard of no more powerful experiences than those of the young people who are witnessing that today. It was pretty shocking to hear about those persistent attitudes.

If the experience of teenage girls is a root cause of lower rates of female participation, the gender gap—as we have heard today—is sustained into adulthood by many other factors. Those include lack of knowledge and support in respect of a range of women’s health conditions, from pregnancy to menopause and from urinary incontinence to endometriosis; lack of positive role models and of women in leadership roles; the additional barriers that are created by childcare and other caring responsibilities; and a failure to design facilities and infrastructure in ways that make female users feel safe.

This afternoon, we heard powerful examples from the member for North East Fife about school facilities at Madras college being casually closed down in a way that impacted on one gender. We also heard from Dr Gulhane, who is one of the Conservative members for Glasgow, about the scandalous situation at the Glasgow national hockey centre at Glasgow Green. The situation will squander the legacy of the 2014 Commonwealth games, if we are not careful.

As part of any effective strategy to boost rates of female participation in sport and physical activity, funding is a crucial lever. The Scottish Government’s commitment to increasing investment in sport and active living is welcome, but we will miss an important opportunity if we do not seek to carefully target a significant amount of that money at encouraging girls and women to take part in sport at a younger age, and to live active lives throughout their growth.

We have also heard that many girls and women face intersecting barriers to participation in sport and physical activity. That might be due to disability, or they might come from a minority ethnic or deprived socioeconomic background, or might be part of the LGBTQ+ community.

As is set out in our committee’s report, wider use of equality impact assessments, inclusive imagery and messaging, the promotion of positive role models and targeted investment all have roles to play in increasing rates of participation in sport and physical activity among girls and women who face those intersecting barriers to their participation. We simply cannot tolerate panicked end-of-year budgetary decisions that discard those important considerations, as was powerfully mentioned by one of the members for South Scotland, Ms Harper.

As we have also heard this afternoon, although there has been real progress in relation to the status and profile of elite women’s sport in recent years, much more has still to be done. The committee’s report has made some practical suggestions as to how that might be achieved, including in relation to funding of and pay for professional athletes. We heard some examples of positive progress in some sport disciplines, including golf, cricket and football, but many other sports have to make progress.

We have also heard about clothing and equipment. The member for Glasgow Kelvin made an interesting observation about the experience of a century ago and the interesting sporting attire that women were expected to wear in the 19th century. It is important to note that the origin of organised sport began in the late industrial age.

To the present day, we still carry the cultural norms and baggage from the expectations of gender-based roles in Victorian society. It is important to reflect that the significant progress that we have made is clearly not good enough, so we must redouble our efforts.

The member for North East Fife made an interesting point about the changes in the coverage of sport. That is important when we consider health conditions, women who are considering pregnancy or who might be pregnant, and the general zero-tolerance approach to tackling the sexism and abuse that are directed at women in elite sport.

Martin Whitfield

On that point, what are the member’s views with regard to sponsorship in sport? There seems to be an attitude from certain sponsors that they require a product that is perhaps historical in nature, rather than funding something else. Does he feel that there is a role for sponsors to better understand their responsibility and the opportunity that they could provide in changing the balance with regard to women’s performance in sport?

Paul Sweeney

That is an important point that was noted in evidence from broadcasters and sponsors, who talked about the need to ensure that there is balance, particularly with regard to the income insecurity that is faced by women who want to progress to elite sport. There is a significant gap there that still needs to be tackled.

Despite the positive improvement in coverage, particularly in areas such as football, which has been mentioned, elite female athletes and female sports journalists continue to be on the receiving end of absolutely appalling and unacceptable sexist and abusive behaviour. We heard some pretty devastating accounts of that in evidence to the committee. We need to redouble our efforts to bring that to an end.

Ruth Maguire

Forgive me for going back a little to sportswear and uniforms. Does the member agree that the clothes that sportswomen are asked to wear are another element of telling young girls that women are there to be looked at, not to compete, and that, therefore, sorting that situation out has a deeper purpose?

Paul Sweeney

I could not agree more with that. There is significant bias, which is potentially subconscious, but is certainly controlled heavily by sportswear manufacturers. We need to continue to engage with them on dealing with that.

We know that the media have a crucial role to play in promoting women’s elite sport to a wider audience, and we have heard a lot about that today. Our report makes practical recommendations as to how we might make that happen in the future. A key focus should be on expanding routine coverage of women’s sport outside the window of major international tournaments. Such tournaments are critical moments when it comes to people realising their potential—they are inspirational—but coverage cannot just be restricted to the Commonwealth or Olympic games. We need the idea that people can take sport to the next level to be more normalised.

Sandesh Gulhane

As an Arsenal fan, I listen to the “ArsenalVision” podcast and other podcasts about football and, on those, it is completely normal to hear about the women’s team. I know as much about what is going on in the women’s team as I know about what is going on in the men’s team. Is that the type of thing that the mainstream media need to start doing to make women’s sport mainstream?

Paul Sweeney

I will not hold the member’s support for a London team against him, even though he is a member for Glasgow. Nonetheless, he makes an important point about the role of podcasts and the increasing democratisation of fan media. That is an important part of what we should consider. It is not just for traditional media channels to normalise attitudes; it also falls to the fan base. We are seeing encouraging signs, particularly in the football world, that things are moving in a positive direction, which is to be commended. I thank the member for making that important point.

Although we see democratisation of fan-base media, it is too often used maliciously. Social media provide a platform for dissemination of negative body image content and misogynistic content that can further discourage women and girls from taking part in sport and physical activity. However, used positively, social media offer an opportunity for sports organisations, governing bodies and other key stakeholders to promote the positive health benefits of being physically active, to give positive role models a platform to demonstrate leadership and to challenge negative content.

I will conclude by echoing the convener’s earlier words of thanks to all those who engaged so positively and constructively with our inquiry, often with distressing, detailed and nonetheless emotional evidence. I hope that the Scottish Government will give careful consideration to the key recommendations from this important and vital inquiry and that, by working together to implement them, we can close the gender gap in participation in sport and boost the long-term health and wellbeing of girls and women throughout our country.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr Sweeney. That concludes the debate on female participation in sport and physical activity, on a motion on behalf of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee. It is now time to move on to the next item of business.