Leading women in Northern Ireland sports have criticised the “inherent gender bias” which is acting as a barrier to young females and stifling the growth of elite athletes.
A special meeting of Derry City and Strabane District Council about the development of women in sport also heard that the centralisation of facilities in Belfast and Dublin poses numerous difficulties for young women who live further afield.
Orlagh Watters, Sport NI’s Interim Head of Sports Systems, said that in 2008 there were no female boxers at the Olympics and 34% of those competing in rowing were women. Fast forward to 2020, there was a 50/50 split between men and women representing their countries in rowing and 35% of boxers were women.
However, board membership across sports in NI is just 31% female. For coaches it is 25%, for officials 38%, and club membership is 36% female – despite 55% of females saying they participate in sport and physical activity.
Examining female participation in the top 12 sports, female membership is around 32%. In football, cricket and rugby that falls to 8%.
Women need to be at the top table forming policies which aim to achieve greater female representation, Ms Watters said.
“You can’t name one full-time permanent performance director in Ireland. Whenever I looked at the managers for the camogie in Ulster, looked across all the counties, I could find one woman – one woman – leading out these women’s teams,” she explained.
“In the women’s premiership teams, of the seven, I could find one woman, Gail Redmond, setting the way with women. We are not represented at that top tier.”
Ms Watters added: “What I’d love everybody in this room today is to stop and think about what your inherent bias is.
“What is the bias that you’re carrying around? I’ve sat and talked about the camogie teams, the county teams, the rowing teams, the performance directors – can anybody truly imagine an entire women’s backroom team leading out the county Derry football team or the Northern Ireland football team or any of the male equivalents?”
‘Derry girl’ Megan Frazer has played for and captained the Irish international hockey team.
At the age of 18 she went to the University of Maryland in the United States where she played hockey at an elite level, and also competed in Germany, England and now coaches at Ulster University.
She spoke of the financial burden placed on young players and their families who have to travel to Belfast and Dublin for training and a step-up in competition.
Extensive travelling also affected her studies and social life.
The nearest premier league team is in Ballymoney and being part of underage teams means players have to travel to Dublin.
As much as Ms Frazer loves her home city, she said it is “challenging to make the next step in high performance” if you’re from Derry.
She has seen first-hand the chasm that exists between sporting facilities available to young women in the United States compared to those living in Northern Ireland.
No funding went directly to the athletes until after they won a silver medal at the 2018 world cup.
A low point for her was an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury and she was “absolutely devastated” to miss out on Olympic selection and didn’t lift a hockey stick for months.
As time lapsed her love for the sport was reignited through coaching. She has just accepted a job as a coach at Stanford University in California and will be travelling there in August.
“On that inherent bias in sport… there have been women here battling behind the scenes the whole time and as players on the pitch we’re not actually acutely aware of how much is going on there,” Ms Frazer said.
“Now I’m getting a little bit old in the tooth I find it is an obligation for me to take up that fight as well and continue to get more involved.”
Women in Sport Lead at Sport Ireland and former Ireland rugby international Nora Stapleton talked about broadening the coaching base and the importance of visibility.
Derry City & Strabane District Council was urged to lead the way by changing the face of sport for the next generation of women through adopting the Women in Sport Strategy.
Local councillors were fully supportive of those proposals.
People Before Profit councillor Maeve O’Neill said it was a “real honour” to welcome Nora Stapleton and Megan Frazer who are “two superstars” in the world of women’s sport.
Ms O’Neill, herself a keen sportswoman, said she proposed a motion about female representation in women’s sport on the 20th anniversary of Derry City Women FC – a team she was part of at the beginning.
“A lot has changed from playing sport 20 years ago for women. I don’t think it’s acceptable any more for us to get changed in toilets when there’s no changing rooms or where there be no shower facilities, or even getting changed behind changing rooms because they didn’t bother opening them for women’s games.”
However, she said there is a “legacy of under-investment in women’s sport” that has to be addressed.
Women’s sport has the power to challenge gender norms and empower women in many ways, she concluded..
SDLP councillor Brian Tierney said the council has a role to play when designing leisure centres to ensure they are user friendly and instil confidence in women.
He agreed that mindset and policy changes are needed.