Leading women in Northern Ireland sport have criticized the “inherent gender bias” that acts as a barrier to young women and stifling the growth of elite athletes.
The special session of Derry City and Strabane Borough Council on the development of women in sport was also heard that the centralization of facilities in Belfast and Dublin creates numerous difficulties for young women living further afield.
Orlagh Watters, Interim Head of Sports Systems at Sport NI, said that in 2008 there were no women boxers at the Olympics and that 34% of the competitors in rowing were women. By 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 of all sports in NI is only 31% female. For coaches it is 25%, for officials 38% and for club members 36% are female – although 55% of women say they play sports and are physically active.
Looking at female participation in the top 12 sports, female membership is around 32%. In football, cricket and rugby, the proportion falls to 8%.
Women need to be at the forefront and shape policies aimed at achieving greater female representation, Ms Watters said.
“You can’t name a permanent full-time performance director in Ireland. Every time I looked at the Camogie managers in Ulster, looked up all the boroughs, I could find a woman – a woman – running those women’s teams,” she explained.
“Across the seven women’s Premiership teams, I was able to find one woman, Gail Redmond, who led the way for women. We are not represented at this top level.”
Ms Watters added: “I would love for everyone in this room today to stop and think about what your inherent bias is.
“What is the bias you carry around with you? I’ve sat and talked about the camogie teams, the county teams, the rowing teams, the performance directors – can anyone really imagine an entire women’s backroom team running the Derry County football team or the Northern Ireland football team or any of the men Equivalents?”
“Derry Girl” Megan Frazer played and captained the Ireland national ice hockey team.
At 18 she went to the University of Maryland in the USA, where she played ice hockey at the elite level, also competed in Germany and England and is now a coach at Ulster University.
She spoke of the financial strain on young players and their families who have to travel to Belfast and Dublin to train and improve their performance.
Extensive travel also influenced her studies and social life.
The closest Premier League team is in Ballymoney and if you are part of an underage team players will need to travel to Dublin.
As much as Ms Frazer loves her hometown, she said that coming from Derry “is a challenge to take that next step in excellence”.
She’s seen this firsthand Gap between sports facilities for young women in the United States and those in Northern Ireland.
No funding went directly to the athletes until they won a silver medal at the 2018 World Championships.
A low point for her was an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury and she was “absolutely devastated” to miss Olympic selection and not lift a hockey stick for months.
Over time her love for sports was rekindled through coaching. She has just accepted a coaching job at Stanford University in California and will be traveling there in August.
“With that inherent bias in the sport … this is where women have been fighting behind the scenes all the time, and as players on the field, we’re not really aware of how much is going on there,” Ms. Frazer said.
“Now that I’ve gotten a bit older, it’s an obligation for me to take up this fight as well and to continue to get involved.”
Women in Sport Lead at Sport Ireland and former Ireland rugby international Nora Stapleton spoke on expanding the coaching base and the importance of visibility.
Derry City & Strabane District Council has been asked to lead the way in changing the face of sport for the next generation of women through the adoption of the Women in Sport strategy.
The councilors fully supported these proposals.
People Before Profit Councilwoman Maeve O’Neill said it was a “true honor” 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 had tabled a motion for women’s representation in women’s sport to mark the 20th anniversary of Derry City Women FC – a team she was originally part of.
“Compared to sport 20 years ago, a lot has changed for women. I no longer find it acceptable that we change in toilets when there are no changing rooms or shower facilities, or even change behind changing rooms because they haven’t bothered to open them for women’s games.”
But she said there was a “legacy of underinvestment in women’s sport” that needed to be addressed.
Women’s sport has the power to challenge gender norms and empower women in many ways, she concluded.
SDLP Council Member Brian Tierney said the Council has a role to play in designing leisure centers to ensure they are user-friendly and inspire confidence in women.
He agreed that changes in mindset and policy were needed.