Alison Johnstone: Girls need a level playing field

Scotland women's national team coach Anna Signeul. Picture: Michael Gillen
Scotland women's national team coach Anna Signeul. Picture: Michael Gillen
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CAN you imagine taking your daughter to play a game of football on a Saturday afternoon only to be told that there’s no room for girls on the pitch?

Shockingly, this is what probably would have happened until as recently as 1972. Yes – would you believe it – women’s football was banned in the UK until that year. Back then, the game was seen as men’s remit, and the sports authorities forbade women from playing on football grounds.

Times have moved on. Women’s teams are blossoming and there are brilliant young women playing for Scotland on international fields. For this, we owe a huge thanks to football pioneers like Edna Neillis, who sadly passed away last July.

We’re also seeing some positive dev­elopments in management and coaching. Hibs chief Leeann Dempster, businesswoman Ann Budge and women’s national team coach Anna Signeul are all changing the face of Scottish football. Recently, Scotland got its first woman manager for men’s side when Shelley Kerr was appointed to lead Stirling University FC. Despite all this, we’ve got a very long way to go before women feel as welcome in the sports world as they should. A BBC survey found that 80 per cent of women athletes felt underpaid in comparison with men, and 85 per cent thought that there wasn’t enough media coverage of their sport.

I feel frustrated for the brilliant sportswomen who still, in 2015, have to argue for their right to be treated as equal professionals. And I feel disappointed for the women who through hard work, commitment and passion achieve amazing victories, only to find the media aren’t interested and the public don’t know about it.

But our main concern with sexism in sport should be the way in which it’s impacting on our children’s fut­ures. Exercise is good for you, and we need our children to get excited by sport to grow into healthy, capable young people. If we’re not able to give our women athletes, coaches and managers the recognition they deserve, who will our girls and young women look to for inspiration?

I cannot stress this enough – encouraging exercise should be a priority if we care about the welfare of our girls and young women. Research has shown that there is a worrying drop in participation in sport among 12- year-old girls. This tells me that at a certain age, girls start to recognise that society still doesn’t think their place is on football pitches, in hockey halls and on tennis courts.

Too many teenage girls think that what matters is staying slim, and that this can be achieved simply by going on a low fat diet. It’s the 21st century. We have to break this old-fashioned, destructive pattern.

We need to think of new ways to tackle the problem head-on. The Scottish Government’s “Fit for Life” programme did consult girls on how we could better support them to get involved with sport, but I still don’t think we’re really listening to what our girls would like to do in PE class. We should mix things up by offering lots of different options for exercise; from cycling to hockey, and from dance to football. We should also take a proper look at whether girls are more likely to take part in gender-based groups. Putting boys and girls in the same classes might not be such a bad idea.

And what about those role models? The time has come to recognise that sexism won’t disappear if we look away and hope for the best. In New Zealand, a policy decision means that women’s netball receives equal TV coverage with male-dominated sports. The netball players are now national sport superstars.

Scotland intends to bid to host the women’s rugby World Cup in 2021. If we get the chance to bring the event to our country, I’d like us to focus on two things. First, let’s make the games matter not just during the matches, but in the daily lives of our girls and boys by getting them excited and involved. Second, let’s make sure that we broadcast and celebrate the victories of our women rugby players as we would if the players were men. Let’s not leave our girls on the bench any more.

• Alison Johnstone is Scottish Green MSP for Lothian and is convener of Holyrood’s cross-party group on sport