By Lucy Roberts 

This Girl Can, a campaign set up in 2015 to promote women in sport and to encourage them to get active, wants to close the gender activity gap between men and women.

Kate Dale

Kate Dale

Before the pandemic hit, the gap was at just 3.9%, but with 1.2million fewer women getting active during the first lockdown, the figure is now closer to 10%.

Kate Dale, the This Girl Can campaign lead, explains what was preventing women from exercising during lockdown and what men can do as allies to help women feel more comfortable when getting active, whether that be working out in parks or going to recently re-opened gyms.

Q) Why is the gender activity gap between men and women so high and what’s been preventing women from exercising during lockdown?

A) All the reasons why there’s an activity gap are still there, all the reasons why women were less likely to be active than men still existed – because of the fear of judgment. What This Girl Can has been talking about for the past six years and have been addressing and helping women to address. Obviously, all of that was still there plus we lay on top of that some of the impact of the restrictions relating to Covid in terms of economic insecurity, increase in care burdens and home-schooling had a bigger impact on more women than men. Plus, all our research shows the anxiety and stress caused by Covid, about catching it, about doing the right thing – women were experiencing that more than men. I think it was multi-layered to be honest. Although Covid itself had a bigger impact on men as an illness, the restrictions and the lockdown had the bigger impact on women. And that’s what made it harder, I think.

Q) Understandably a lot of women don’t feel safe when they go out for a run whether that be in the daylight or at night, the issue especially being brought to light because of the devastating story of Sarah Everard, but how can the physical activity sector be made safer for women to encourage them to get active?

A) I’m really glad you asked a question like that because over recent months or even before that awful, awful story, I’d been doing interviews and talking about what we can do to change our behaviour. And what I really reflected on is that we didn’t need to, we really don’t need to change our behaviour, but also, we didn’t really need to tell women to change their behaviour because it’s just the stuff we all do anyway, every time we leave the house and feel unsafe, whether that’s at night with the whole thing about headphones and keys and being aware of your surroundings and letting people know. So, in a way the thing of what can women do differently is kind of, not redundant, but is not the point. Also, I agree with you that a lot of the focus was on women exercising and being outside at night, but a lot of the stories brought to light show that we’ve all been harassed, intimidated and worse at all times of the day and in all environments.

I am sounding really negative now and I don’t want to paint a doom and gloom picture but that is a reality that we women have kind of got used to. And I think sometimes we forget to feel angry about it because it’s so normal. So, I welcome the fact, not the reason why, but I welcome the fact that we’re questioning this now and actually saying no, society and the way that we structure things has to change. There’s a real onus on the physical activity sector and they are addressing this more and more, to start thinking about their policies, their procedures, how they’re set up, for example gyms, and they are doing this now. They are implementing very clear policies and processes if somebody feels harassed or intimidated, that there’s somewhere to go to and that it will be taken seriously. And I think the same with sports clubs and running clubs or anything like that need to do the same as well so that we’re very clearly calling it out and having a zero tolerance, zero acceptance attitude to this. The biggest thing I do is to encourage women, if you want to go outside and exercise whether its running, walking, cycling, sprints in the park, HIIT classes, whatever it is, keep doing it. Because the more of us that are out there normalising it and showing that we’re doing it anyway, then the more that does have an impact as well. It helps tackle the fear but also, if there’s more of us out there, the more people that are out there then the less alone we are.

Q) Women do feel intimidated in gyms as well so what can be done to help and eradicate this? Should there be more female only gyms, but shouldn’t women feel safe enough to be in a mixed sex gym?

A) I think we need both because there are some women for all sorts of reasons, are going to be happier, safe and more comfortable, maybe they just prefer working out in a woman only gym more, and that’s fine. But it shouldn’t be the only way that we feel safe is to segregate ourselves. It’s almost ridiculous to even think that in this day and age, at this level of education to do that. UK Active, which is an association for gyms have been doing a lot of work on what they can do and what gyms can collectively do when it comes to training of staff so that they understand the issue, they understand that if you have an experience which might seem like nothing much but if it’s relentless, because that’s the thing sometimes a look or a comment which in and of itself might sound like nothing much to a man, but to women because it’s on top of everything else is just the final straw. So, I think they’ve done a lot of work to try and help gyms to educate their staff and learn more and understand that so they can address that, and they are looking at bringing in some public policies and statements which really emphasise the fact that it is a harassment free zone and what people can do if they do feel harassed and intimidated. Absolutely, women should absolutely feel safe to go to mixed gyms, to have all the same freedoms that men have as well and not have to think about it. In the vast majority of cases, the worry about it is worse than the reality of it, and that’s not me diminishing the worry because I understand that, I’ve seen it too and I’ve felt it too but I think for us to actually recognise it that in the vast majority of cases when you get out there and do it, whether it’s going to the gym or going to the park or it’s going for a run, whatever it is, it will be absolutely fine and the vast majority of people who are exercising are focussing on themselves but to know that there is somewhere to go and there’s something to do if you do feel unsafe. And actually, in any world, we all have the responsibility, men and women, to look after each other as well.

Coincidentally this happened to me in a park yesterday. This sounds so perfectly made up but it’s not. I was going to do a HIIT class in a park and there was a woman there, she wasn’t exercising but she’d been followed, and she was really scared so she stayed with us, we called the Police and we stayed next to her. So, we had her back and there’s some element of that if you do feel unsafe or if you do feel creeped out, then to talk to people around you and we can all play a role in supporting and helping each other. We called the Police, and he was still in the park, he was on the opposite side and they talked to him and set him on his way, and it was all fine. But there’s a real lesson in that for us women for years I think a lot of us will feel unsafe and creeped out and we will squash it down and just try and get ourselves away but actually finding people you can turn around and confront it with if we feel confident and able to, we can do that. I think it was British Athletics did a leaflet last week which was advice on exercising safely, it was about running but I think it applies to all physical exercise, it started with all the usual stuff that we have to do but it did go on to other runners and to men as allies as what they can do as well, the obvious things about if you’re behind a woman, cross the road, make it very clear and also saying what you might think as a joke or a pleasant comment might not be received as that so don’t make it.

Sometimes some of what they (men) think is fine, we don’t feel as fine because it’s that thing that we don’t know if you’re just being nice or what you think is nice or you’re a threat – we don’t know. So, I think getting that across as well, the education of men into understanding the world from our point of view and the caution that we walk through the world in, and we walk through public spaces with or go to public places like gyms with. I think that it is really good advice because it’s practical, it’s down to earth, it’s not getting into the ‘not all men, yes all men’ thing and it’s not blaming men, it’s just to explain and get them to see the world from our point of view. That’s what I really encourage. Anybody organising any activity, whether it be in a formal gym setting or whether it be informal is understand it from the point of view of someone who is likely to have felt vulnerable at some stage purely because of her gender and be very upfront about what is and isn’t acceptable to support their needs.

Q) How important is the recent re-opening of gyms to reduce the activity gap between men and women?

A) Really important. We were at record levels of women getting active before the pandemic and obviously last year it’s hit male and female participation levels hard. Women in some ways have been a bit more resilient. We know that gyms, swimming pools and fitness classes rank really highly among the activities that women are most likely to do and fitness classes aren’t back yet, that’s next month, but getting the gyms and pools open is absolutely critical because it’s somewhere you can go, you can get active on your own terms and it’s supportive, it’s safe. Genuinely, again this sounds scripted but I’m literally stood outside of a pool now, it was so lovely to be back in the swimming pool and I’m not a massive swimmer but just the feeling of weightlessness and freedom and because of the restrictions there’s a lot more space so if you were nervous about coming back or getting started, it’s probably a really good time to be doing it because there’s not that many people there. Obviously, we need more people to be going back so that’s a weird message for me to say but I would really encourage people thinking about it to give it a try because the role that gyms and fitness classes play in women’s lives is really important. It’s not just the activity itself, it’s the social thing that sits around it. I’ve just been having a lovely conversation in the changing rooms with a woman talking about swimming and it’s just that social aspect that it brings that’s really, really nice. I don’t think we got sociable when we’re out running and walking on our own and I do love walking and walking is a fantastic exercise, but I think I need to be doing something else as well. I think we all want to be able to mix it in with something else as well for some time at least.

Women can access useful resources to help get active by visiting

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