'They make fun of girls and stare at our breasts'

‘PE horror stories' are common, finds group investigating barriers to women taking part in physical activity

They 'make fun' of girls and 'stare at our breasts'

A new investigation into barriers that prevent girls from taking part in physical activity and sport has found that “PE horror stories” are common.

The report – compiled by a group taking part in a Scottish Parliament project aimed at increasing women’s participation in politics – calls on the Scottish government to produce guidance for schools on how to involve young women and girls in the development of PE classes.

This could include providing single-cubicle changing rooms and making schools aware of the physical changes that may affect participation and confidence, suggests the report by the Young Women Lead project.

The report also reveals that enthusiasm for PE drops dramatically after girls start secondary school.


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A survey received over 600 responses from women under 30, including 192 responses from girls of school age. It found that 83 per cent of pupils agreed with the statement “at primary school I enjoyed physical education lessons”. But by secondary that figure had dropped to just 54 per cent.

Over half of the girls (53 per cent) said their enjoyment of PE dropped between primary and secondary school.

One respondent told the Young Women Lead (YWL) project: “I hated being in a class with boys. They would make fun of the girls and stare at our breasts and bums. It was even worse in swimming. They also would never pass the ball to us when we did sports, and they excluded us.”

Others who gave evidence branded PE lessons as “sexist”.

One woman said: “At school it was so sexist and gender-specific. I missed out greatly doing the sports I wanted to do – rugby and football. If I tried to play them I suffered terrible bullying and abuse from both kids and teachers. This occurred through both primary and secondary school.”

Another witness told the group: “When I got into high school, sports became segregated. Boys would go outside to play football and rugby while girls would play netball and rounders. Day in, day out, it was and still is exceptionally sexist.”

Individual experiences were backed up by organisations with a focus on getting women active or improving confidence. Run Mummy Run, which has a membership of 61,000 women, said a “bad experience at high school” was a common shared experience among its members.

Meanwhile, Danielle Gordon of the Chachi Power Project – a Scotland-based organisation which has the goal of improving body confidence – said “horrendous” experiences of school PE were shared with her and many young women were put off exercise and only got back to it later in life.

The report states: “From the young women we spoke to, it was clear that negative feelings around exercise began early, with negative experiences in school a key factor.”

However, it says that participation could be improved by “listening to what young women want and adapting PE lessons for each individual context”. The report highlights the example of a school which had allowed girls to swap white shirts for coloured tops because the white ones could become see-through.

The report states: “When they were listened to and the colour changed, participation increased.”

It adds: “For both primary and secondary students, factors that would increase enjoyment of PE included more choice of activities, better facilities and more focus on fun as opposed to competition.”

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