Women and Sport


Men rule in sports, both as athletes and coaches as well as consumers of the sports entertainment industry. Encouraging women and girls – who often drop out of sport too early – to get more involved is a challenge.

As the Commission has no competence in sport, sport and gender priorities at EU level are set by member states. However, gender equality is a priority and selection criterion in all EU-supported programmes, some of which can fund projects related to sport.

1994: The first international conference on women and sport was held in Brighton. It addressed the issue of how to accelerate the process of change that would redress the imbalances women face in their participation and involvement in sport. The participants, among whom the European Ministers for Sport, endorsed a Brighton Declaration outlining the principles that should guide action intended to increase the involvement of women in sport at all levels and in all functions and roles. 

June 2003: A European Parliament resolution on women and sport embraces a variety of issues, such as sports structures, sport in schools, top level sport, health aspects and greater participation in decision-making positions.

September 2005: The EU-27 sports ministers agreed to promote equal opportunities and diversity in and through sport at both the national and European levels. This would be done by presenting examples of good practice in sports participation at forthcoming conferences to be held within the European sports movement. They also identified 'equality of access to sporting services' as another key area for further development.

October 2005: The first ever expert meeting on equal opportunities and sport between the Commission and the member states aimed to present and disseminate examples of good practice in sports participation regarding gender and people with disabilities.

December 2005: A European Parliament resolution "encourages the greater participation of women (athletes and journalists) in sport and development, defines gender equality as an objective in sport for development initiatives and stresses that the World Conferences on Women and Sport led to major progress in the field of women’s sports around the world".

July 2007: The Commission's White Paper on Sport and the accompanying Action Plan highlight the need to encourage the mainstreaming of gender issues into all the EU's activities related to sport.

The percentage of participation of women and girls in sport varies between countries but is, in every case, less than that of men and boys. 

Recent Eurobarometer surveys (2003, 2004) show that men exercise more than women: 41% of men interviewed claim they play sport at least once a week, while the proportion of women is 6 points less (35%). From a socio-demographic point of view, men are more convinced than women that sport providesan opportunity to be with friends and to have fun. Men, for instance, seem to assign more importance than women to friendship (41% compared to 30%) and fair play (36% compared to 28%). 

More men also go to sports clubs (25% compared to 20% of women) and sports complexes (18% compared to 14% of women). Women seem to prefer fitness centres, as 22% of women visit them compared to 18% of men. Women are also somewhat more convinced about the health benefits of sport than men (81% compared to 78%). 

The Commission's White Paper on Sport (July 2007) and the accompanying Action Plan highlight the need to encourage the mainstreaming of gender issues at EU level.

Regarding the potential of sport for social inclusion, integration and equal opportunities in particular, the Paper states that "in the framework of its Roadmap for Equality between Women and Men 2006-2010, the Commission will encourage the mainstreaming of gender issues into all its sports-related activities, with a specific focus on access to sport for immigrant women and women from ethnic minorities, women's access to decision-making positions in sport and media coverage of women in sport." 

In promoting Muslim girls' and women's participation in physical activity, the challenge is two-fold: the struggle for gender equality - the right of girls and women to full and equal life opportunities - and respecting cultural diversity and differences - the right of ethnic groups to sustain the cultural practices of gender differences and segregation of the sexes.

The White Paper also indicates that the Commission is set to promote the use of sport as a tool in its development policy, with action targeted at improving access for girls and women to physical education and sport, "with the objective of helping them build confidence, improve social integration, overcome prejudices and promote healthy lifestyles as well as women's access to education." 

As for the organisation of sport, the Commission suggests that more attention should be paid to women's representation in management and leadership positions.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), many women suffer from "disease processes that are associated with inadequate participation in physical activity", such as cardiovascualr diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and breast cancer. WHO also notes that physical activity is associated with improved psychological health "by reducing levels of stress, anxiety and depression" and can contribute to building self-esteem and confidence. 

The WHO highlights a number of reasons for physical inactivity of women: Women often have lower income than men, which may represent a barrier to access to physical activities (PA). Women's workload in the home may limit the time available for leisure and thus for PA. Women may have limted mobility to travel to PA faclities. Cultural expectations may restrict their participation in some form of PA. 

The fourth World  Conference on Women and Sport held in May 2006 listed a number of recommendations for boosting women's sports participation. These range from making physical education compulsory - and fun - for all young girls, encouraging older women to participate in sport and raising awareness of women from ethnic minorities in sport to breaking out of gender stereotypes in our thinking and actions.

The UK Womens's Sports Foundation (WSF) thinks that sportswomen involved in the production of sports media are under-represented in all forms of media and this is a real concern for those trying to increase the visibility of women's sport. "Television, radio and the print media play a central role in informing our knowledge, opinions and attitudes about women and sport. This is achieved through both the amount of coverage and the language used. The media can play an important role in raising the public profile of women's sport," argues WSF. 

Dr Katrin Petry from the German Sports University in Cologne, told EURACTIV that a big issue - under the heading 'social inclusion' - is that leading positions in sports organisations are 99% dominated by men, leaving women without role models. "The issue of gender stereotypes is also critical, especially when you look at the representation of women in the media (TV, press, etc.)", she added, also referring to "the role conflict of women in traditionally male sports" (e.g. soccer, boxing etc.). 

Dr. Heike Kahl, from the Deutsche Kinder und Jugendstiftung, told EURACTIV that "big sports associations and lobbyists often are not the right players if you are looking for innovative developments." She said it would be better to look into organisations where children really spend their time, such as schools. Kahl thinks that there should be women-only sports federations and minimum quotas for women running sports federations. Her view is that girls need their own space to develop self-confidence. 

Tilo Friedmann, from the EU Office of German Sport, told EURACTIV that "sports organisations are aware of promoting the role of girls or women in their structures. There are a lot of examples, from local initiatives such as GIPAS (Girls Participating in Sport – a project run by the Austrian ASVÖ sports federation [short for Allgemeiner Sportverband Österreichs] up to the International Olympic Committee's programme for the promotion of women sports leaders

Liese Prokop, from the European Women and Sport Working Group, told EURACTIV that the European Parliament resolution on women and sport calls for EU financial support for the EWS, something that "would be more than welcome". She says that the EWS needs support and close links to the European institutions to set up professional structures and be able to pursue its strategies to promote women and girls in sport.

  • Oct. 2005: The Commission held Expert meetings on 'Equal Opportunities through and in Sport' in to present and disseminate examples of good practice of participation in sports with regard to gender and people with disabilities. Summary of member states' data was published in March 2006.
  • May 2006: The fourth World conference on Women and Sport. To read the workshop summaries, click here.
  • Feb. 2007: A study of the current situation and prospects for physical education in the EU was debated in a Parliament hearing. The study argues, with evidence, that gender inequalities exist and that there are barriers to full participation for girls. Such barriers are said to include cultural traditions, especially religion and societal attitudes; restricted range of opportunities for girls to be active; male-dominated or biased curricula and physical education classes and inadequately qualified and uninformed teachers.
  • March 2007: The UK Women's Sports Foundation publishes its latest report on the state of play of Women in Sport.
  • April 2007: Wimbledon announces that it will provide equal prize money to male and female athletes. All four Grand Slam events now offer equal prize money to the champions. The French Open also recently announced that it will award equal prize money.
  • 11 July 2007: The Commission published its White Paper on Sport.
  • 15 Nov. 2007Raising the Game: The Future for Women's Sport -conference.
  • 8-10 March 2008: The fourth IOC World conference on Women and Sport debated 'Sport as a vehicle for social change' and adopted a Dead Sea Plan of Action setting out a future strategy and action plan on how to advance the cause of girls and women in and through sport.
  • 26 Jan. 2009: Women and sport: what is at stake for Europe? -debate in the European Parliament (EURACTIV 29/01/09).
  • 9-10 Oct. 2009: The eight European Women and Sport conference.
  • 2010: The fifth World conference on Women and Sport.


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