‘Gender play gap’ stops girls from taking up sport, MPs warn

Children playing hockey in school playground
Experts told the committee that boys are encouraged to engage in more 'rough and tumble' play - Peter Cade/Getty Images

A “gender play gap” is making it harder for girls to get into sport, MPs have warned.

Boys get a head start on physical activity before they even take their first steps, leading to a “real gap in fundamental skills” by the time children reach primary school, according to a new report from the Women and Equalities Committee.

The MPs heard that the “gender disparities” start from six months, when baby boys experience a surge in testosterone, making them both faster and stronger.

By contrast, girls “move a lot less”, partly because they are constrained by unhelpful stereotypes of what constitutes “suitable” play.

Boys also tend to engage in more “rough and tumble” and “playing around”, meaning they get to know their physicality better.

As a result of these social and biological differences, the report said that many girls are “lost” to sport before they even start school.

In evidence to the committee, Baz Moffat, a women’s health coach and former Team GB rower, described an observable “gender play gap” among children at the age of five.

Asked about higher drop-out rates among girls post-puberty, she said: “It is multifactorial, obviously.

“There is not one solution, but we know that 70 per cent of girls will not be playing sport by the end of puberty, which is a huge statistic. It is double the number of boys in that age group.

“There is what we call a gender play gap. Girls move a lot less than boys.”

‘They all disappear’

Lisa West, from the charity Women in Sport, also told the committee that a combination of hormonal differences and gender stereotypes put boys at an advantage.

“We often talk about how girls hit teenage years and they all go, as if it is like this magical ‘poof’ that they all disappear [from sport], but of course this is built over years…Gender stereotyping starts right at the beginning,” she said.

“We have talked a lot about testosterone … the boys they have this testosterone surge at six months old.

“All of a sudden, we see this increased physicality. From that point, boys are 6 per cent stronger and faster than girls. “

The MPs concluded that girls face “a number of distinctive health and physiology-related barriers to participation in, and enjoyment of, sport and physical activity, from early years to post-puberty”.

“Existing programmes and interventions from the Government and other bodies, while welcome, do not yet go far enough in addressing these barriers and are yet to reverse alarming downward trends in girls’ enjoyment of PE,” they added.

‘Outdated stereotypes’

Caroline Nokes, the committee’s Tory chairman, told The Telegraph the “gender play gap” was down to “outdated stereotypes” that mean “we still have expectations of little girls sitting down and playing nicely.”

“That attitude perpetuates all through school, puberty, mid-life – and we know, for good bone health, women and girls need to be participating in exercise and sport,” she added.

The report also found that “failings” in the education system are having “obvious consequences” for girls’ confidence, leading them to withdraw from “necessary, healthy activity”.

It pointed to “shocking” statistics showing that only half of schools teach about periods, despite it being a mandatory part of the curriculum.

The MPs urged the Department for Education to “urgently review” the quality and timeliness of education on girls’ health and physiology, including the menstrual cycle in the context of PE, to ensure lessons are delivered “more effectively and much earlier”.

The Government has been approached for comment.