Q&A with Jennie Price, outgoing CEO of Sport England
Since being appointed as CEO of Sport England in 2007, Jennie Price has been the public face of an organisation dedicated to ensuring that communities everywhere can enjoy the benefits of sport and physical activity.
The This Girl Can campaign, launched in 2015, has been an overwhelming success, responsible for getting close to 4 million British women more active, and opening up new conversations around women, confidence, capability and entitlement. Jennie announced her retirement in May 2018.
VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter (left) and Sport England CEO Jennie Price (right) in the This Girl Can story pod.
Q: What can you tell us about the origins of the This Girl Can campaign in the UK? What were the triggers that set it in motion?
A: The campaign was a response to a request in 2012 from a newly appointed Cabinet Minister, Maria Miller, to do more on women’s sport, and a response to data that showed a sustained gender gap in sports participation in England.
In 2014, 1.8 million more men than women were regularly active. This was despite all the health messaging, the impact of the London 2012 Olympics and the various female-focused projects and programmes Sport England had invested in. A large proportion of women were just not engaging, although the research showed a very high proportion of them would like to do so.
We looked beyond the top-line findings of the quantitative and qualitative research to understand why. We talked to women and identified a unifying barrier: a fear of judgment. Many women felt they were the wrong body-shape or not skilled enough to get active, or felt guilty about spending time on themselves rather than on their families. We set out to create a campaign that tackled these emotional barriers, rather than the purely practical barriers like time and cost.
Q. As of 2017, the campaign had been credited with getting 2.8 million women to start exercising in the UK. Is that the kind of outcome you had in mind when the campaign was launched? And what are your targets now?
A. When the campaign was first launched we had a general target to reduce the gender gap and to see a quantifiable change in the number of women playing sport regularly. We already had a population-wide survey in place which had been running for seven years so we had clear baselines and a reliable method of measuring progress at population level. We also commissioned additional quantitative and qualitative research directed specifically at the attitudes we were trying to change.
Our latest data shows that the campaign has directly encouraged 3.9 million women to take action. We are pleased with this – but not complacent. This is a long-term behaviour change campaign and while we have grown the number of women who feel that sport and physical activity is for them and who don’t care what others think, we know that this new-found confidence can be fragile.
Our insights also show that women from lower socio-economic and some minority ethnic groups are less likely to be active and, although they have connected with the campaign, it hasn’t had as much impact on them. So, it’s not just about overall numbers but ensuring the campaign engages and motivates all members of the community.
Q. You’ve said that This Girl Can isn’t just about getting women to start exercising, it’s also about empowering women. How does This Girl Can message make a difference to gender equality?
A. Fear of judgment doesn’t just apply to sport. Wider research shows that women judge themselves harshly in other areas of their lives: their ability to get a particular job for example. Talking about those fears openly and recognising how common they are can be an emotional and quite liberating experience. We have many instances of schools using This Girl Can as a general mantra for getting girls think more widely about what they would like to and are able to do.
Women have also told us that getting physically active changes their relationship with their bodies – they worry less about what they look like and are more interested in what they can do. It can boost confidence, raise self-esteem and support personal wellbeing and development.
Encouraging women to manage their own fear of judgment in terms of physical activity can empower them in other aspects of the life. And by featuring women of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and abilities getting active in their way for rowing to rugby, dance classes to weightlifting we are directly challenging traditional female stereotypes.
I want every woman who is told that she ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ to believe that she can, and know that she belongs in sport which many people regard as a traditionally male preserve.
Q. The huge engagement with the campaign has seen numerous commercial organisations approach Sport England about potential This Girl Can partnerships. Those kinds of partnerships can amplify the message, but can also undermine its integrity. What sort of criteria do you use to make decisions around which partnerships are right for This Girl Can?
A. We want to work a with a small number of strategic partners who share our values and ethos. They need to be genuinely supportive of women and there has to be a credible reason for them to support the campaign. They need to be able to help activate and amplify the campaign, adding value to our community, not simply targeting them with sales messages.
Q. What else needs to change to support the momentum that This Girl Can has created?
A. We all need to do more to understand the lives and challenges faced by our target audiences – particularly those in under-represented groups – and use that knowledge to design and promote opportunities to be active which fit in with women’s lives. Literally and metaphorically we need to go where women are, rather than expect them to come to us.
Simple measures like improving changing rooms, being flexible about sports clothing and offering a choice between single and mixed gender sessions can make a big difference.