The bias towards the masculine displays of competition, strength and speed in the PE curriculum is alienating girls, Jim Denison writes.
From disheartened sideline spectators - or worse, uninvited intruders - to frontline participants, girls and women have entered sport in record numbers over the past two decades. Women's sport sponsorship is rising, the nation lost hours of sleep supporting our "curling queens", and Paula Radcliffe is set to become one of the biggest stars, male or female, at next week's Commonwealth Games in Manchester, where a record 41 per cent of all competitors will be women. Many feminists who study sport argue that gender is irrelevant now. Athletes are athletes, they cheer, and women's sport is here to stay.
An increased focus on women's sport is hopeful and encouraging and represents real progress for women's rights. Cheryl Cole, a sports sociologist from the University of Illinois and editor of the Journal of Sport and Social Issues says: "Women athletes today have opportunities that were unthinkable ten years ago. Without question, elite female athletes provide meaningful role models for young girls, who testify to the inspiration that they provide. These athletes also provide models for adult women who will, perhaps, continue to be physically active."
But Cole is quick to offer a contrasting message. She believes that the celebratory rhetoric surrounding women's sport masks the struggles facing many women, such as healthcare, childcare and poverty, that make it almost impossible to participate in sport. And the source of this rhetoric? "A growing number of multinational corporations are announcing their allegiances to girls and women. Using sports, these corporations have found new arenas for profit. And they have made consuming women's sport a progressive practice for those select few who can afford their products," Cole says.
Her words go to the heart of the issue: how can a single mother of three access the resources to play netball for an hour on a Wednesday night? And more to the point, is sport participation for girls and women really on the rise, or is it simply some feel-good commodity activism? What are the gains for physically active girls and women?
David Kirk of Loughborough University's department of physical education, sport science and recreation management, says: "The idea of a 'physical emancipation' for girls and women is exaggerated. When we study women from working-class backgrounds or various racial and ethnic groups, we see almost no changes in physical activity patterns. They are still very, very low."
Such a finding is troubling because of the psychological, social and health benefits associated with physical activity. Equally problematic is the issue of many women's inactivity, with many interventions directed at girls' physical education. "For too long," Kirk continues, "we blamed girls and, later, women for not caring about sport because they weren't motivated enough. This 'blame-the-victim' emphasis has shifted in recent years, and now we are beginning to take a hard look at the PE curriculum and what we offer in the name of PE. Is a sport-based, team-game curriculum going to encourage girls? For that matter, is it going to encourage boys?"
When reduced to a curriculum debate, the problems associated with PE and declining physical activity levels among women and other populations become non-gender specific, as Kirk suggests. It is not as simple as saying PE serves boys' needs but not girls'. A growing body of research suggests that not all boys benefit from and enjoy traditional PE and its heavy masculine biases emphasising speed and strength. Furthermore, if PE is intended to foster lifelong fitness, why is the curriculum so team-game based when adults seldom engage in team games in their leisure time? Sadly, the answer points only to tradition.
For well over 100 years, the practices that have made up PE in this country have been strongly associated with girls being "feminine" and boys being "masculine". Sport in schools has served to emphasise differences between men and women by celebrating one type of sport prowess, a stereotypical masculine one - or what Robert Connell, co-editor of Male Roles, Masculinity and Violence (Unesco Publishing), has referred to as "masculine hegemony". As a consequence, says sport historian Patricia Vertinsky, "PE tends to serve only a select few, with the most disadvantaged being girls."
Sheila Scraton, author of Shaping up to Womanhood : Gender and Girls' Physical Education (Open University Press), thinks there is nothing mysterious about girls' lack of interest in PE and sport. "For starters, they're required to wear uncomfortable uniforms, remove their jewellery and tie back their hair, all of which conflict with their emerging sense of femininity." Scraton suggests that expanding PE and broadening girls'
notions of what it means to be active requires an explicit pedagogy that looks beyond the school to understand how sport is understood in society by girls and women.
Sports sociologist Nicola Manson reached a similar conclusion after an eight-month study in a central London girls' school that examined sport in girls' lives. "For the girls in my study," she says, "PE, sport and, more broadly, physical activity carried absolutely no relevance. It just was not a discussion point in their day-to-day lives - never. And unless 'being physical' can be marketed to them as a commodity they desire, by overhauling the PE curriculum or other means, this won't change."
Barbara Humberstone of Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College offers a similar view. "In girls' minds, physical activities that are 'cool'
aren't offered in PE." This led Humberstone to experiment with an outdoor adventure unit, which most girls found challenging, exciting and rewarding. "They could wear trendy outdoor clothes and see their skills improving; and because the boys weren't necessarily better at these activities, the girls began to rethink their definitions of masculinity, femininity and physical competence."
Other novel PE offerings designed to make girls' experiences more relevant to the curriculum include units on aerobics, dance and weight training.
Ken Fox, professor of exercise and health sciences at the University of Bristol, believes there is real merit in these activities because of the importance that girls place on their appearance.
He points out that girls are not as free as they once were to walk, cycle and run. "Parents are more protective today and wary of unsupervised activities. As a result, we have seen a dramatic decline in girls' everyday movement patterns. And this is likely to increase if we do not make sport safe for girls or make it something that they perceive to be fun and interesting."
But Pirkko Markula, a sports sociologist from Brunel University, forecasts trouble if sport is sold on a weight-loss regime. "It's preying on their body-image insecurities," he says.
For any innovations to take a firm hold, partnerships between PE researchers and PE teachers need to be developed. A PE teacher who tries to introduce an experimental unit on non-competitive games at present is likely to be met with moans and groans from students. Team games continue to be served up because they offer the easiest path for overworked PE teachers to control their classes. But kids complain about these activities, too.
So what is one to do with the PE curriculum? More decisive and contemporary interventions based on what researchers know about girls, boys and sport are desperately needed. Until such programmes are designed and implemented, there is little hope that PE will change with the times and begin to serve anyone's needs.