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Designing sport for women

Copyrights: Unconform Studio

Designing sport for women

When designing sport programmes for women and girls, is it important to create female-only spaces, or should sport be mixed-gender to break gender barriers?

On 20 April, Unconform Studio held a conversation on designing sports programmes for women and girls. This aimed to understand how recreational and elite sports can be more welcoming towards women. Katee Hui from Hackney Laces and Suheil Tandon from Pro Sport Development were the two panellists.

Designing women-only spaces

Katee Hui set up Hackney Laces in 2011 to give women and girls an opportunity to participate in football. The organisation provides women- and girls-only spaces for football in East London, UK. The local context has informed this decision – Katee said that women and girls have been systematically excluded from all sport, but the divide is most evident in football.

She recalled how initially Hackney Laces would book outdoor spaces for girls and women to play. However, boys and men would frequently encroach on these spaces, taking it over for their own use. Katee decided to move to indoor spaces, providing a safe space for women and girls to play football in, where men could not come in. Since moving to indoor spaces, participation in the programme has increased. Indeed, research has found that designing women-only spaces is integral to increasing women’s participation in sports.

Katee highlighted that Hackney Laces are working on including men and boys into their spaces, but on a limited and experimental basis. She noted, “We need to have women and girls only specific spaces, but … the thing we would love to do is find a way to bring boys and men into the conversation without it being combative and hostile, because it [often] feels like that.”

Designing mixed-gender programmes

On the other hand, Suheil Tandon explained how Pro Sport Development’s programmes, based in India, are mandatorily mixed-gender. This is a non-negotiable for him: as he says, “if men and boys are part of the problem then they need to be a part of the solution.” Outlining the context in India, where the organisation is based, he said that a mixed-gender approach promotes inclusivity. It allows girls and boys to work together, and generates healthy interactions between them.

In a conservative setting like India, there are no real opportunities for boys and girls to interact with each other, whether at home or outside. Such spaces must therefore be strategically designed and well-facilitated. It isn’t only participation that matters – it is the broader social goals that we can achieve through sport. Suheil emphasised that these spaces need to be made safe to ensure that girls and women can participate without fear or stigma. He noted, however, that it is difficult to take this approach beyond the recreational level: mainstream sport, especially elite sport, tends to have strict segregation between men and women.

Making space for diverse genders

Mansi Gupta, the host of the webinar, noted that this conversation goes even beyond sport – people often question if there is any point to designing women-only spaces when the world itself is more diverse and there are many different gender identities, including trans and non-binary. Segregated spaces can also be a detriment to the participation of people whose identity does not fall on the traditional gender binary. In a highly patriarchal world, women-only spaces are important – they provide women the freedom and space to exist and express themselves. Yet, these spaces exclude people of diverse gender identities.

Suheil noted that sport, as it exists right now, is designed to discriminate against women, trans and non-binary people. Bringing up the case of Caster Semenya, he said that female athletes have to perform femininity in a very traditional and narrow way to be considered women. Juxtaposing her case with that of Michael Phelps, Suheil pointed out that Semenya is being punished for characteristics that are considered a natural advantage in Phelps. Rigid notions of sex and gender limit women and trans athletes but do not impact men.

Making sport accessible for women

Sport can be a powerful tool, but activities needs to be designed in an intentional manner to harness its benefits. Katee has found that designing programmes for women goes beyond women-only spaces – it means designing them with women’s specific needs in mind. Offering childcare services has helped increase participation of girls and women, who are often responsible for their children or younger siblings.

This conversation highlighted that while designing sport for women, we need to not only think about how to increase their participation in sport but how sport can be used to tackle gender issues. Further, we need to think about creative and well-considered ways to include trans and non-binary people in recreational and elite sport. Sport currently works only for a narrow demographic – we need to keep pushing boundaries to ensure everyone can exercise their right to play and enjoy sport. Sport needs to ensure, as the 2030 Agenda states, that ‘no-one is left behind’.

  • Watch a recording of the conversation here

Unconform Studio looks at the world through a female-centric lens and making design for women mainstream. Their monthly conversations focus on different aspects of designing the world for women.

Pro Sport Development (PSD) is a social enterprise that works towards developing sport and empowering youth at the grassroots in India.

Hackney Laces is an organisation which provides football training for women and girls in East London, UK.


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Thursday, April 22, 2021 - 11:25

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