Equal representation of women in all roles is essential to shaping the future of the health and wellbeing of communities across the UK. However, in some sectors, such as the traditionally male-dominated sport and physical activity industry, their experiences remain overlooked, and their contributions underrepresented.  

But what can we do about it? Changing the narrative will help to promote equity and advance public health, but to get there, we need to understand  the barriers currently faced by women in sport and fitness. To answer that question, we spoke with Amy Sabin from Future Fit Training about the hurdles in the industry and what we can gain from overcoming them.

What barriers do women face in the sport and physical activity industry?

The biggest hurdle to overcome when it comes to participation in sport remains gender stereotyping. According to the Women in Sport ‘Sport, Stereotypes and Stolen Dreams’ report, only 30% of parents believe playing sport is very important for their daughter, compared with 41% of parents for their sons. Challenging the perception that sport is for boys must begin at an early age through showcasing the diverse talents and capabilities of women in sports. Building upon the success of The Lionesses and the Red Roses, there must be both increased media coverage, and increased investment in women’s sport at both elite and grassroots levels.

In the physical activity sector, it is important to challenge the perception that sport and fitness are ‘masculine’ by increasing representation and ensuring that women feel empowered to take control of their fitness journeys and perform at their best.  This requires research and investment by operators within the sphere of health and fitness. With research showing that up to 40% of women avoid gyms due to concerns about intimidation or harassment, industry leaders Total Fitness launched their first Women’s Gym using extensive client feedback to design spaces where women feel at ease whilst working out.

It is also essential to address the historic gender imbalance in the workforce of the physical activity sector, ensuring that the industry recruits and retains more women to create equal representation. As these larger numbers of women progress through their careers, this will lead to greater diversity and inclusion in leadership positions, creating mentorship opportunities and training initiatives tailored to support the advancement of women in the industry.

This representation at senior level will in turn help to address inequalities on salary structures and compensation policies, as well as help with the creation of more family-friendly policies.

Why are women important in sport and physical activity?

As with all industries, equal representation of both men and women is essential to bring the varied perspectives needed to support diverse populations. In terms of the wider public health workforce, listening to the experiences and insights of women and acting on them guarantees that health initiatives and programmes consider the needs of women themselves.

Women have unique health needs and considerations that may differ from those of men, particularly when it comes to physical activity and wellbeing, and it is essential the physical activity workforce have the knowledge and training to support these health needs. The advocacy and service provision of women working in the sector creates an environment where women feel recognised and empowered to participate in physical activity, providing better health throughout their lives.

For example, according to NICE, by the age of eighty years old, half of women will suffer with osteoporosis. However, following an individually tailored exercise programme that incorporates progressive muscle strengthening, training for balance, and a walking plan, can reduce the overall risk serious injury-sustaining falls by just over 30%.

What advice would you give to a woman thinking about a career in the physical activity industry?

Pursuing a career in the physical activity industry is a great option if you have a genuine passion for health and wellbeing; dedication that creates a meaningful impact to the communities. Based on thirty years of industry experience, Future Fit offers the following advice:

Invest in your Education: Choose an accredited course from an industry leading training provider. Set aside time for continual professional development to stay informed about best practices and ensure you seek out opportunities for learning and growth to provide a positive experience for your clients.

Seek Mentorship and Support: Create a supportive network that can offer guidance, advice, and encouragement as you navigate your career path. Leveraging the insights of others can help you to develop professionally.

Lead by Example: As a woman in the health and fitness industry, you have the ability to inspire others. Your career development, the roles you’ve excelled in and the differences you’ve made to the health of your community will empower future generations to pursue their aspirations through a career in physical activity.

Why we need a national public health workforce strategy

A national strategy would bring numerous benefits both to the physical activity sector and the rest of the wider public health workforce.

Through a co-ordinated strategy, it will be possible to identify and address skills gaps within the public health workforce, ensuring that professionals in the physical activity sector can receive the training and education necessary to support the NHS. It will also create recognition of the vital role the wider public health workforce has in meeting the evolving health needs and challenges of the population, building the perception of their value, and improving  recruitment and retention.

Once the skills of the wider public health workforce are recognised, greater collaboration can be established between healthcare providers, government agencies and private entities, driving forwards the collective action needed to address public health priorities. This supports further innovation, prioritising investment in professional development opportunities and creating a skilled and resilient workforce capable of making a significant impact in the reduction of health disparities, the promotion of healthy lifestyles, and the prevention of chronic diseases.

The RSPH Wider Public Health Workforce report provides the framework the physical activity sector needs for coordinated action, investment, and collaboration, ultimately leading to improved health outcomes and greater equity in access to physical activity opportunities for all. As we celebrate Women’s Health Month in May, we look forward to breaking down the barriers women face, and Top of Form supporting greater inclusion and advancement of women to create a more equitable environment where women are empowered to make a meaningful impact to public health and wellbeing.