Women's Sport: How sport is about more than just the game and all about empowerment

With International Women’s Day and the weeks surrounding it, we often hear a lot about how sportswomen can be important role models for girls and how we need to increase girls participation, but one woman wants us to think beyond those parameters. 

Alexandra Chalat is the managing director of Beyond Sport, an organisation that is committed to supporting organisations in sport to develop programmes that achieve a positive impact in societies around the world. 

Chalat explains that she wants us to expand our conversations around girls in sport. “I think too quickly when people think about what sport can do for women they think about getting more women into sport and sport participation,” she says.

“And while that is, of course, important and I do not want to minimize that at all, there is so much more sport can do around gender equality, addressing that issue and empowering women.”

As well as focusing on the stars and how to get girls involved, Chalat believes we should draw attention to the “deeper layer around what sport can do”.

Supporting women into sport leadership

For Chalat, there are multiple ways that sport can create social change, one of which ties into her experience as a woman in sport leadership. When Chalat started at Beyond Sport in 2008, she was often the only woman in the room. Now she is in a senior role and has seen more women enter the space.

Continuing to increase diversity is something Chalat describes as a “massive opportunity” for the sports industry. In particular, she says she doesn’t think sport always views engaging women who “might not otherwise get a job or might not otherwise have the opportunity because of their background or their education” as an opportunity.

Chalat is optimistic that there will be more women in senior roles but adds: “What I would say is that I don’t think it will happen just because. I think we need to be purposeful and cognisant. I don’t think that just goes for women, it goes for diversity generally in business.”

Chalat can see easy-to-implement solutions, however, such as introducing processes and awareness to ensure career progression and hiring is diverse.

Giving a more diverse range of women the spotlight is another action Chalat says the industry needs to take. She explains: “It’s making sure that it’s not just the same group of senior women that are always having a voice and always speaking on this topic. It is engaging, unearthing and profiling amazing women in the sports industry who are doing great stuff and might not always be the go-to.”

“Giving a voice to women of all backgrounds and women of different races showcases and shines a light on entirely different mindsets.”

Sport’s impact beyond sport

Chalat’s vision of how sport can benefit society extends well beyond engaging more women within the industry. Through her work at Beyond Sport, she supports and promotes organisations who use sport to address women’s issues worldwide. 

“That’s everything from addressing violence against women to FGM, financial literacy or employability to child marriage, the really big issues that women and girls are facing,” explains Chalat. “There are some incredible organisations and methodologies that are using sport to address those issues, not just getting girls to play sport.”

The scope of this is wide and includes working with men to bring about equality, as well as with women themselves. “There’s so much cool stuff going on,” Chalat affirms. 

“That’s what I mean in terms of selling sport short in this way, I think people often think of sport as this simplistic tool to get girls active or to get girls playing and there’s just so much more that sport does for women worldwide.”

The best way to broaden the conversation according to Chalat is to tell the stories and show the impact sport can have, something that she does day-in day out: “That is a lot of what we’re here to do as Beyond Sport, is to help tell those stories and raise awareness about organisations, what they’re doing through sports and what that means.”

Stories of change

In terms of the stories, Chalat is full of examples of how sport can have an impact. One organisation called Free to Run works with women in conflict and post-conflict zones like Sudan and Afghanistan to empower women through running and adventure sport.

Chalat describes how it empowers girls “to think differently about their identity, who they are and their abilities. Through that process, it allows them to feel equal and feel like they have a voice”.

Another organisation, called Pledge United is an Indonesia-based charity that runs campaigns and programmes focused on violence against women, using sport as a tool to educate men. Chalat explains: “They focus on men, which is so crucial and people don’t think about it.

“It’s not just about getting them to play soccer then listen to someone talk. Through different games and campaigns, they engage men in the conversation and educate them. They get them to be champions of women and anti-violence campaigns.” 

Yet another example is Reclaim Childhood. They work with girls in refugee camps and use sport and the power of role models to give the girls something to do in the camps. More than that though, Chalat says it “gives them a sense of purpose and a sense of leadership in their community where that’s often not the case”.

The Change Foundation’s Netball 4 Change uses sport to teach girls how to stay safe on social media. Street Elite has a programme that uses sport to tackle youth unemployment among women. It turns out that sport is being used in innovative ways all around the world, often the stories just aren’t being told.

There are a few criteria according to Chalat that make these and many other sporting programmes successful. One of the most important is engaging the women and girls who the programme is designed to help. “What constitutes a great programme is making sure that the young women in the programme have a voice and have a have a role in the programme design,” she says.

Additionally, focusing on more than just play and engaging men in the conversation are key. That’s because if you continue to separate men and women then Chalat says “that’s just reinforcing divisions”.

It is also crucial to ensure that the programmes truly cater to all women, regardless of their socioeconomic background, race, religion or ability. The reason is perhaps more simple than the execution, as Chalat explains: “Sometimes it’s easy to just engage the women that have the easiest access and the ability to access already. We need to reach beyond that.”

Overcoming barriers

Through her work supporting organisations, Chalat hears about the barriers that they face implementing programmes. One such barrier is often parents.

“In certain communities and regions there are existing cultural barriers and for the most part that’s put into place by the generation before, so often the parents,” explains Chalat.

This means that programmes need to help parents understand why they should allow their daughter to participate. She adds: “The great programmes that I know of and that we support, target the parents and focus on supporting them in the challenges.”

A similar approach is needed with socioeconomic barriers. In particular, a reoccurring challenge is that often daughters are the ones who bear familial responsibilities. 

“They’re dropping out of school or they’re having to go work at a young age and that’s the reality of the situation and you can’t push against that as there is a much wider systemic issue at play than just gender,” says Chalat.

The way she sees organisations address that is by framing gender equality through a wider social lens and designing programmes that takes this into account.

Chalat gives the example of Magic Bus, an Indian NGO who look at individual girls holistically and support each one through education, employment and training.

She explains: “They look at the education, they look at the parents, they look at the policies in place in the community and they look at the whole support system and how they can address all of that to enable success with each girl.”

It is an approach that clearly works well looking at sport too. Isolating or focusing on just one or two of its benefits when it comes to women and girls is to miss the bigger picture. Chalat and Beyond Sport are championing and supporting organisations who use sport to empower girls and address gender equality in all its forms. That’s something we should shout about, all year round. 

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