Maria Bobenrieth: Girls "deserve the opportunity" to play sport

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This week’s game changers podcast featured Maria Bobenrieth, the executive director of Women Win. In a thought-provoking interview, Bobenrieth described how she has used sport as a powerful tool for social change throughout her career.

Bobenrieth was formerly global director of community investments at Nike. She then moved on to take up the role at the helm of Women Win, which leverages the power of sport to equip adolescent girls and young women to exercise their rights.

Born in Chile, Bobenrieth was educated in the United States and played varsity sport at high school. As English was not her first language, Bobenrieth underachieved academically, but she credited sport with “tethering” her to school.

Bobenrieth attended university on a volleyball scholarship, benefitting from the recent passing of Title IX in 1972. The legislation grants female athletes the right to equal opportunity in educational institutions that receive federal funds, including universities.

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Bobenrieth explained how the passing of Title IX has been fundamental to the development of women across the US.

“Wow, what a fight that was, because it's always, you know, it feels like when one part of the population gets their due rights, someone complains that something is being taken away,” she said.

“But it transformed the percentages of women participating in sports. And actually, there was a study done that looked at the high, high percentages of women that had been Title IX athletes, that were now sitting in places across public life, in business, in the private sector, in the public sector, in the charity sector, everywhere.

Where there was leadership in women, there was very often a link to collegiate sports opportunities.

Bobenrieth went on to discuss her work with Nike, which she said was the culmination of a range of international marketing and sales jobs at a variety of companies.

Nike was just emerging from a child labour crisis, with the company at one point almost synonymous with sweatshops. Bobenrieth explained how the sports apparel manufacturer was aiming to eradicate this image, and were searching for employees with “business experience, social experience and international experience.”

As global director of community investments, Bobenrieth began looking at how sport could be used as a tool for social change. She embarked on a “gender audit”, determining how much of organisations’ budgets were dedicated to women and girls. When Bobenrieth discovered it was a very small percentage, she set out to find why.

“What we found was very interesting, because what we saw was that the same issues that were keeping girls from the playing field, were keeping them out of society,” Bobenrieth said.

“And they're not very sexy issues. You know, people tend to think about the right kit, or just pretty extreme things. Actually it was things like period poverty.

“So if you don't have a way to manage your menstrual period, one week a month, it's not that you only don't play sports. You actually don't go to school. And over time you drop out.

“And what we saw, where girls were playing on teams, they were helping each other deal with this, because they didn't want the best players, or any of the players to miss any of the matches."

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Bobenrieth continued: “There were other things like lack of female coaches. If I had an adolescent daughter, I'd have to really think twice about who I'd leave her unsupervised with, in terms of travel or anything else.

“There was just a plethora of male coaches, which meant really, there was a lack of safeguarding in many programmes, just general safeguarding rules.

"There was no place for girls to use the toilet and changing rooms. They didn't have bras. I mean, they did not have underwear. These are really basic, basic things.

“And as we worked with sports institutions and women's rights organisations to address these issues, we saw not only that girls participated better in sports, they were able to develop agency. They were able to develop access to networks of friends. They did better in school.”

The conversation moved on to Bobenrieth’s work at Women Win. She spoke eloquently about the importance of giving every girl the opportunity to participate in sport.

“Every single girl has innate leadership,” she said. “It's in her.

“What sports does, is it gives you the opportunity to practice that leadership. To develop that leadership.

"To fall down and get up. To raise your hand and use your voice. Pass me the ball.

You know, things that we are so counterintuitive to what they're taught every day. To be quiet. To sit quietly. To be demure. And I just think that’s the role that sports plays, which I really argue, very few other things can give you.

“Even if you're not a great athlete, getting on a team, you know, showing up, standing up, playing together, winning, losing, you know, and doing it all over again.

“These are the life lessons that we know many, many successful men got to do. And I think girls really, really deserve that opportunity.”

This article was produced in partnership with the game changers podcast, which is supported by Barclays. You can listen to the full episode with Maria Bobenrieth here.

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