By Maggie Ritchie

FOOTBALL daft Elanor Cormack wanted so badly to join her school team, but it was a dream that never came true.

While films such as Gregory’s Girl and Bend it Like Beckham show girls breaking through barriers to play football with boys, Elanor never had that chance.

“The coach said I could try out but wouldn’t be selected, while my PE teacher told me I couldn’t play football because girls ‘weren’t insured’ to play with boys,” said Ms Cormack, 41.

“And when I joined a local football club, I was told I could train with the boys but wasn’t allowed to play with the team. Unlike in Gregory’s Girl, it wasn’t the coach who wanted me to play because I was good – it was the boys who clamoured for me to be allowed to play. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to help them win.

“Out of school, because I could kick a ball as well as the boys and played football in the street with my brothers’ friends, I was labelled a tomboy, which I hated.”

The memory of these snubs stayed with Ms Cormack for 30 years and inspired her to publish a research paper into gender stereotypes in sport as part of the DPsych Sport and Exercise Psychology programme at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Her personal experiences led her to research how girls are still being held back in sport – and being put off it – by harmful gender stereotypes and subtle messages from teachers, parents, and the media.

She found that despite women’s football and rugby now being shown on television, as far as school-age girls are concerned, sport is still very much a boys’ game.

Girls missing out on sport is not just a feminist issue – it has serious consequences for their health.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified physical inactivity as an important factor in childhood obesity, and studies consistently show significantly lower levels of activity for girls compared to boys, as well as a decline in activity levels as children age.

Globally, the WHO found 84 per cent of adolescent girls do not meet activity level recommendations and were consistently less active than adolescent boys. “The effects of gender stereotypes on youth sport are important to consider since lifelong participation habits appear to be influenced by the experiences of childhood exercise,” added Ms Cormack.

“Girls still think that sport is a boys’ thing. They’re receiving that message at school, from their parents and the media, where they mostly see male athletes.

“Girls are still hearing pejorative statements such as ‘throws like a girl’, ‘runs like a girl’ and ‘man up’. And they feel parental pressure to conform to gender stereotypes, particularly from their mothers.”

Maureen McGonigle, chief executive of Scottish Women in Sport, welcomed the study and agreed that parents play an important role when it comes to getting girls into sport.

The Herald: Elanor Cormack was discouraged from playing sport as a youngsterElanor Cormack was discouraged from playing sport as a youngster

“Often mothers will look at their sons and think it would be great if they grew up to be a footballer, but they seldom think that about their daughters. Mothers can be role models by taking part in a sport.

“There are other factors that put girls off sport, particularly as they get older, and their bodies change: there’s peer pressure and social media pressure to look and act a certain way.”

The study found there is still a widely-held belief that certain sports – mostly the aggressive team sports like football and rugby – are for boys, while other sports such as dance and netball are for girls.

“But in New Zealand, netball is a sport keenly played and followed by both men and women, which goes to show gender stereotyping is cultural,” said Elanor.

Another barrier to girls participating in sport is that many of them believe they are no good at it, and that boys are inevitably going to be better.

“If you don’t think you’re good at sport, it has an impact on performance, you won’t enjoy it, you won’t want to participate, and you won’t get any better at it – it’s a downward spiral,” said Elanor.

She has recommendations for teachers and parents about how to change their attitudes and what they say to girls.

“Take an audit of your own prejudices and look at the stereotypes you may be perpetuating that may put a girl off sport for life,” added Elanor.

While Ms Cormack agrees that boys and girls do physically and mentally develop differently, it doesn’t mean girls can’t participate, enjoy, and excel at sport. “As well as fitness and health, girls are missing out on all the great life skills that sport can help develop, such as resilience, confidence, teamwork, decision-making.

“We should forget thinking about girls’ and boys’ sports – all children should be encouraged to find a sport they enjoy, regardless of their gender. At secondary school, I discovered hockey, but I still wish I’d had the chance to play football.”