‘There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives’ Audre Lorde was a writer, feminist, womanist, and civil rights activist

Sport has the power to hold a lens up to some of the biggest challenges in the world. It also has the potential to have a positive transformative affect on society. Sport showcases brilliant female athlete role models and highlights their compelling life stories. Kadeena Cox, Sarah Storey, Ruqsana Begum, Kate Richardson-Walsh and Jessica Ennis-Hill are all unequivocally phenomenal female athletes. Despite their evident successes, each of these athletes will still have experienced discrimination – both knowingly and unknowingly – based on aspects of their identity. This could have taken the form of sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and disablism – or a mixture of any of the above.

In 1989 American Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term Intersectionality – it is used to describe how different forms of discrimination can interact and overlap. It captures the idea that individuals may experience multiple forms of prejudice at the same time. So I as a black woman (of mixed heritage) experience both racism and sexism – I am not black one day and a woman another. These aspects of my identity are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. Although the term intersectionality was originally used to describe how race and gender could intersect as forms of oppression, intersectionality has broadened to encompass a number of other characteristics – sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, religion and disability.

Intersectionality is important to consider as a part of understanding issues of diversity and inclusion within women’s sport. It provides a vital insight into where and how exclusion can be challenged, as well as identifying real opportunities for meaningful access to sport. For example, we can use intersectionality to better comprehend the experience of the nine year old black girl who happens to have a disability, be from a low socio-economic background and loves football. If we want her to be able to access the sport she loves, we need to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the barriers she faces and how they intersect.

Intersectionality and sport
By the age of 14, girls drop out of sport at twice the rate of boys. Research from Women in Sport emphasises factors that include social stigma, lack of access, safety and lack of positive role models. Barriers to participation for young women are heightened when gender intersects with race, low economic status and/or disability, with dress-code, poor or culturally inappropriate coaching, non-segregated activities, lack of specialist equipment, prejudice, lack of user group consultation and non-inclusive practices.

We know that sports are ambitious to be inclusive – but greater rigour is required to understand the complex and overlapping obstacles being experienced by target audiences. For example, analysis from Sporting Equals showed that in the adult population Asian and Black females have the lowest participation rates (34.3% 33.9% respectively), compared to White British females 40.8%. Broken down by gender and religion Muslim Females have the lowest participation rates (25.1%) compared to those who have no religion (51.8%). Only by understanding the intersections between aspects of identity such as faith, gender, ethnicity and culture will we be able to generate strategies that genuinely lead to broader participation in sport.

We need to recognise that all women are not the same, one size does not fit all and that women’s identities are neither singular nor fixed. A single-issue lens will never create a lasting solution for complex issues of exclusion. In order to challenge and tackle a problem we need to be able to define it and the term intersectionality provides a language for us to do this.

Playing our part
As we marvel and celebrate the powerful role models at these prestigious awards let’s think about how we can make our individual and collective efforts count in the advancement of women’s sport. And let’s make sure we do this in a truly inclusive way that is informed by a deeper understanding of intersectionality.
With any good inclusion work it’s about naming it, understanding and acting. Get talking about it! – find out more about intersectionality and the reality of how this affects you and your organisation. A good starting point would be to raise intersectionality at board level as part of a review of your Equality and Diversity policy.

Sport at it’s best is when it’s inclusive of all types of women. Most of us are marginalized in some ways and privileged in others. My call to action is that we are open to understanding intersectionality so that sport can truly be transformational and empowering for all women.

To learn more about intersectionality watch Professor Kimberle Crenshaw TedX Talk

This article was produced in association with the Women’s Sport Trust and first published in the 2017 #BeAGameChanger Women’s Sport Trust Awards programme