Sport, Gender, and Breaking Down Social Barriers - A Conversation with Alison Carney

I've written previously on the Importance of Retaining Girls in Sports, a topic very dear to my heart. The issues of Gender in sport are highly complex, and discussions around participation rates are just the tip of the iceberg. This month, I caught up with Alison Carney, an expert on the topic of gender in sports and sport for development practice, and current Learning and Evaluation Consultant at inFocus, to explore some of the complexities around this issue. Alison's work in sport for social change began in 2002 as a soccer coach for an inclusive program for girls in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This direct service work launched her into a career of research and consulting work with an emphasis on gender and sport for social change. Alison has her masters in Gender and International Development from the Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom. Presently, her work at inFocus emphasizes the building of sport for development program capacity for social impact measurement and driving social change.

Edwin Moses: You've been working in sport for development, with an emphasis on gender issues, for several years. What sparked your interest in this area and why do you continue to focus your efforts on this work?

Alison Carney: My introduction to sport for development was actually in 2002, when I went to Bosnia I Herzegovina (BiH) for the first time to coach a girls summer soccer program. At the time, I was not even aware of the term "sport for development" but our program was focused on girls for the simple reason that the partner I worked with in BiH was trying to create spaces for girls to play sports that they traditionally did not have access to. Creating a space where they could come and play soccer and be coached if they wanted seemed like a natural first step. For me personally it was fueled by a lifetime as a soccer player myself and wanting to share the experience of playing with girls who might not otherwise have the option. It was through this first experience in BiH that I started thinking about sport not only as an activity for fun, competition and play, but also as a space through which other social barriers could potentially be overcome. After those initial years in Bosnia I began to seek out similar projects, with the aim of learning while doing - to see how sport was being used as a tool for social change in different projects in the world. Over the following years I was lucky enough to work with sport for development projects across Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Sub-saharan Africa and Europe that work on a variety of themes including disability inclusion, health education and with refugees. I learned a great deal from each of those experiences, but the common theme that kept surprising me, and that ultimately determined and reinforced my focus, was that almost every one of these projects was struggling to get girls involved. For me, the question became why, and how could this be improved?


EM: It seems we have a common interest in the importance of girls' participation in sport. Following your experiences in the field, you continue to be active in seeking a solution for how to improve girls' participation in sport. Can you tell me about your recent contribution to the Laureus Gender Inequality Roundtable on the barriers to participation in sport for non-white, low income and/or disabled young women? What key takeaways emerged from this conversation?

AC: We do have a common interest, and I was really honored and excited to be included in the roundtable, especially with so many leaders in the field in attendance. One of the strengths of that Roundtable, and something I think Laureus is absolutely right to emphasize, is that from the beginning we were not focused solely on gender as the barrier to girls participating in sport, the whole conversation started from a point of common understanding that the barriers that stand in the way of girls participation in sport are more numerous and complex than their gender. Let's not forget that these barriers are not isolated to sport and we are really talking about society and the multiple discriminations that intersect for many girls including gender, race, class, religion, ability, sexuality etc. This is something that I have seen through my work with sport for development projects over the years, that in order to get more girls involved, a project has to look at the whole picture and create strategies that take the complexity of that picture into account. The other question that the project must ask is, which girls are taking part in sport in their community? It may be that even if there are girls playing sport in a community, they are from a certain social class, race, or physical ability. Inclusion and getting more girls involved means reaching out to all girls, and finding strategies to make sport programs more welcoming and a comfortable space for them to be in. It also means taking into account the factors for girls that may be barriers to participation that are not there for boys, such as access to toilets, or the presence of a female coach. Some of the key points for action that emerged from the roundtable is that a change in attitude and a prioritization of getting more girls into sport, and in sport for development programs, has to happen at both the practitioner level of organizations running the activities in the communities, but also in the structural level of funders and policy makers. Also, a good way to start is to share experiences and strategies from girls whom have been through sports programs.

EM: We know that issues of Gender in sport are highly complex, and that discussions around participation rates are just the tip of the iceberg. When we talk about Gender issues in sport for development, what does that mean to you? Why is this an essential aspect of the sport for development movement? Are there critical issues that emerge through this work that need to be addressed in society more broadly?

AC: I think it is really important to not rely on participation rates as a measure of greater gender balance in a sport program, nor in society. I think it is an essential piece for work on gender, and I don't think that changing the balance of who participates in sport (or rather who has access) should be isolated to gender either, participation should be looking at the other factors that I keep mentioning - race, ability, social class, sexuality among others. In the development world, and in the sport for development world in particular, we tend to talk about "gender" work as a separate area that organizations can choose to do, meaning an organization either 'does' work on sexual health awareness, OR social integration OR employability OR gender. I don't think that is how it should work - working on issues of gender inequality should be mainstreamed into every sport for development program, and a theme that runs across their activities, both with the community and internal organizational development, as well as in their M&E practices and their governance and leadership. This is one of the only ways I can foresee change actually happening. As I mentioned before, many of the projects I have worked with have struggled with getting more girls involved, finding and developing female coaches, or perhaps they do not even have M&E measures in place to look at gender. Sport is so often still considered a male domain, and for this reason I think it is a space with a lot of potential for breaking stereotypes and barriers when it comes to gender, and this in turn could contribute to greater change.

EM: You've worked with organizations around the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. How has your experience varied across these regions? Are projects addressing gender issues more similar than they are different despite operating in all corners of the globe?

AC: Every context is different and every project that I have worked with is addressing social issues in a slightly different way that is shaped by their situation/context. I have learned from each of my experiences and from each of the projects that I have come in contact with, ranging from those in Jordan and Cambodia, to those in New Orleans and London, that the most effective way to create social change in terms of gender is to be conscious of the multiple inequalities and barriers that exist in a context or community. This may seem obvious, but I think it is something that we as practitioners at every level need to keep in mind. For example, the reason a girl is not coming to a sport session or activity may very well have to do with the fact she is a girl, but it also may have to do with lack of resources to travel from wherever she lives, or lack of ability to participate in a sport that is not adapted to her needs, or simply that the session was organized with a group of people who she does not feel comfortable playing with. I have also learned that there are in fact similar strategies being used to address issues for girls in many different contexts, and this is not limited to countries considered to be in the Global South. Projects in the United States who have struggled getting girls involved in certain sports are using the same strategy as projects in Burkina Faso and Brazil, to identify, train and develop more female coaches as a way of better supporting girls' involvement in their sports activities.


EM: Having worked across diverse contexts affords you a broad perspective on this issue which uniquely positions you to convene actors across this space. Can you tell me a bit more about the Gender Community of Practice you've been facilitating through your work at inFocus?

The Gender Community of Practice is about creating a space where organizations who have demonstrated really good practice in terms of their programs for addressing gender inequalities have a chance to exchange and learn from each other, and together develop a common framework to measure the impact that they make and that could be a useful resource for any sport for development program that seeks to address gender inequality through sport. It has been a really interesting learning experience and a process that we are developing along the way with 6 organizations in Kenya, the United States, India, Cambodia, South Africa, and the UK. Using an impact measurement framework has been a really good way to look at the similarities and differences between these organizations while remaining focused on the common impacts they seek to make. The support and collaboration of Dr. Megan Chawansky, who is an expert when it comes to examining gender in sport for development work, in framing and reflecting throughout the process has been an extremely valuable contribution to the rich conversations between the organizations.


EM: What important learnings are emerging from this work? How can these learnings be applied more broadly across the sport for development, competitive sport, and general youth development landscapes?

AC: We are still in the early stages of the Community of Practice, and I think one of the challenges that we work with is how to pull together similarities or commonalities in practice and impact measurement across 6 organizations and 6 countries, while at the same time recognizing the many contextual differences. The really exciting thing is that there are common themes across the outcomes that the 6 organizations have, the activities they run, and the impact they seek to make. Gender is such a broad topic, that it is in fact is an essential part of any project for social change, and therefore there are many different ways that inequality is being addressed by the organizations involved. I think it is really interesting that, as expected, there are differences in activities, outcomes, and impact based on where these organizations are located, but these differences are equally due to maturity of the project (how long it has been in existence), size of the organization, and what resources they have available (including who is funding them). I think we are also seeing that as I mentioned before, gender inequality is so closely linked to many other discriminations and barriers that exist in young people's lives and not one of these programs is working simply on "changing gender inequality", they are working on improved access to education, health, life skills development and many other areas. This is really exciting learning that is emerging from this piece of work, that what comes out of it about the way we think about and measure impact in terms of gender inequality in the sport for development sector has implications for ALL sport for development projects and not just for those who prioritize gender in their strategy.