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The Stats Are Worrying – Sport Needs More Women in the Right Jobs

Sport and physical activity are vital to healthy bodies and minds, but there is still a big difference between women and men when it comes to playing and exercising. The most recent Eurobarometer study found that 45% of men play or exercise once a week compared to 37% of women. In the 15-24 age group, when people form lifelong habits, it is 75% for men and 55% for women. So, sport still has a long way to go to realise the vision of the EU’s Gender Equality Strategy 2021-2025.


Goeff Carroll, Skills Development Director, EOSE 


Gender inequalities in access to the sports professions is a reality that is still under-researched.

Many factors contribute to this disparity, but one thing is clear – “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” This famous quote from the documentary, Miss Representation, highlights the importance of role-models and rings true for sport as it does for every other walk of life. If we want more women and girls taking part in sport and physical activity, we need more women working at every level, especially in the sport and fitness jobs such as coaches, instructors, leaders and officials. These are the “customer facing” jobs where more female representation might make a real difference.

Until recently, there were few reliable statistics about female employment in sport and physical activity across the EU. New, ground-breaking research carried out by the European Observatoire of Sport and Employment (EOSE) and its network of members and partners sheds more light on gender-related employment trends. The recent ESSA-Sport and ongoing SKILLS projects, funded by Erasmus+ and working closely with Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, analysed the paid workforce in the sector over the period 2011-2019, across the whole EU and in each of the 28 member states (pre-Brexit).

EOSE examined the sport workforce from three angles. Firstly, we counted all employees working in organisations whose main business is the provision of sport (for example, federations, sports clubs, leisure centres, fitness clubs). This number includes sport and fitness jobs such as coaches, instructors and officials but also non-sport jobs such as administrators and cleaners. Then, we counted sport and fitness jobs in other types of organisations, e.g., hotels and spas. Combining these gave us a figure for the total sport workforce in the EU in 2019 of 1 789 958, an increase of 21% from 2011.


Then, we narrowed the focus to the sport and fitness jobs only which represents in 2019 a total of 980 785 – an uptick of around 23% from 2011. Eurostat raw data enabled us to analyse workers according to gender, age, level of education and type of employment contract. In addition to the EU as a whole, we also analysed each of the 28 countries individually. EU and national reports and summary factsheets, together with an explanation of the methodology used can be freely downloaded from ESSA-Sport and SKILLS.

Whereas statistics do not always present a totally accurate picture, our analysis of the gender balance in the sport and fitness jobs – coaches, instructors, leaders and officials who could make a difference to female participation – suggests the sport sector has much to think about.

Despite overall growth in the workforce, in 2019, we found only 44.1% females in sport and fitness jobs. This is actually lower than female employment across the EU for all employment sectors (46.3%), and also it has gone down. In 2011, 46.1% of these jobs were occupied by women i.e., female employment in these key jobs has declined by 2% in nine years.

There are some reasons to be cheerful because some countries are doing better than average. For example, in Finland in 2019, 60.6% of the sport and fitness workers were female – a rise of 15% since 2011. In Latvia, EOSE found that 53.6% of the sport specific jobs were filled by women – also an increase of 15%.

In Hungary, whilst still in a minority, the proportion of female sport and fitness workers appears to have more than doubled from 2011 to 2019. It is important to note that the gender balance for sport and fitness jobs in these countries does not reflect their national employment patterns across the whole economy. In Finland for example, across all sectors, 48.5% are female. Clearly, the sport sector in these countries is more successful in recruiting women into the jobs which are vital to female sport participation, and they may have approaches which other countries could study and adapt. Why are some nations doing better than the others? Does it simply reflect general socio-economic trends or is it the result of specific efforts by the sport sector to grow female employment ? More research is needed.

What is also encouraging for female employment is one result from an employer survey which was also part of ESSA-Sport. 71% of nearly 4,000 respondents agreed that “the workforce in the sport and physical activity sector needs to be inclusive (reflecting gender, disability and minorities in society).” Therefore, employers are aware of the problem and may be willing to invest more in achieving this goal if they know what to do. The sector needs to look closely at the challenges and solutions to increasing female employment which must include examining practices in the ‘pace-setter’ nations.


EOSE continues to research and analyse the paid workforce through the ongoing SKILLS project which will be analysing data for 2020 later this year. This will be particularly important in tracking the impact of COVID on sport employment, including on women employees. We have started a new project, V4V, part of which will collate and analyse data on the size and characteristics of the volunteer workforce including gender. We are also leading WINS, whose primary purpose is raising the growth and participation of female sport officials in Europe. Finally, we are partners in a new application to Erasmus+ Sport which hopes to look in more detail at diversity in the sport workforce and finding good practice solutions.

Sport et citoyenneté