The World Championship Athletics in Beijing finished on Sunday and Britain did pretty well on the medal front. But there is one stand out hero of the games: Jessica Ennis-Hill, who won her second World Championship heptathlon gold just thirteen months after giving birth to her son. Women in sport are achieving extraordinary things—yet while we know that sport can do good for society as a whole, we are still a long way from equal access to sport for men and women.

Charities have a key role to play. There is strong evidence that taking part in sport generates positive health outcomes. Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of many chronic conditions: heart disease, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, mental health problems and more. Health charities such as the British Heart Foundation have been making the case for the link between physical activity and better health for decades.

More recent research has also shown the positive impact that sport can have elsewhere in society. In can strengthen social bonds, as well as self-esteem and educational achievement among participants. Sport also teaches leadership, resilience, teamwork, determination and self-confidence, all of which are key to changing lives for the better.

StreetChance, a partnership between the Cricket Foundation and Barclays Spaces for Sports, uses cricket to positively engage with young people in communities affected by crime and anti-social behaviour (NPC research last year found that the project can move young people away from gangs). The Boxing Academy engages with young people who are excluded from mainstream education. Our 2011 analysis for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, Teenage Kicks, argued that sport is a cost-effective way to address social change.

But as we understand more about sport’s potential to achieve social change, we need to be aware of the growing gender gap. Culture and Sport Evidence data indicates that women and girls are three times less likely to participate in sport than men and boys. Sport England reveals that 1.75 million more men exercise or play sport regularly than women, even though 75% of women would like to do more.

The barriers to women playing sport are similar to gender imbalances elsewhere in society. Women cite a lack of time and childcare, issues with self-confidence and body image, invisibility in the media and a lack of role models as hindrances to participation.

Political interventions don’t always help, either: sports minister Helen Grant has endorsed the idea that women take up ‘feminine’ sports like cheerleading and ballet, which creates the dangerous image that women should be found on the sporting side lines only.

The National Lottery-funded This Girl Can campaign is a great corrective to that, a national movement aimed at giving women more confidence to be active. At a time when girls’ well-being is bleak, sport has potential as a catalyst for positive attitudes, according to a Youth Sport Trust pilot.

As charities expand their sport programmes, they would do well to find creative ways to help women overcome barriers to taking part. There are no easy answers, but if funders and charities get this right we could increase the incidences of accomplishments like Ennis-Hill’s—something to the benefit of society and women everywhere.

A version of this blog was first published by Spears Magazine as part of our philanthropy series.

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