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‘Because She’s a Girl’: Lockdown Exposes Gender Gap in U.K. Sports

When Lisa Bloor heard that her daughter Abby’s elite-level soccer club was being shut down in England’s latest coronavirus lockdown she faced a tough problem: how to explain that boys at the same level were allowed to keep playing.

“How do I tell my daughter it’s because she’s a girl?” Ms. Bloor asked. “It’s disheartening. There’s no logic in it at all.”

As the coronavirus has upended lives across the world, women have found themselves disproportionately affected, whether by taking on the often invisible labor of an outsize share in household duties, caring for children and relatives or finding the hard-fought gains they made in the workplace in past years almost entirely wiped out.

In early November, after Britain’s government reluctantly admitted the need for a second lockdown of all but England’s most essential services to stop the number of Covid-19 cases spiraling out of control, the restrictions — and exceptions to the rules — laid bare yet another gender gap: the one between women and men’s sports.

When the British government granted “elite sport” special dispensations for the duration of a four-week lockdown, the top six tiers of men’s soccer could carry on training and competing. But only the top two women’s soccer leagues were permitted to continue.

The Football Association, which governs the sport in England, ruled that the men’s F.A. Cup tournament would not stop, but postponed the women’s F.A. Cup until the national lockdown lifts in early December.

Nowhere was the gender divide more transparent than in the decision surrounding the soccer clubs’ academies, which sharpen the skills of the most promising school-age players and prepare them to turn professional.

Boys’ training at more than 80 English Football League and Premier League clubs’ academies could remain open under “elite” protocols, but the F.A. decided that girls’ academies at clubs such as Everton — where Abby Clarke, Ms. Bloor’s 16-year-old daughter, trains at least four times a week as part of the development squad — were “nonelite” and would have to suspend all activity throughout the lockdown.

The governing body later rowed back that decision, but admitted it was likely that only a few girls’ academies — four or five at the most — would reopen, because of a dearth of resources. To adhere to the “elite” protocols, clubs must complete thorough risk assessments and have a range of medical staff on hand to oversee rigorous testing — a steep cost when budgets in women’s soccer are small and already stretched.

“You can’t argue with the ambition to have fairness and parity,” said Kelly Simmons, the F.A.’s director of the women’s professional game. “It comes down to where the women’s game is in terms of its resources and its commercial revenue at the moment. The men’s game has been able to invest multimillions into boys’ academies and state of the art facilities. We’re not there yet on the women and girl’s side.”

Halfway through lockdown, after two weeks of her daughter’s training alone and kicking a ball against a wall, Ms. Bloor that said Everton reversed field and decided it could afford to restart girls’ training. But she was dismayed that many other girls were not as fortunate.

Other soccer-mad girls took to social media to ask #IsItBecauseIAmAGirl, railing against the F.A.’s different rules for men’s and women’s teams as a petition calling for girls and women’s soccer to continue reached more than 15,000 signatures within the space of a few days.

Philip Gill, the father of three girls between 22 months and 12 years old, and the coach of a girls’ soccer team in Padiham, in northwest England, started the appeal.

Mr. Gill said the F.A.’s decision “puts on this perception that if you’re a girl, you’re less important. I don’t want my kids growing up seeing that.

“It’s time to give the ladies’ game the same opportunities as they’ve given the men’s,” he said.

Soccer is far from the only sport where differences between the treatment of men’s and women’s teams have been accentuated by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns.

As Britain emerged from its first lockdown, the men’s international cricket team began play this summer months before the women’s.

A similar delay occurred in rugby union. But even after play resumed, the women’s teams confronted new rules designed to limit transmission of the virus, while a costly testing system was provided for the men’s teams so they could play by the same rules as before.

In a recent study of the first lockdown, Britain’s elite sportswomen reported that their finances and fitness had taken a sharper hit than those of their male counterparts. That’s largely because, unlike the men, they are paid only on a match-fee basis and had to pay for fitness equipment during lockdown, while men could borrow from their clubs’ gyms.

“Lockdown definitely entrenched those ideas that women’s sport aren’t on the same level as men’s sport in terms of opportunity, access and funding,” said Ali Bowes, a senior lecturer in sociology of sport at Nottingham Trent University, who led the research.

It’s not just professional sportswomen who have felt the effects of lockdowns on sports and exercise more acutely than men.

Research from Sport England into the impact of the first lockdown found that women were more affected by care responsibilities, more anxious about leaving home to exercise and more affected by reductions in group activities.

“Everything’s pointing to lockdown having made it worse for women,” Dr. Bowes said.

As part of the lockdown, gyms, public swimming pools, dance studios, tennis courts and other facilities were ordered to shut their doors. With those avenues closed, advocates for women’s sports say that many women will be deterred from staying active over the winter because of safety concerns about exercising outdoors in the dark.

Lucy Robinson, a 22-year-old student based in Derbyshire, is in exactly that position. She gave up running alone after one wintry evening last year when she was out jogging and a stranger followed her on a bike, shouting lewd comments.

With gyms shut because of the lockdown, Ms. Robinson, who is not a fan of online classes, said she was missing out on the physical and mental health benefits that sport can bring.

“Women are being put in a really tough situation where they have to choose between making their health worse or putting their safety at risk,” she said.

For the women who do want to relieve cabin fever with a run outdoors, the government’s coronavirus regulations have done little to assuage safety fears.

Research from England Athletics has shown a third of women have been harassed while out running alone and that many would feel safer when running with a group. But group exercise is not permitted during the lockdown.

The government devised an exception to the restrictions that allows for one person not in your household to join you for outdoors exercise, provided they keep a safe distance, but that has been criticized as impractical.

Rini Jones, a marathon runner who shares her experiences on her Instagram account, abrowngirlruns, is still going out for runs alone during lockdown but always takes a number of precautions, including running only along well-lit roads.

Sexual assault and the killings of female joggers, especially women of color, play on her mind, and Ms. Jones said that she usually considers the cars passing her by as potential witnesses should anything happen to her.

“There is an inexcusable lack of understanding at the highest levels of decision-making that this is the reality for women, and for women of color and marginalized women, it’s even more precarious,” she said.

For the women whose exercise and sporting lives have been jeopardized by the monthlong lockdown in England, there is a small light at the end of the tunnel: Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced on Monday that when the country moves into a tiered system of restrictions in early December, sports teams will be allowed to reunite and gyms will be allowed to open their doors to customers again, though group exercise classes remain banned in some places.

It’s a welcome relief for many, but Dr. Bowes, who led the research into the impact of lockdowns, said that she hoped that the new light that the coronavirus restrictions have shone on the deep-seated issues in how women’s sports and exercise are treated could herald greater accountability for gender inequalities.

The differences, she said, are “the byproduct of over 100 years of sport prioritizing men.” But, “in these extreme moments when the world goes upside down, we start to see where the priorities are,” Dr. Bowes said. Speaking up and calling out the problems, she said, “sets us on a really positive path for how things might change in the future.”

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