I can’t imagine a sports commentator asking Andy Murray or Jack Wilshere to give “us a twirl” in a post-match interview, or indeed in any interview. Yet Australian reporter Ian Cohen thought it was perfectly acceptable to ask Eugenie Bouchard in an on-court interview during the Australian Open last week.

Twirlgate, as it was inevitably dubbed, highlights the sexism that riddles women’s professional sport. Faced with a constant barrage of commentary about their clothes, looks and weight, it is surprising that so many women decide to pursue a career in sport. And if professional female athletes are judged like this, what about regular women? How do we feel putting on our trainers and going for a run? These are questions I have been asking myself for some time in my role as director of business partnerships at Sport England, the government agency responsible for encouraging more people to do sport and physical activity. They are especially important when you realise that far fewer women do sport than men. I mean sport in its widest sense – everything from going for a run or a swim to playing a formal game of football with proper kit, scores and referees. In the 14-40 age group 2 million fewer women play sport than men. It is an (other) unacceptable gender gap which we at Sport England are determined to address.

To do that we had to understand what is stopping women from doing sport. We talked to loads and loads of women and while lots cited practical problems we began to see a recurring theme: fear of judgement. Women told us they were concerned about being judged about how they looked, whether they were fit enough to get fit, whether they knew the rules, whether they were too fat or too thin, and those with caring responsibilities feared the judgement of others and themselves for taking time away from their dependents to spend time on themselves.

We quickly realised we needed to help women overcome these fears, to give them the confidence to say. And so This Girl Can was born. It is campaign which says to women if someone has a problem with me doing sport, let it be their problem; it really doesn’t matter if you run like Phoebe from Friends or Paula Radcliffe the point is you are running and that is worth celebrating.


Apart from the messaging itself, the tone of voice – sassy and confident – and the images we use in the campaign are striking. Why? Because we are showing women in all their glory, the “girls” who feature in the campaign are not airbrushed or digitally enhanced. They are women who are proud to show that they sweat, that they jiggle, that they have, wait for it, cellulite.

The response to the campaign has so far been phenomenal. In the first 15 days of the campaign over 12 million people have watched the tv ad on our Facebook and YouTube pages alone.

This_Girl_Can_Logo_CMYKThe media has found a few people who are unhappy about the use of the word “girl”. Obviously everyone is entitled to their own view but it is interesting that every time this has come up women in their droves have defended the use of the word, arguing that this is a campaign for women, by women and we really don’t mind referring to ourselves as girls when we are being supportive and inclusive. It is when men start calling us girls to demean and belittle us that we have a problem. As a feminist and as one of the architects of this campaign that is how I see it too and I am delighted we have struck a nerve.


Tanya Joseph is a Fawcett trustee and Director of Business Partnerships, Sport England