New Zealand women and girls want to play more sport. But participation numbers are actually in decline. So what is going on? Suzanne McFadden reports.

The number of Kiwi women and girls playing sport, or simply being active, is slowly declining.

But there is a glimmer of hope in the data to emerge from Sport New Zealand’s latest Active NZ survey.

More women and girls, it seems, want to participate; 65 percent of girls, and 77 percent of women, say they’d like to do more physical activity – playing sport, exercising, or some kind of active recreation – than they’re doing now.

The nationwide survey asked 27,000 adults and 6000 young people aged 5-17 what they did over 12 months to January 2018.

While the results showed little difference between the number of males and females who are active, more women are involved in non-competitive sport and activities, especially aged between 35 and 74. But men tend to exercise more in a week. 

Teenage girls were more likely to be motivated by physical wellbeing, while teenage boys participate for fun.

Although the drop in women’s participation is minor (down one percentage point to 74 per cent since the last survey four years ago), Sport NZ’s general manager of community sport, Geoff Barry, says there’s “a gender challenge for us around women and girls being less active”, especially in some ethnic groups. 

So, if the numbers say more women and girls want to play sport, or take a brisk walk around the block, what’s stopping them?

Barry admits it’s challenging uncovering the barriers that are keeping women from converting motivation into action.

“It’s far more complex than suggesting sports like netball or football have the answers,” he says. “But we now have better information to help those sports.”

Educating parents around the importance of getting their daughters active, and helping schools with the opportunities they provide girls compared to boys, are two other areas Sport NZ can work on. 

As well as the findings from this survey, Sport NZ can call on its “Voice of Participant” programme, where 100,000 people who go to sports clubs can talk about their experiences. It’s revealed that some females don’t feel comfortable in club environments.

“When you go into a generic sports club, the experience that girls have is less satisfactory than the experience boys have. Some girls find the club environments intimidating, or facilities aren’t being cleaned or maintained to the standard that girls would like them,” Barry says.

“So we have to ask, if we really want to attract or keep people involved in sport, how do we look at improving that experience?”

At primary school, there isn’t a lot of gender difference in the data of who’s active, and how long they’re active for each week. But when it comes to the teenage years, boys do more activities than girls and do them for longer each week. Between 14 and 16, there’s a distinct flight of teenage girls from teams to individual sports but, according to the survey, they want to play more team sports.

“There’s clearly a motivation for them to do team sports, but are they not able to because the boys in schools are getting the better coaches, or more court and field time?” Barry wonders.

(The British government has warned English schools they would be guilty of “unlawful discrimination” if they provided better resources to boys’ sports teams than to girls’, The Guardian reported last week).

“Maybe the girls can’t to commit to weekends, because they have things to do at work or at home,” Barry continues. “That’s where the game needs to adapt to girls. It might mean Thursday afternoon football is a better opportunity than Saturday morning.”

There is a marked drop-off in young women doing sport and recreation between the ages of 18 and 24. While lifestyles naturally change during that stage – university studies, jobs, having children – Barry says more “deep-seated” barriers are emerging.

“Everyone talks about time and cost,” he says. The survey revealed up 42 per cent of young people are too busy, 17 per cent don’t have the energy, and 16 per cent find it too hard to get motivated.

“But there’s also fear of failure. And perception of body image – if you go to a swimming pool and it’s not a women’s-only time, you may feel you’re on public display. If you go to the changing rooms after a game of volleyball, do they have hairdryers?

“A walk around the block is being increasingly perceived as unsafe. Do we need to get group walks going so you don’t have to walk alone?

“They are relatively simple things that we need to understand and consider around the gender imbalance.”

Sport NZ is working on a “Women in Sport” initiative, which Barry says will have wide-ranging implications on policy and inequity in sport. An ongoing area of concern is female representation on sport boards.

Last year, the British government introduced a new code requiring that every sports organisation seeking public funding has 30 per cent gender diversity on their board.

“We are seeking better gender equity on boards,” Barry says. “We set targets – and we are getting closer to 40 per cent than we were before.”

LockerRoom approached three of the largest team sports in the country, to see how they are trying to encourage and attract women of all ages to play.


Earlier this year, Holly Nixon helped find a coach for a group of Muslim girls in Auckland wanting to play football.

The young women were aiming to train for the Communities Football Cup in Mangere – the biggest multi-ethnic football tournament in the country, held every November.

“We put the call out on our social media channels,” says Nixon, NZ Football’s women’s development officer, “and the number of women who applied for the coaching role was insane.”

Encouraging Asian women to be more active is a nationwide challenge – they have the lowest rate of weekly participation (63 per cent) of any ethnic group. And yet, 78 per cent of both Asian women and girls say they want to be more active.

“We’re developing a diversity and inclusion plan, because football is a global sport and New Zealand is becoming more diverse,” Nixon says.

Nixon’s job is to solely focus on growing the number of girls and women “playing and loving” futsal and football. A priority is creating the right environment where females want to play and stay in the sport.

The Active NZ survey showed 19 per cent of young people participated in some form of football – the highest for an organised team sport.

There are 36,000 women playing recreational football around the country, and 29,500 registered female players. The men to women ratio is 4:1 – “so there’s still a long way to go to close the gap”, Nixon says.

New Zealand football – going through a very public upheaval right now – is a club-centric sport and traditionally male-dominated. “We’ve had to look at the best way to change that tradition,” Nixon says.

She runs workshops to educate clubs on driving change for women and girls in the game – including making sure girls-only teams are available.

Several years ago, the sport discovered an exodus of seven to nine year-old soccer girls to netball, because they wanted to play with friends. “It was quite simple – we had to create an environment replicating those social and emotional needs, so they would stay in the game,” says Nixon.  

With a sizeable interest in non-competitive football, NZ Football has holiday programmes for girls that don’t require a season sign-up. Each year, a “girls’ and women’s week” takes soccer to 10,000 school girls.

Having more women throughout the sport is key to its growth. Last week, NZ Football launched its first female coach scholarship programme for 21 coaches, among them Football Fern Annalie Longo. “We need role models to encourage more females to coach,” Nixon says.

“I don’t mind if girls play football, netball or rugby. Our biggest problem to tackle is a lack of female engagement in sport.”


Before Cate Sexton began working at New Zealand Rugby in 2015, there was only one staff member in the country focused on women’s rugby.

Sexton’s role as head of women’s rugby development came about through the This Is Our Game strategy to provide more opportunities for women and girls wanting to play the game.

“Now I have six staff around New Zealand, who wake up every day and focus on the growth of women in rugby. All 16 provincial unions have invested in someone to focus on the women’s game. That’s a massive leap from four years ago.”

Although Sexton hoped to have a national pathway model for women in the sport, they’re not quite there yet. “We’ve found the barriers affecting girls in Auckland are different to those in Manawatu,” she says.

Barriers like travel. In Auckland, sportswomen have to contend with traffic to get to games and trainings. In Manawatu, the ground could be just down the road. In South Canterbury, players might be happy to travel 1 ½ hours to training “because that’s what you do,” Sexton says.

“But when you get there it has to be really meaningful, organised. That’s critical to the girls’ experience – the quality of coaching and the culture in the club.”

It can come down to rugby club facilities. “There might be no women’s toilets, or there are no lights on the field where they’re training, but everyone else has lights,” she says.

“When you sign up for a sport, you want to know you’re going to be included, that you’ll feel welcome and safe. And that’s what we need to focus on.”

Rugby has no trouble attracting women to the game – last year growth surged 11 per cent to 24,295. The largest growth was in the girls’ Small Blacks programme for players under 13, up nine percent to 16,000.

Rippa and tackle rugby for kids are a colossal part of the game, but they need tweaking. “My daughter loved it, but while she was more than happy to tackle the girls, she didn’t want to tackle the boys,” Sexton says.

“We’re excited more provincial unions and clubs are looking at girls-only rippa and tackle. We’d love to see a contact version and a non-contact version for females right the way through.”

Where rugby struggles is drawing women to coach. Sexton is investigating coaching courses solely for women.

Celebrating women in rugby is important too, she says. “Having role models is so important – from Farah Palmer who sits on the NZ Rugby board, to our ‘black jersey’ players – the Black Ferns 15s and sevens. When people see them in the community, they suddenly realise they aren’t 10ft tall; they’re regular people.”  


Although netball is the most played sport in secondary schools – with 30,400 players – the sport can’t rest on its laurels, as other codes are getting smarter at wooing young girls.

But Netball NZ’s head of community, Ruth Stanley, sees the Active NZ survey findings on females wanting to be more active as a “huge opportunity” for netball to engage more girls, and develop their skills and enjoyment of the game.

Netball NZ has engaged Hawkes Bay school teacher and coach Charissa Barham to develop a youth participation and engagement strategy. “She’s looking at how we engage, connect and empower youth by giving them some good participant opportunities,” Stanley says.

Last week, the sport started a youth focus group. “The voice of youth is essential,” she says. “We need to find out what they want and what are the barriers they face.”

Netball is also looking at how it can support schools to run sport – not only for the benefit of players, but to encourage girls into leadership roles.  Funding from the Ministry of Youth and Development is running a leadership project in South Auckland, now in its second year. 

Although traditional seven-a-side netball is working well, netball is looking at different formats of the game – like the exciting Fast5 concept – that will attract both boys and girls.

To try to stem the decline in teenage numbers, they’ve dropped rep-level netball from intermediate school ages. “Research told us that if we tell kids at 11 they have to trial, and they don’t make the rep teams, some drop out. Kids mature at vastly different levels, so we’ve removed rep teams from that level, and replaced them with player development programmes,” says Stanley.

And there’s a minimum half-game policy so everyone gets time on court.

Netball has been meeting with rugby, hockey and football to look at different strategies to entice female participants. “We all have similar issues, similar challenges and opportunities, but with slightly different flavours. It’s good to be able to share our insights,” Stanley says.

“We all want the same thing: for people to develop a love of sport and lifelong participation.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

Leave a comment