In part seven of Out into the Open, Professor Holly Thorpe is discovering how Covid is impacting Kiwi women in sport and the novel ways they’re responding.
As each new wave of coronavirus has hit New Zealand’s shores, it’s spawned an outbreak of another kind – free coaching sessions, online boxing workouts and pilates classes.
Through the wonders of digital technology, many women working in sports and fitness have offered free, or koha-based, classes and sessions during lockdowns, because they care about the mental health and wellbeing of others, particularly women, in their communities.
Professor Holly Thorpe, a sociologist in Te Huataki Waiora School of Health at the University of Waikato, discovered the fascinating social trend during her research into how women across sport in New Zealand have responded to the Covid pandemic.
Thorpe and her team in the pilot study spoke to elite female athletes and coaches, and to women working in the fitness sector. They talked about uncertainty and fear around their futures, and how through this “incredible social disturbance” they’ve found ways to look after themselves and others.
They revealed this is essentially what Kiwi women do: on top of running a business and raising a family, they also take on the unpaid care of their whānau and their communities.
“A lot of digital and emotional labour went into these classes – and it wouldn’t be just a workout,” Thorpe says. “It was ‘Okay, let’s spend 20 minutes connecting. Have a cup of tea, how’s your cat?’ Then they’d have a workout and debrief.
“Some people said it was lifesaving to just to hear other women’s voices; it really helped them get through difficult times at home.”
It was also clear after lockdowns women have felt overwhelmed returning to sport and work, as they face new risks and more uncertainty.
“But again, the theme came through of women working in the sector really caring for their communities,” says Thorpe.
“Someone told me: ‘I went a bit crazy and bought $500 of bulk sanitiser; I’ll wear the gloves and my mask if it makes them happy; we’ll do the session outside’. They want to do whatever it takes to make people feel comfortable again’.”
And then there are the consequences facing a generation of aspiring elite athletes, many whose dreams of competing on the international stage have been dashed. “There’s grief that comes with that; some have stepped away from sport earlier than they wanted to and found different paths,” Thorpe says.
Now Thorpe gets to broaden the study, after receiving a two-year James Cook Research Fellowship to understand the social, economic and emotion toll the global pandemic has had on New Zealand women – and how they’ve coped in a time of turmoil.
“I can now get a longitudinal perspective of women’s experiences over four years, and find ways to prioritise women’s voices. Then we can take [the research] back to sports and health organisations to push for gender-responsive policies and approaches.
“It’s going to be important for coping and resilience during the pandemic, but also for rebuilding our communities afterwards as well.
“There’s going to be a long tail, and even longer for some communities, some women and some sports participation.”
It’s no secret the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women.
Last year alone in New Zealand, 90 percent of employees who lost their jobs during the pandemic were women. Globally, women lost more than 64 million jobs, resulting in an estimated $800 billion loss of income.
While New Zealand’s “wellbeing budget” back in May this year acknowledged the impact of Covid on women, Thorpe is concerned there haven’t been enough gender-specific policies to help them.
“Most of the [budget] investment went into infrastructure – construction and roading, obviously more male-dominated jobs,” she says.
“Māori and Pacific women have fallen behind in the workplace. And we’re seeing more women in precarious employment this year.
“It’s not going to be a quick fix – the emotional, social and economic burdens of this are going to go on for many years. And it’s impacting all women differently, based on the intersections of ethnicity and class, and other variables, not just gender.” (Thorpe has also been working on another study exploring how New Zealand women from different cultural backgrounds understand, define and manage wellbeing).
The new research project around Covid focuses on three core groups – mothers with young children, young women in low socio-economic communities and women with chronic health conditions.
Thorpe, a working mum who lives with a chronic lung condition, says she’s excited to lead a strong cross-cultural team of researchers.
Dr Nida Ahmad is Muslim and has worked with Thorpe producing a research report on building cultural inclusion in sports communities for New Zealand’s Muslim women.
Dr Grace O’Leary, who’s been a gymnastics coach and fitness instructor, is Māori (Te Arawa iwi) and has just completed her PhD on women sex workers’ experiences of sport and physical activity.
Mihi Nemani (Ngātiwa and Samoan) is a former world body boarding champion and world masters weightlifting champion, who’s on a Sport New Zealand PhD scholarship focused on young Māori and Pasifika women’s experiences of sport and physical activity, in south Auckland and Porirua.
Women’s involvement in sport and physical activity will be a key focus of this new study. It will look at how women’s movement practices contribute to their understanding of wellbeing and connection before, during and after the pandemic.
“It builds really nicely on the work that started early in the first lockdown of 2020,” Thorpe says.
Many of the elite athletes who spoke with Thorpe and her team (Ahmad and Dr Allison Jeffrey) back in those times had returned to live in their family homes for the first time in years, and became “really creative” modifying their training. Through Instagram we saw athletes training for the Olympics lifting tractor tyres and pushing utes (like javelin thrower Tori Peeters below) or swimming in home-made pools in the milking shed.
“When they’d settled into lockdown, they started to think ‘What does this mean for my career? What happens if it never starts again? Do I have to start thinking about another career?’,” Thorpe says.
A global report by United Nations Women and the International Olympic Committee published before the Tokyo Olympics on the impact of Covid on women, girls and sport found the gender inequalities being felt in society had been mirrored in sport. It presented recommendations to create a future in and through sport that builds back better for women.
As women’s sport was making huge strides in gender equality through 2019, Covid had threatened it to knock it backwards. Slashed revenues across the entire ecosystem of sport, clubs, teams and organisations could fall back to prioritising investments in traditional sports – where men have been dominant.
Thorpe has seen that happen in New Zealand. “With limited resources, decisions are made and some people making those decisions fall back on familiar priorities,” she says. “Our policies in sports recovery from Covid need to have a gender focus.”
There’s concern, too, that a generation of children is missing out on social connections through school and sport.
“There’s a lot of embodied trauma associated with this, and sport could be part of the recovery,” Thorpe says. “But are kids going to race back to sport? When they’ve lost seasons and with that, lost some of their skill development?
“Some of us might have a backyard to kick a soccer ball around, but many have not. You lose your confidence and may not hurry back.
“On the other side are parents, who give their time to volunteer. If they’re struggling economically and socially, they may not put their hands up to coach or help out.” Families may not be able to afford to pay the fees for their children to play sport, either.
“I think that’s going to create a real ripple effect in sport.”
As New Zealand prepares to move into a new phase of the pandemic response – and Aucklanders cross their fingers to leave lockdown restrictions which will allow them to return to the gym or the pool – Thorpe’s research may be helpful.
“Coming out the other side of lockdown last year, as women got back to something like real life, they said they had fears but found a new appreciation for the places and the people they move with,” she says.
“We found women in the sport and fitness sector love being with others and moving together. A running coach talked about her running group finally getting back together and the first morning running to watch the sun rise. It was incredible.”
Women had embraced technology to stay active and connected. “It was a great substitute,” Thorpe says. “But some of them said once they got back to sport and fitness face-to-face again, how wonderful it was to really see people again.
“The moving body is where we get joy in our sense of connection, and now there’s a new appreciation for that.
“But it’s going to be really different for different women – whether it’s being back in your waka ama crew or doing your mums and bubs in the park workout. But it’s still about connecting with others.”