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Researchers aim to end sports environments raising women’s injury risk

IT’S time to think about gender equity in sports differently.

A new virtual lab co-developed by Dr. Joanne Parsons, associate professor in the College of Rehabilitation Sciences at the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, is reimagining what equitable and inclusive sports and physical activities look like for girls and women.

The Edge Lab project (Environments Designed for Gender Equity in Sport & Physical Activity) was initiated in 2017 following discussions on X (formerly Twitter) between Parsons and Dr. Stephanie Coen, associate professor in the school of geography at the University of Nottingham (U.K.).

Their focus was challenges posed by gendered environments, which can lead to a greater risk of injury for women. Through different projects, Edge Lab hopes to be the resource hub for people to learn about the important topic in sports.

“Edge Lab is this one-stop shop, virtual hub,” Parsons said on a phone call Thursday, “where people who are interested in learning more about the subject, or who want to find out more, or even just start their journey on what this is talking about.”

What is a gendered environment? Think about the gym, for example.

“If we look at an individual level risk factor for a lot of sports injuries, it’s strength levels,” Parsons said. “So generally, if you’re stronger, you’re less likely to get injured.”

Parsons explains that the traditional way of looking at athletic injuries encourages building strength. But it’s not that simple when women are often told to slim down on the treadmill whereas men are encouraged to build muscle in the weight section at the gym.

“It’s not just as easy as telling a person to go do this,” said Parsons. “We have to look at those bigger factors that are affecting their ability to do that. Even things like what kind of posters are on the wall … you know, women should be tiny and thin and not muscular, and the men should be the ones with the bulky muscles right?”

Parsons said most gym machines are manufactured based on the average male body. From being unable to reach the bars of certain bikes, not being able to use a leg machine that’s designed for longer legs, or equipment and uniforms not fitting properly, it can be challenging for women.

“You can tell somebody to get stronger. But they go to the gym, they’re intimidated, they don’t feel welcome. Because there are no women over in the weightlifting area,” she said. “It’s all very intimidating bulky, muscular men who aren’t making this space seem very safe and welcome.”

In 2021, Parsons, Coen and Dr. Sheree Becker of the University of Bath (U.K.) completed a study on how gendered environments such as gyms may contribute to sports injuries like ACL tears, which are 3-6 times more likely to be experienced by girls/women than boys/men.

This stat has been around for 20 years, but the Edge Lab hopes to change that. The paper proposes that ACL injuries being more prevalent in women should not be summed up to biological differences. Instead, disparities in training environments between men and women must be considered.

The Edge Lab’s most recent project, More Than Medals, with the U.K. Sports Institute, involved interviewing retired female athletes about their environments during their sports careers. Their stories are told through poetry in an online presentation meant to get people talking about how gender disparities impact everyday sporting environments.

Through this study, five “gender challenges” that women encounter in the sports environment were identified.

“It’s things like just not being heard, injuries or health concerns not being taken seriously, things often being chalked up to biology,” said Parsons.

Along with Coen, she hopes to expand their research with Sport Manitoba to develop a project researching gendered environments in youth sports including training environments at practices and competitions.

“What are the attitudes of coaches and administrators and people in power positions towards women’s and men’s sport? Are there different values placed on the worth of the athletes or their teams depending on whether they’re women’s or men’s teams?” said Parsons.

“We’re focused on making a difference and actually taking action,” said Parsons, who hopes Edge Lab will increase women’s participation in sports and end injury burden and health disparities.

You can access Edge Lab at www.edge-lab.org.

Source: Winnipeg Free Press

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