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Festival of science: why do women play sports less than the rest of the population?

You are a professor of the psychology of physical activity and the director of the SENS laboratory – Sports and social environment – at the University of Grenoble Alpes. What does your research involve?

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Aina Chalabaev – My research is focused on what motivates or does not motivate us to practice regular physical activity, in competition or in everyday life. I start from a paradoxical observation: on the one hand, we are well aware of the harmful effects of a sedentary lifestyle on health (it kills more people in the world than tobacco), and we are also well aware of the beneficial effects of physical activity (30 minutes of daily walking reduces the risk of mortality by 30%) . But, on the other hand, 95% of the adult population and more than half of young people sit too much.

In order to respond to this alarming observation, in my laboratory we seek to identify barriers and levers to physical activity and develop programs aimed at promoting physical and sports activity beneficial to health and well-being. .

Are you targeting a specific population?

Yes, I am interested in women, the elderly, those who are overweight. I’m trying to figure out why these populations are even more inactive than others. It turned out that all of them are the target of negative stereotypes, that is, common beliefs in society according to which they are not too competent and too little motivated by sports. In short, I study how the social context in which these people develop shapes their motivations and physical activity.

Can you tell us more about the stereotypes associated with female athletes?

These are gender stereotypes. Social psychology studies will seek to understand why they are still deeply embedded in our minds today, despite some recent feminization of sports. We all tend to automatically and very quickly associate sports with men, often without realizing it. These prejudices then act as filters that will color our perceptions and our interactions with others, for example by causing parents to unconsciously encourage and value boys’ sports practices more than girls’.

Social psychology studies have revealed other equally insidious forms of stereotyping, which can lead girls to choose not to participate in sports themselves. So, if girls are exposed to a discourse from an early age that sports is more of a male domain, it can lead them to feel incompetent in that area, even without playing sports.

However, the perception we have of our own competence is an essential lever for long-term commitment to an activity. Furthermore, even girls who feel competent in sports can be affected, through mechanisms such as “stereotype threat.” If we fear being judged in an activity based on stereotypes, this can put some pressure on us…which impairs performance in the short term, and in the long term leads us to give up on the activity in question.

How to react to this?

Uncovering the insidious mechanism of stereotypes is important because as long as they operate unconsciously, it prevents them from being challenged. It is considered “normal” for women to compete, for example, in the heptathlon while men compete in the decathlon, or we always talk about “women’s football” for women and “only” football for men.

For several years, American researchers have also been offering training based on scientific knowledge, especially in companies, which show that by making individuals aware of their implicit biases, it is possible to limit their influence. So all is not lost.


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