Levelling the playing field

Canadian Women & Sport

Find out how capacity-building has enabled them to build better sport in Canada.

Fifteen can be a tough age.

Adolescence is a time of trying to figure out who you are in a sea of uncertainty. You look to find role models to help shape who you might become, all while navigating a variety of pressures. Keeping your grades up, holding down a part-time job, battling general insecurities or even mental health issues, and more can all feel overwhelming.

Physical activity or sport is a highly suggested tool when it comes to healthy outlets for stress and anxiety or positive ways to build self-confidence.

But what happens when women’s and girls’ sport is underfunded, under-resourced, and not tailored to the needs of women and girls?

The short answer: they drop out of sport.

Research shows that by late adolescence, one in three girls leave sport. By comparison, 1 in 10 boys leave around the same age. As a result, young women and girls are not receiving the lifelong benefits sport has to offer.

That’s where Alison Spitzer, Director of Finance and Operations, Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, Chief Executive Officer, and the team at Canadian Women & Sport come in. Together, they’re working to address inequities in sport and effect systemic change.

Breaking barriers

Canadian Women & Sport is the leading voice and authority on gender equity and inclusion in sport in Canada. For over 40 years, the organization has driven progress by working directly with sport organizations and leaders to address the barriers to participation women and girls continue to face.

While their headquarters are based in Toronto, Canadian Women & Sport employees are located throughout the country. They’re united by both a love of the game and a passion for creating opportunities within it.

For Alison Spitzer, her love of sport started early in life: “I come from a family of sport lovers. I grew up playing. It has been, and remains, a meaningful part of my life.”

Her team works across the sport system on all things gender equity, from partnering with grassroots local sport organizations to driving research and influencing the growing professional women’s sport market in Canada. With a mission as significant as theirs – making Canadian sport equitable for all – working at all levels of sport is essential. 

“While you may not always see us on the front lines, we’re working often behind the scenes with organizations and sport leaders to change the barriers that are preventing women and girls from accelerating or participating in sport,” says Alison Spitzer. “Our organization strives to be innovative and is committed to inclusion. We have a lot of exciting opportunities and try to embrace change and try new things.”

The power of participation

Participating in sport can be a powerful tool for empowering young leaders.

According to Canadian Women & Sport’s 2022 Rally Report,Footnote 1  76% of girls said sport participation enhances their mental and emotional health.

“There are mental health benefits and a sense of community that you get from participating in sport,” agrees Alison Spitzer. “These immense benefits can come from being involved in sport in different ways, like participating as an athlete, volunteering, coaching, and refereeing.”

In addition, 76% of girls said that sport participation has helped them to build confidence.

“Sport is a terrific platform for women and girls to realize their fullest potential and to break down barriers,” says Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, the organization’s Chief Executive Officer. “They break down norms and expectations about what they’re capable of and the spaces in which they belong.”

By equipping women and girls with the transferable skills gained through sport, we can create social change in Canadian society for the better.

More inclusive sport is on the horizon

Research shows that many girls, women, and gender-diverse people are still left on the sidelines when it comes to fully accessing the benefits of sport. Only about 38% of Canadian teen girls participate in sport weekly, compared to 56% of boys.Footnote 1  But why?

The answer: a combination of many factors. Among parents, 46% say that low-quality programming is a barrier to girls aged 6 to 12 participating in sport. This figure jumps to 55% for girls aged 13 to 18.Footnote 1  This finding is staggering when one considers the fact that participating in sport can offer lifelong positive enrichment for women and girls.

Access to participation is also an intersectional issue – meaning that some people experience the benefits of sport less often than others do. Black, Indigenous, and other racialized girls, as well as girls from low-income homes, those with disabilities, or those who identify as members of 2SLGBTQI+ communities, can each face unique and often additional challenges to both accessing and participating in sport.

Common barriers include access and cost, as well as racism, stigma, and bullying.

“It’s clear that not all girls experience sport in the same way. It’s important to look beyond gender to ensure that all girls are accounted for and included,” says Alison Spitzer. “Our goal is to ensure all girls, women, and gender-diverse people have access to the benefits of sport, both as leaders and as participants.”

Thankfully, progress is being made. The momentum in Canada to create better, safer sport for girls and women is undeniable. In 2022/2023, Canadian Women & Sport distributed $1.8 million to sport organizations through grants and programs. Over 95% went to organizations led by or serving girls from equity-seeking communities.

“Sport is at its best when it includes women, girls, and gender-diverse people,” says Alison Spitzer. “Inclusion creates more space for more people to show up, participate, be fans, be included, not just as athletes but in all facets of sport.”

Capacity-building as a lifeline

Part of creating sustainable change is being able to track and communicate impact and progress.

In 2020, Canadian Women & Sport received funding from Women and Gender Equality Canada to complete a 36-month capacity-building initiative. Capacity-building is crucial to non-profit organizations, but its importance is often missed or ignored when discussing successes.

Giving credit to a close friend, Alison Spitzer uses an analogy to describe the importance of capacity-building: “It is like the dark backdrop that connects the stars that are strewn across. The stars are what people see, like programming and events. The dark space behind the stars is the backdrop that allows the bright stars to shine. That is capacity-building.”

Automating systems and building stronger processes is not often a top priority for many non-profit organizations; however, when capacity is built, it ensures that the programming offered to community members is high-quality and meets their needs.

Looking ahead

One of Canadian Women & Sport’s strategic goals is to empower 10,000 leaders and 500 organizations to bring gender equity to life in their work by 2024. Capacity-building enables the organization to see their impact at the click of a button by leveraging a customer relationship management tool to track interactions with leaders and organizations.

“We are no longer spending tens of hours sorting through spreadsheets and trying to track it all manually,” says Alison Spitzer.

Ultimately, this tool will allow the organization to track their success, amplify the progress they are making, and increase partnerships with those who are committed to creating sustainable change.

 “The future of sport for women and girls is innovative, inclusive, and exciting,” says Alison Spitzer. “We’re proud to be the builder of better sport in Canada.”


Canadian Women & Sport | Powering Better Sport Through Gender Equity (womenandsport.ca)

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