My Life: Sport England Chief Executive Jennie Price On Showing Women (Including Her Granddaughters) That 'This Girl Can'

Jennie Price

The UK is being taken over by sweaty women - you only have to search the hashtag #ThisGirlCan for proof.

Since Sport England launched the groundbreaking campaign in January, ladies up and down the county have been attending Zumba classes en masse, running their first mile and going to their local swimming pool for the first time in years.

The person who's convinced us to ditch the sofa and grab our goggles is Sport England's chief executive Jennie Price.

"We wanted to tackle the gender gap in the amount of people playing sport," Price tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle.

"When we collated our research about what was putting women off, two themes came up again and again: body confidence and fear of judgement.

"Body confidence is a topic we tend to associate with teenage girls, but we realised that it was affecting women across the board of all ages, from 14 to 40."

Price wanted to find a way to empower and unite these women.

This Girl Can was born.

Price may have worked in the environmental sector before joining Sport England in 2007, but sport has always played an important role in her life.

“I was the only child of an absolutely sports mad father, so I spent my childhood being taken to every sporting event you can imagine ” she says.

“So the power of sport to create spectacle and engage and connect people is one of the things that I grew up with.”

Although she enjoyed playing squash and swimming as a child, Price insists that she was “never brilliant at sport”.

"These days I can play a decent game of table tennis and I can swim, but there are plenty of other things that I’m terrible at - if you saw me run you’d know I’m not a natural athlete," she jokes.

"As the girl who was always picked in the last five or six for hockey or netball, rather than the first five or six, I completely understand the embarrassment and fear of judgement that some women feel around exercise."

Part of the success of This Girl Can is, perhaps, the fact that it's aimed at women just like Price.

It sets out to prove that when most women exercise, we don't look like the airbrushed models that appear in fitness advertisements.

This girl can campaign

"Exercise is particularly exposing - it's something that most people will do in a public place, it makes you sweaty and red-faced and by the end of it, you appear in a way that you wouldn’t normally present yourself to the world," Price says.

"I hope that the core of the This Girl Can campaign acknowledges that as fact, but says ‘it’s fine’.

"The women in our campaign are not airbrushed, they look tired, red and sweaty but I also think they look stunning."

Unfortunately, Price has first-hand experience of just how exposing exercising can be.

One afternoon she was training for the MoonWalk - a 26-mile charity walk through the night - when a man came to the door of a shop yelled "something completely unrepeatable" at her from across the street.

"I was absolutely devastated," she says. "I’m 55 years old and I do this job, but I still went home and burst into tears.

"I didn’t go out and train again for another week or so because I was so embarrassed.

"Now if that can have that effect on me at my age, imagine what effect it could have if I’d have been 18 or 25 and trying something new - I’d probably never have gone out again!”

Clearly, everyday sexism contributes to fear of judgement and a lack of self-belief among women - but that's a whole other article.

Price also believes we are pre-disposed to putting ourselves down, not just in sport, but in other areas of life.

"Women set really high standards from themselves, I don’t know what it’s rooted in and I probably shouldn’t speculate - I’m not a psychologist," she says.

"But there’s a lot of research to support the fact that when women are looking for jobs, they will look at a set of requirements and pick out the one or two things that they haven’t done before and think they’re not eligible, whereas a man will say ‘Oh I can do 75% of that, I’ll be fine'.”

When she's not overseeing the This Girl Can campaign, Price has many other balls to juggle as head of Sport England.

She lives in a suburb of London and makes the two hour commute to the capital four days each week to meet with her team and the organisation's partners.

She'll try and spend at least one day per week outside of the city - "as I am constantly telling my team, we are not Sport London, we are Sport England" - where she'll visit one of the clubs or fitness centres they have funded.

"I get frustrated when I’m visiting a lovely pool and I can’t go in - I rarely have the time or my swimming costume with me,” she says.

In between darting around the country to visit sports halls, Price is picking up awards at ceremonies.

This Girl Can was recently awarded the ‘Glass Lion: The Lion for Change’ award at this year's Cannes. The award was created in partnership with Sheryl Sandberg's organisation LeanIn.Org and recognises work in the advertising industry that addresses issues of gender inequality or prejudice.

But finding a way to encourage more women to participate in sport is not just the only aim of Sport England.

Price is also particularly passionate about helping more people with disabilities to do at least one sporting activity each week.

"We are an agency with public funding and there often are financial and practical barriers for disabled people when it comes to participating in sport, so I think it’s our responsibility to tackle that," she says.

"The Paralympic Games did a really good job in showcasing disabled athletes, but also the way they bought disabled families into the olympic park and the way that they kept everything so inclusive was fantastic. I think it's a really powerful legacy to build on."

In the next year, she also wants to inspire more young people to engage in exercise and address the fact that there is a huge drop in sporting participation by the time a person hits 25.

Two young people who do not need any encouragement to keep active though, are Price's grandchildren.

At the ages of six and 10, one of them is "really sporty" in general, while the other is a dancer.

"They love the This Girl Can images," she says, with a well-earned hint of pride.

Aside from spending time with her step children and grandchildren, Price finds that cooking is the perfect way to unwind.

"There’s something completely different about cooking compared to sitting behind a desk or meeting lots of people," she says.

"Even if it’s just making an omelette at the end of the day, nothing cheers me up more than popping down to the supermarket and picking up some unusual ingredients - my husband puts up with all my experiments!”

It's clear that family time is of upmost importance to Price, so it's not surprising that she names her mother as the person who has had the biggest influence on her career.

"My mum had a career pretty much all my life. She went back to work as a teacher when I was two years old - which was very unusual in those days - and went on to become a deputy headteacher in a very big school when I was older. I think that made me quite ambitious," she says.

"My mother always said: ‘You can be anything you want to be and you can do anything you want to do, as long as you’re prepared to work hard for it.’ So having that standard set for me and being relentlessly encouraged by her is what has shaped me the most."

Hearing Price talk about her mother makes us think, once again, of the This Girl Can Campaign.

It may have started as a campaign about judgement and body image, but it has turned into a feminist movement, enabling women to support and inspire each other to be stronger.

It really is no wonder that Price cites it as the proudest moment of her career.

"I often think as a chief executive you get a disproportionate amount of credit when things go well - there was a huge team involved in This Girl Can," she says.

"But still, I'm proud of it, and it’s not winning the awards that makes me feel proud, it’s the reaction that we’ve got from women.

"When I hear women say ‘I recognise this, I want to celebrate this’, that's what gets me up in the morning."

Story first published by Huffington Post