As the most successful freestyle skier in Canadian history, Jennifer Heil understands the positive impact that sports can have — and not just measured by Olympic medals. Girls who play sports have been shown to have higher confidence, greater academic performance, and more career success later in life. That’s why Jennifer and viaSport, where she is VP Sport Development, are taking part in the Women Deliver 2019 Mobilization Canada campaign — joining their voice with those of other Canadian organizations to bring about positive change.

 

 

By Hailey Eisen

 

 


 

When Jennifer Heil was 14, just before starting high school, she walked into her soon-to-be principal’s office and told him she planned to go to the Olympics. In order to achieve her dream, she told him, she’d have to be absent for at least three months during her Grade 12 year.

“I needed their support and they rallied around me,” says Jennifer, now lauded the most successful freestyle skier in Canadian history and an Olympic Gold and Silver medal holder. “That support was a beautiful thing, and it allowed me to graduate on time and with honours.”

Jennifer’s story, it seems, is not the norm. While Canada is a leader when it comes to women’s representation at the Olympics, we are falling behind on the broader national scale. Only 19 per cent of Canadian women participate in sport, compared to 35 per cent of Canadian men. “The issues women in sport face today are representative of challenges women face in everyday life,” Jennifer says. “These include stereotyping, sexualization, and lack of safety.”

While Jennifer admits she was very lucky to have been raised in a family that valued physical activity and sport, and in an Albertan community that provided her with many opportunities to play a variety of sports and lead an active lifestyle — not all girls are so lucky. The issues they face are varied and expansive, from a shortage of women coaches at all levels, to women’s sporting events getting second billing, to a lack of resources allocated to girls’ leagues, to gender-based violence, and girls not feeling confident or comfortable in their own bodies.

“If we’re going to move on these issues, it’s going to take more than the sporting community to do so,” says Jennifer, who now works as VP Sport Development with viaSport British Columbia. “I didn’t think I’d stay in the sporting world after my retirement, beyond volunteering, but then I realized how important this issue really was.”  

 

“Everyone needs to be involved in bringing about change, if we don’t have a collective effort, change won’t be sustainable.”  

 

viaSport focuses on granting all British Columbians equal access to sport through social innovation, education, standards and evaluation, and leveraging investment. With Gender Equity and Sport one of Jennifer’s main portfolios, she’s is committed professionally and personally to bringing about a shift in culture and behaviour. Under her leadership, viaSport recently joined the Women Deliver 2019 Mobilization Canada campaign, built around the global conference to be held in Vancouver this June. The Mobilization is rallying Canadian players, including those not traditionally focused on women and girls, to turn their focus toward gender equality.

“I see great opportunity through the Women Deliver Mobilization for dialogue and alignment with our allies,” Jennifer says. “We know that 94 per cent of female executives have had formal experience in sport and that participating in sport has undeniable benefits both on and off the playing field.” Studies point to higher confidence, greater social and economic mobility, decreased likelihood of drug abuse, and better school performance.

The Mobilization, she says, will help them garner champions on the ground in other sectors, such as business, and find partners to support and fund the work that’s essential to bringing about change. “We’re taking a human-centred, design approach where we don’t know what the outcomes will be, but we’re looking to redesign girls’ sports and shift toward a more inclusive sports system on a national scale.”  

While many people don’t think of sport as part of the gender equality conversation, Jennifer says, “if girls aren’t confident and don’t have a sense of agency in their bodies, it will go on to impact the rest of their lives, from their academic achievement, to the way they show up in meetings, and their ability to support their families.”

While systemic changes must be made, there’s also a need for a change in attitude which begins in homes and schools. “We’re starting to see some of these changes, from teachers taking kids outside for movement breaks, to parents socializing daughters to realize the value of physical education,” she says. “But we still have a long way to go.”

Currently, only 2 per cent of girls ages 12 to 17 receive the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity daily. This stat alone speaks volumes.  

As a mom of two young boys, Jennifer says boys have as big a role in all this as girls do. The key is to influence their beliefs and values and shift the dialogue to be more inclusive from an early age. viaSport is also engaging men, who make up most of the leadership and executive director roles in sport.

“Everyone needs to be involved in bringing about change, if we don’t have a collective effort, change won’t be sustainable.”  

 

To learn more about how you can join the Mobilization and take action for gender equality, visit their website at www.WeDeliver2019.ca and join the conversation on Twitter with #WeDeliver2019.


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