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UEL’S BEAT Strikes a Chord for Equality and Gender Issues

University of East London (UEL) Student Sports Therapists Paloma Pinto, Tereza Mateju, Amelia Price and Powell Omozogie, together with their BSc Sports Therapy Programme Leader Michael Cole, set up in 2017, the Body Equality in Athletic Therapies (BEAT) group.

The initial aim of the group was to raise awareness of attitudes, behaviours and practices, seeking to facilitate more ‘equitable therapeutic practice in their teaching, learning and assessment’, creating an arena for open discussion and positive input. Since then, the group has gone from strength to strength.

BEAT discusses issues regarding gender representation within sport, healthcare, higher education and the fitness industries. Particular topics that emerged include body confidence, body dysmorphia and general inequalities specific to these areas. These issues are discussed and addressed with intersectionality (the interconnected or overlapping nature of different social groups) in mind, with a focus on race, sexuality and other identities.

The group holds collaborative meetings involving both students and lecturers and gathers input from other Sports Therapy students through questionnaires. BEAT’s findings were presented to lecturers at the end of the 2016/2017 academic year and the feedback from the group’s first sessions has already been embedded into the curriculum.

While BEAT’s work seeks to address and improve inequalities present within their course, its overall impact is much wider. The group is improving the ‘cultural competency’ (the skills needed to communicate and work effectively with other cultures) of the lecturers, which will feed into the Student Sports Therapists’ learning. Students will develop professionally by engaging with different experiences and points of view, which means they will be better equipped for the workplace.

We talked to Paloma, Tereza, Amelia and Powell to find out more about BEAT and their experiences with BEAT to date.

Here’s what they had to say:

Can you give us a little background to BEAT? How did it come about?

Paloma: I remember the day BEAT began was when a guest lecturer came to cover movement of the scapula, about six months into first year. We were asked to pair up and remove our tops to observe the different movements. The group divided in female and male on opposite sides of the room. Whilst the men were straight into practice, the women took 15 minutes deciding who was going to remove their tops and only two out of 15 finally did it, feeling awkward.

I decided to stay and speak with the course leader after the class, after which a series of back and forth emails and meetings gave shape to the group’s format and objectives.

Who or what was the inspiration behind it?

Paloma: I believe it was just the feeling of frustration. Despite all of us being students of a healthcare degree, we were looking at the male and female bodies with different eyes. Instead of learning from our differences, we were avoiding the opposite sex and, in some cases, missing out on learning opportunities altogether.

Tell us a bit about the concept of intersectionality

Paloma: UEL has over 60% Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students. Therefore, in order to tackle disparities, it was necessary to integrate layers of discrimination based on race, class and religion.

For example, BEAT aims to develop specific guidelines on peer work that provide a safe and supporting space to Muslim women in practical. Regarding race, we touched on decolonising the curriculum and incorporating inclusive and identifiable images on PowerPoints. We even had Fidel Kondwani, a poet and social activist, attend a group session.

How many people overall, students and staff, are involved in this initiative?

Tereza: Four students and the Programme Leader of the Sports Therapy course run and manage the group. It targets first and second year students.

In your opinion, what do you think are the main issues in Higher Education in the sport and healthcare arena?

Powell: A few issues came to our attention around the healthcare and sport subjects.

One of the main issues seems to be a non-equal relationship between males and females. The way in which gender is perceived within the Higher Education system is yet to be improved. Throughout our academic journey we came across a few inappropriate behaviours, in particular towards female students. We identified and discussed, for instance, how a female subject would be spotted instantly, by simply removing a top or a pair of trousers to get changed for physical activities, when also surrounded by male colleagues. Our workshops suggest that this is one of the main sources of insecurity, and could lead to a future lack of participation by the victim.

Another issue appears to be linked with mental wellbeing, often caused by anxiety. Most of the time, students who suffer from anxiety do not communicate it with other people so it gets suppressed internally by the individual, and if held onto for too long, there is a chance it can develop into depression.

What inequalities have you found to be most prevalent in the sport, healthcare and fitness industries?

Paloma: The lack of equal representation in management roles both for gender and race in all the industries. Furthermore, the fitness industry still focuses primarily on the look of the individual, rather than the skills. Even though more females are encouraged to pursue an athletic look, the goal is mainly cosmetic gains rather than health and mental benefits. Men are pushed to pursue a big body, which can lead to overconsumption of protein and steroids. Similarly, as in the fitness industry, the sport industry is still lacking female recognition, although this is changing. In the healthcare industry, diversity tend to still be an overlooked issue, which needs to be managed more seriously.

How are you and UEL working to tackle such issues?

Paloma: BEAT offers a space to discuss current issues that, due to the strict lecture schedule, could not be otherwise challenged. Sharing stories provides group solutions that are then translated to the practical rooms and taken to placement experiences. Hopefully we are becoming more aware of different barriers and we can be more supportive with our patients.

How do you feel gender is being represented in the Sports Therapy profession and in sports healthcare in general?

Amelia: Even though gender equality has come a long way, I feel that there are still unaddressed issues with gender and the Sports Therapy profession. Professional sport, in my opinion, seems like a very male dominated world with male managers, coaches, referees etc. At least that's how the media portrays it. I think that could be a bit daunting for a woman because you could be nervous that they won't take you seriously despite your talents and knowledge. During class, I have noticed that males and females tend to divide due to awkwardness, but I feel that the BEAT group has helped to tackle this issue and, as I said, gender equality has come a long way, with both men and women being recognised for their talents in Sports Therapy.

How have your tutors supported you throughout this journey?

Tereza: Our course leader Michael Cole has been very supportive throughout the entire time. He helped us find relative research and discussion topics and championed our group in front of the heads of school at UEL, connecting us with really relevant people such as The Athena Swan Charter who are an Equality Challenge Unit. Thanks to this, we are now involved in all of these different conferences and debates. He recently helped us organised a debate with a famous poet writer Kondwani Fidel from the US. This debate had a higher attendance of participants than similar previous events.

How do you feel you and your colleagues have developed as individuals and as Student Sports Therapists as a result of taking part in BEAT?

Tereza: Taking part in this group, we developed our teamwork skills, as well as how to work well individually. During our debates we listen to everyone's opinions and express our own too. Our communication, time management, research methods and presentation skills improved which are also necessary when working as a Sports Therapist. Good communication skills help the clinician to understand patients and their needs.

You recently spoke at the UEL Student Union Equality and Diversity Student Conference – how did that go?

Amelia: We had the issue of a very small window of time to speak, but when we were talking, I felt that everyone in the audience was engaged and listening to us and had genuine interest in what we were saying. I feel it was a real success.

Congratulations also on being asked to speak at 'Women in Sport and Exercise Conference' (‘Blood, sweat and fears’) at Staffordshire University in June by the Women in Sport and Exercise Academic Network (WISEAN). Word is clearly spreading about the great work you, your fellow students and lecturers have started.

Amelia:  It is a great opportunity for the group to grow and let people know about us. We have never taken part in a conference of this scale before, so we are all very excited. Hopefully we can inspire other students at different universities to get involved in this discussion and take part. The only issue is the price of the ticket. We have been looking for some financial support that will cover the ticket as well as the travel expenses.

What would you ultimately like to achieve with this project?

Tereza: With this project we would like to address topics such as undressing for clinical massage during practice, body image and confidence as well as equality among male and female groups in the clinical environment.

At the end of term we will write a role specification for BEAT and advertise for first year students to pick up the baton and lead it into another year. We want to encourage people to be able to think and talk about these issues.

Professor Graham Smith, Chairman of The Society of Sports Therapists on hearing about BEAT said:

‘In an age when society is being encouraged to exercise, many of those who would benefit from it the most are either discouraged or concerned about how they will be perceived because of their personal perceptions of their own body image. This innovative and insightful group of Sports Therapy students at UEL, led with enthusiasm and commitment by Michael Cole, have truly captured many of these issues. More importantly, not only have they been able to identify these issues, they have endeavoured to address them and heighten awareness in those who should be concerned. All this has been  alongside their studies for an extremely intense Sports Therapy degree.

As Chairman of The Society of Sports Therapists, I’m extremely proud of what they have done and are also hoping to do. As a professional with a long experience of working in Sport and Exercise, I recognise and acknowledge the issues they are highlighting; issues that must be brought to a wider population and faced head on.

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