For very many, 2020 was the year that wasn’t. But as the old adage goes, every cloud has a silver lining. And the 20x20 campaign is one such.

This story opens at the close, with both 2020 and 20x20 now over. 20x20 was a successful and high-profile campaign to promote women’s sport.

However, as fruitful as it was, the final message from the woman who started it, Sarah Colgan is this: there’s still a way to go.

“The results are brilliant, but the truth is, we’re not where we need to be in terms of the overall landscape. Obviously what you’re looking to get to is 50-50 [equality in men’s and women’s sport],” Sarah explains.

“That could never have been achieved in two years. So I do hope now the momentum that has been generated will continue to snowball and gather pace, so that we can keep pushing for that 50-50 goal.”

Sarah is the co-founder, alongside Heather Thornton, of Along Came a Spider, the creative agency that designed 20x20.

Sarah Colgan with her daughter Emily at the 20x20 mural in Temple Bar, Dublin.

In the vein of continuing to address the challenges to women’s sport, Irish Country Living asks Sarah about an issue prior to Christmas, where the venue of the ladies’ Gaelic football semi-final between Cork and Galway was changed the morning of the game, leading to inadequate warm up time for some.

Speaking on the issue and in general, Sarah feels that although this showed the problems still associated with women’s sport, the reaction to it highlighted that this is now culturally unacceptable.

“So many of the problems [in women’s sport] are historic and systemic, in a culture that just did and does value men’s sport in a different way,” Sarah says. “There have been so many different petitions and things in the media highlighting that this actually isn’t fair.

That women have to go through this and men don’t, no matter what the sport, no matter what the sporting organisation.

“I actually think that [the reaction] is hugely encouraging and it wouldn’t have happened five years ago. It would have been swept under the carpet. The media are standing up and taking note, but so are the players, so are the fans.

“That’s the only way we’ll push towards change, because it’s not one person’s fault and it’s not one organisation’s fault. But by seeing that it just doesn’t fly, it does mean that change will have to take place.”

And change is afoot. Running from October 2018 to the end of 2020, the 20x20 campaign aimed to increase the media coverage of, the participation in and attendance at women’s sport by 20%.

Obviously, with the disruption to daily life in 2020 and sport in all its capacities ceased for much of the year, it wasn’t possible to get overall results for the campaign.

But, at the halfway point of the 20x20 campaign, research conducted by RTÉ showed that 57% of people were reading more about women’s sport in the media, 38% were attending more female sporting events and 27% were participating more in sport.

The 20x20 campaign is aimed to increase the media coverage of women's sport. \ Claire Nash

In lieu of full results, in 2020, further research commissioned by the 20x20 campaign and conducted by Behaviour & Attitudes showed that 80% of Irish adults – rising to 84% of Irish men – said they were more aware of women’s sport now than before the movement launched.

20x20 attracted major support, from grassroots to top tiers. The Federation of Irish Sport came on board, bringing with them 76 national sporting governing bodies. 20x20 was sponsored by brands such as AIG, Investec, KPMG and Lidl.

Ambassadors included none other than AFLW (Australian Football League Women’s) and Mayo ladies’ Gaelic footballer Sarah Rowe, Irish and Arsenal soccer player Louise Quinn and professional golfer from Cavan Leona Maguire.

But, it all started with one little girl. Sarah’s daughter, Emily.

From tiny seeds

There were a few different sparks for 20x20, but a major one came from Emily’s sporting future. A mother of three – two boys and a girl – Sarah was bringing both her eldest son and Emily to their local GAA club in Dublin.

At one point, Emily was talking about wanting to give up playing. “I remember having the thought in my head that I wasn’t going to push her and that she could do drama or something instead,” Sarah recalls, “but that there was no way I would let her brother give up.

Sarah previously worked in MTV UK and the BBC before moving back to Dublin to work for RTÉ. \ Claire Nash

“When you examine that, it wasn’t a conscious thought. I think it’s something that a lot of parents could probably relate to. Not consciously, but on a subconscious level we often prioritise sport for our sons over our daughters. In the way society prioritises men in sport over women in sport.”

This encouraged Sarah to think about how society views women and sport; the ingrained behaviours we all adapt unintentionally and how this needs a cultural shift. Thus, the seed was planted for what would grow to be a mighty tree.

“You realise that just because it’s been done that way for hundreds of years, to accept that’s just the way it is, is so damaging for the generation coming up. My unconscious thoughts were, he needs sport socially and I wouldn’t have let him give up. I considered letting her stop, when all it took was a different type of encouragement.”

Interestingly, Sarah herself was never that sporty growing up, but that’s primarily because she wasn’t encouraged. This is perhaps, she reasons, why she felt so strongly about the campaign.

“I probably fell into that category of a girl who was embarrassed to try too much in front of the boys. I see now that’s hugely changing from my generation to the next. That self-consciousness, my daughter doesn’t have any of that. She doesn’t care what she looks like coming off the pitch. It’s just so brilliant and encouraging to see.

“These things are influenced by media. If you don’t see strong, sweaty, muddy, muscly women on billboards and across magazines and newspapers – if that’s a spot that’s reserved for men – then you’re propagating this thing in a million different ways.”

Past and present

Instigating such a powerful social movement could easily overshadow Sarah’s previous work.

On the other hand, looking at her past employment might just show why she went on to start 20x20. After finishing university at Trinity College Dublin, Sarah landed a job in MTV UK, eventually heading up the non-music talent department there.

At the age of 26, deciding she wanted to go a more serious route, she moved to the BBC; working for BBC Specialist Factual in their science department and for BBC Arts with The Culture Show. After meeting her husband, she moved back to Dublin and began developing new television formats for RTÉ. Quite a résumé!

In 2016 she co-founded Along Came a Spider with Heather, who had a background in advertising. Along Came a Spider designs campaigns, previously making a film for Focus Ireland called Moving Day. Sarah is very clear that they didn’t just want the company to be another ad agency, they wanted to influence societal change.

“What we wanted to do was use the skills Heather had in advertising and the skills I had in entertainment. And rather than trying to create an empire, have hundreds of staff or make loads of money, the thing that actually drove us – and different things get different people out of bed in the morning – was the social impact,” Sarah says.

Sarah Colgan says great work has been done on women's sports, but there's still a way to go.

“What I think will always be at the forefront for me is that it’s not to do something like sell razorblades. The thing that excites me about my work is to have a positive social impact, to use the skills I have for purpose.”

With 20x20 now wrapped up, Sarah has new projects in the mix, but she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of 20x20 2.0. Also, very importantly, Emily is still playing GAA, along with participating in a whole host of other sports.

“She loves it now and she just needed a little bit of different encouragement to get into it. It was just a thing to push through. The difference in her and how much she enjoys it is just phenomenal.”

See, plenty of 20x20 silver linings.

The results

Due to restrictions around participating in sport throughout much of 2020, full results in relation to the three pillars of a 20% increase in media coverage, participation and attendance couldn’t be collated. But at the half way point of the campaign, research by RTÉ showed:

Meighan Farrell of the All-Ireland winning Kilkenny camogie team. \ Sportsfile


of those aware of the campaign said they were watching more women’s sport on TV as a result of 20x20.

57% were reading more about women’s sport in the media.

38% were attending more female sporting events.

Katie McCabe, captain of the Irish women’s soccer team. \ Sportsfile

27% were participating more in sport.

Further research commissioned by 20x20 towards the end of the campaign and conducted by Behaviour & Attitudes shows:

80% of Irish adults – rising to 84% – of Irish men said they’re more aware of women’s sport now, than before the movement launched two years ago.

The Irish women’s hockey team. \ Sportsfile

75% of those surveyed also said they believed that women’s sport is seen as cooler now.

Of those aware of the campaign:

73% of adults – rising to 75% of men – said that 20x20 changed their mindset positively towards girls and women in sport.

68% stated they support women in sport more because of 20x20.

Nicole Owens of Dublin, 15, celebrates with team-mates from left, Lyndsey Davey, Carla Rowe and Caoimhe O'Connor after winning the All-Ireland Dublin ladies’ Gaelic football final. \ Sportsfile

42% of women said they now participate in more sport because of the movement.

The Irish women’s rugby team. \ Sportsfile

Twitter reported #20x20 as the second most-used hashtag in Ireland for social issues in 2019

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