Sue TibballsA campaigner who has worked tirelessly to change women’s sport policy, promote investment and encourage more girls to take part in physical exercise has been awarded an honorary doctorate from Edge Hill University.

Sue Tibballs, former Chief Executive of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), a charity built for the purpose of encouraging women into sport and physical activity, celebrating sporting success and working with policy makers to drive change in how the government supports women’s sport and fitness, has become an Honorary Doctor of Science.

Under Sue’s leadership, the WSFF led a number of high profile campaigns which have made an outstanding impact across the UK and world. The charity was behind the campaign to include women’s boxing in the 2012 London Olympics, leading to Leeds-born Nicola Adams becoming the first ever woman to win an Olympic boxing title.

The WSFF also led calls against the Saudi Arabian government’s refusal to send sportswomen to the Olympics, resulting in the country’s decision to send two female athletes to compete in the 2012 Games for the first time in the nation’s history.

And next year, for the first time, the women’s Boat Race will be held on the same day as the men’s, thanks to Sue helping to persuade the organisers that the races should have equal importance.

“I think the key message I’d like graduates to take away from today is to not just take the world as you find it, but make the world how you want it to be,” said Sue.

“Women’s sport has changed enormously in the last seven to eight years, I think WSFF prepared a lot of the ground work but London 2012 played a big part in pushing the debate to a much higher platform, and there has been a big shift in  the attitude towards women’s elite sport.

“There has been a drive amongst the media to be the women’s sport champions, you’ve got the BBC covering women’s football, Clare Balding with her own show on BT Sport and women cricketers being paid. But there is much more to be done in terms of sports funding. For example, I’m a patron of Crystal Palace’s ladies’ football club, but it doesn’t receive any funding, so every girl has to pay to play football.”

She added that there is also the issue of sexism in sport. “Just as I started at WSFF, Mike Newell who was manager at Luton lost a match and put the blame on the female assistant referee. He later apologised, but it meant a sudden awareness and huge surge of interest in the fact that women were doing these roles, so I thought it would be a good idea to present him with a huge bunch of flowers. At the time my children were small, so I went up to the ground with my buggy and the bunch of flowers – and ended up escorted away!”

Sue has also been instrumental in improving girls’ participation in sport while still in school, through not only changing school policy but also challenging traditional attitudes.

The WSFF published Changing the Game for Girls, the biggest ever report on what stops girls engaging in physical activity. As a result, policy makers and schools were told about the barriers that girls face to participating in sport, and providing a toolkit for how to best deal with these issues. She also secured funding from the Department of Health to improve school’s attitudes towards girls sport across the UK.

In addition, she was also responsible for the ground-breaking Creating a Nation of Active Women strategy, which included the innovative Sweat in the City programme which resulted in 72 percent of women who completed it becoming more active than they were before.

She was recognised by the Queen and awarded the Order of the British Empire in the 2014 New Year’s Honours list.

Sue added: “Getting involved when I did in sport was great because the interest in women’s sport has grown enormously.

“I think one of the main things that has happened is the debate moving away from equality and towards the opportunity it presents. It’s always difficult to have the conversation about equality, people don’t know what to say and don’t want to say the wrong thing so just seize up. But there is huge market potential in growing the fanbase, getting more women active, it’s a huge opportunity.

“I didn’t work in sport before joining the WSFF, I’d previously worked with The Body Shop where we did a lot of work about body image and self-esteem. That was nice as there was the obvious link with the role of physical activity and girls’ experience of their body.

“But In a time of issues around obesity we need to do more to get girls moving, rather than simply celebrating all body shapes and sizes.

“Whether it’s dance, rugby, whatever, we want girls to be radical and do something to change how they see their physical self, and not to be constantly thinking they have to look a certain way.”