Women in Sport: Breaking Records but Not Glass Ceilings?

Woman Boxing

Source: Photo by Miguel A. Amutio on Unsplash

Women’s sport has changed a lot since 1967, when Kathrine Switzer forced her way into the Boston Marathon. At that time, many people considered women incapable of running marathons. Even Switzer’s coach insisted that a marathon was too long for a “fragile woman” to run, but he accepted to take her to Boston if she managed to run the distance during training, which she did. After checking whether the application form contained any rules on gender, she registered for the 1967 marathon as KV Switzer.

Photos of Switzer from the race, now famous, show her being assaulted by the race’s manager, Jock Semple, as he tried to grab Switzer’s bib and stop her running in the race. In the aftermath, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) completely banned women from taking part in races with men. It would take another five years before the Boston Marathon allowed women to compete officially.

Another woman was running in the marathon the same day as Switzer: Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb. Gibb was actually running the Boston Marathon for her second time, but without any registration number. Gibb was not assaulted by Jock Semple and managed to run the race about an hour faster than Switzer.

After the 1967 event, Will Coney, the director of the Boston Athletic Association, told the Press that although there were no rules against women running, “women can’t run in the marathon because the rules forbid it. Unless we have rules, society will be in chaos. I don't make the rules, but I try to carry them out. We have no space in the marathon for any unauthorized person, even a man. If that girl were my daughter, I would spank her”. Allowing us a glimpse into the inner workings of the Coney household. It’s unlikely his daughters, Mia and Kathleen, ever ran in the Boston Marathon.

History is rife with tales of women struggling for recognition and the right to participate in sports events and other areas of public life. Thanks to trailblazers like Gibbs and Switzer, women have the right to compete in international sports events today; however, women’s sport still receives far less media attention and funding than men’s sport. Still, there has been progress. In 2021, many organisations have action plans to promote equality in sport. The number of women and men competing in the Olympic Games today is roughly even: a reflection of the International Olympic Committee’s measures targeting gender equality. In this article, JackpotCity online casino takes a closer look at what is being done at an international and national level to champion equality for women and girls in sport and sport leadership.

Underrepresented at the highest leadership levels

In the 2000s, more women were playing sport than ever before, but female athletes consistently received less media coverage and funding than their male counterparts. Nevertheless, gender is no longer a barrier to participating in elite sports. Many female athletes are now household names: Serena Williams, Farah Palmer, Simone Biles, Danica Patrick, Lisa Carrington, Barbara Kendell, and the list goes on. Yet, women continue to be underrepresented in the leadership roles of our international, national and local organisations. A report published in March 2021 by Dr Jordan Matthews and Dr Lucy Piggott examining female representation in international sport governance, clearly outlines the current situation.

The study by Matthews and Piggott is the first research publication to audit and review governance policy on women’s leadership in sport across international sports federations. It examines sixty international sports organisations to evaluate the current state of gender equity at the leadership level in these organisations. The research was conducted to support UK Sport’s 2021–2025 strategy but is relevant to all countries because it identifies effective strategies for achieving gender equality in sport leadership roles. It also uses objective data to identify areas where women are the most underrepresented. The research produced three key findings:

Only 22% female representation in the highest governance bodies, 7% female representation in the highest governance positions, and 21% female representation in the highest leadership positions.

After comparing the nature of gender and governance actions, the researchers found that the number of actions was less important than the nature of these actions. Higher performing organisations had more ambitious, process-driven and embedded actions across the organisation.

Two groups of organisations, which were exclusively part of the Paralympic Movement lacked three forms of gender and governance actions: gender quotas, gender election and recruitment rules. These organisations were identified as needing individualised support to help them achieve a situation of gender equity.

Woman Swimming

Source: Photo by Brian Mantangelo on Unsplash

What can be done?

Some organisations in the study already have a range of gender equity measures in place, but women continued to be underrepresented within the organisations. The researchers believe that this ineffectiveness could come down to the lack of a genuine commitment on behalf of the organisation. In short, there’s lots of talking but little real action. It’s not enough to write rules and create committees if those rules are not checked for compliance and held accountable, or the committees have no real power. There need to be hard and fast compliance measures to ensure that quotas are being met. Actions need to be tracked and their progress measured, objectively, to ensure that they are having the desired effect on the ground. Targets should also be time-bound. In other words, they need to come with set timeframes with a back-up plan if those targets and timeframes are missed. The researchers also recommend that we encourage organisations to publish progress reports on their gender targets.

Organisations that included targets and quotas for female representation and actually did have rules and consequences for failure to achieve those targets and quotas, were found to have five per cent more women as a result.

Some of the organisations performing the most poorly in terms of female representation at leadership level had created separate committees for women’s sports. This might lead you to believe that there would be an improvement on gender equity in the organisation’s leadership. The organisations appear to be making efforts to promote women. In reality, some of these committees had little real power and few men. Consequently, the separate committees for women’s sport had a counter-productive effect. They allowed women’s sport to be side-lined from the main organisation rather than promoting female representation within the institution.

Dr Piggott concludes: “Organisations need ambitious goals that are driven by conscious processes and implemented at all levels. Commitment is required across the whole organisation to promote gender equality and to stand behind its implementation”.

Why is female representation important in sport?

You may wonder whether the numbers really matter? Women are participating and winning events, do we really need equal representation at the leadership level? Johanna Adriaanse, an adjunct associate from the University of Technology Sydney, explains why the numbers matter based on “critical mass theory”. The term sounds complicated, but the idea is quite simple: “According to critical mass theory, when the size of a group reaches a certain threshold or critical mass, that group gains trust and influence. The vast majority of international sporting bodies that have so far failed to achieve a critical mass of women include those that govern popular sports with millions of participants worldwide […] Research in the public and corporate sectors has found that having just one or two women on a board does not substantially change gender dynamics – it does not admit women’s voices and ideas. Without a critical mass, one or two women on a (sports) board stand out and can be fiercely scrutinised and stereotyped”. When the critical mass of women is not achieved, there is a high chance that any woman will be perceived as a token woman and not taken seriously. Since 51% of the NZ Olympic team were women in 2016, these women need to be represented at leadership level and have their voices heard. The same is true at every level of sport, from the Olympics to the local girls’ soccer team.

What’s more, Adriaanse says that while women are more prominent today in economic and financial decision-making positions, they are still largely absent from leadership positions in sport. Her research in 2012 and 2016 on Women in Sport Leadership showed that the number of women chairing international sports foundations was 7% in both 2012 and 2016. In other words, no progress was made in four years! Flip that figure on its head. It means that 93% of chair or president roles in sporting bodies were held by men as recently as 2016. That’s quite an imbalance.

Sport leadership in NZ

Prior to 2017, Sport New Zealand research found that women held 27% of chair or president roles in sport and recreation. During the same period, women were participating more than ever before. In the same period, the 2016 International Sports Report Card on Women in Leadership Roles showed that men ran 33 of the 35 international federations affiliated with the Olympic Games. In New Zealand, the pattern was repeated, with 11 female directors and 12 board chairs across our 65 sports organisations. This situation, while an improvement on previous decades, requires continued action.

Sarah Leberman, the founding co-chair of Women in Sport Aotearoa, explains that women and girls’ participation in sport is associated with life-long physiological health benefits as well as many psychological benefits, positive self-perception, and increased community involvement. For this reason, the United Nations made women’s participation in sport one of its Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. As part of getting more girls and women participating in the sports community there need to be more women in positions of sports leadership too.

The 8th IWG World Conference in Auckland 2022

The International Working Group (IWG) Women & Sport is the world’s largest network dedicated to achieving gender equity in sport and physical activity. It was established in 1994 and is in charge of administering key programmes like the Brighton plus Helsinki Declaration on Women and Sport, which was organised by the British Sports Council and is supported by the International Olympic Committee. The Brighton plus Helsinki Declaration was signed by more than 550 international organisations, including the United Nations and UNESCO. It has been working since 1994 to empower women and improve their roles in sport.

At present, the IWG Patron is none other than the Rt. Hon Helen Clark, ONZ. Every four years, the IWG Secretariat and World Conference moves to a new host country. Since 2018, New Zealand has been the international host nation for the IWG Secretariat & Conference 2018–2022. That means that the 8th IWG World Conference is being held right here at home in Auckland in May 2022. This is exciting for New Zealand’s female athletes and is happening at a time when the government has launched its own exciting strategy for women in girls in sport and active recreation.

The digital launch of the 8th IWG conference was headlined by White Ferns cricket captain Sophie Devine and former Black Fern rugby player Melodie Robinson. The theme of the conference in Auckland is “Change Inspires Change.” It focuses on empowering the individual to make positive change for women and girls in sport and physical activity worldwide, with a simple premise: “every change you make, no matter how small or large, inspires the next, and the next. By sharing your story, you can help inspire others to make change”.

In March 2021, the Hon Grant Robertson announced that the government will provide another $950,000 to support NZ’s hosting of the 8th IWG in Auckland. This funding comes from the $265 million Sport Recovery Package in response to COVID-19 and reduced attendee numbers from overseas, which is affecting revenue.

NZ government action

In 2018, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Sport and Recreation Minister Grant Robertson also launched a government strategy to support our female athletes and improve the rates and quality of participation of women in sport.

Ardern announced that “Our new strategy for Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation seeks to tackle and overcome the clear inequalities for women and girls when it comes to participation, leadership and visibility within sport and active recreation in New Zealand”. She pointed out that, “it’s not good enough that [girls and women] continue to be underrepresented in leadership, face more barriers to participating, and are far less valued and visible in sport and active recreation. This strategy seeks to even the playing field”.

The strategy will focus on showcasing inspiring women in sports, achieving pay equity for top female athletes, and creates a new journalism prize for coverage of women’s sport. The government will also be role modelling the change by ensuring that Sport NZ and High Performance Sport NZ have gender equity on their governance boards. Ardern encourages other national organisations to do the same.

The strategy has been given substantial funding: through Sport NZ the government has been investing over $10 million over a three-year period (2018–2021). The strategy’s effectiveness is measured using a media audit and social media index to track progress.

Exciting women’s sporting events in NZ

There was more exciting news for women’s sport in New Zealand in the coming years. The government also confirmed recently that New Zealand will host the opening ceremony and first match, as well as one of the semi-finals, of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023. We are, of course, also hosting the Women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2022. So after a rocky period during the pandemic, there are many exciting sports events and conferences to look forward to in Aotearoa in the next few years. Of course, you can also watch our team competing in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021! You can read more about what to expect from the 2020 Summer Olympics on the JackpotCity blog.

Supporting change

At a personal level, we can also help support women in sport. The following list comes from the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Sport and Physical Activity (CAWS). It offers ten ways that men can support women and girls in sport, but could be used by anyone:

  1. Speak up.
  2. Celebrate women athletes.
  3. Train and certify women coaches and officials.
  4. Recruit women leaders.
  5. Pay-it-forward and mentor.
  6. Invite women.
  7. Nominate women leaders.
  8. Communicate opportunities.
  9. Educate yourself and others.
  10. Promote women and sport leadership networks.
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