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International Women’s Day: Women are still underrepresented in the sporting world

Comment by Laura-Maria Tiidla, ISCA Project Coordinator.


Happy International Women’s Day! Today we are not celebrating only women, but aspirations towards a more inclusive society where we all have the chance to strive thanks to equal opportunities and the benefits that diversity brings to all of us.


I wish I wouldn’t need to bring out the facts to show the severity of the issue and the lengthy journey we are facing to reach gender equity. Gender disparity persists throughout the sporting world – from participation levels to top leadership positions, even down to spectating where women are still banned from entering stadiums in some countries.


It’s evident at the grassroots level, where we see that women are less active than men on average throughout their entire life (Eurobarometer 472 on Sport and Physical Activity, 2018), there are 50% less female volunteers and the dropout rates are especially stark among teenage girls compared to their male counterparts. Additionally, women are underrepresented in decision-making roles, as only 14% of all top decision-making positions in sports federations in Europe are occupied by women . This troubling pattern runs into portrayal of women in sport, as only 4% of sports media content is dedicated to women’s sport . The percentage of accredited female coaches at the Olympic Games has been around 10% for the last 10 years. There were no female athletes on the Forbes world’s highest paid athletes list in 2018.


These are only a few examples, but if you would like to find out more, you can check the comprehensive data from the Council of Europe’s ‘All In’ project. These numbers are discouraging on their own, but what’s even worse is that some of them have stagnated and we are not seeing signs of improvement.


Women are still underrepresented in all levels of the sporting world and we need to take action. First of all, because it is the moral thing to do, but also because diverse organisations perform better, they drive economic growth and they help us offer better services to more diverse target groups.


There is ample evidence and major stakeholder support (WEF's The Global Gender GAP, European Union, United Nations) to implement systematic action plans and gender-tailored programmes to bridge the inequalities. I wish we didn’t need gender specific programmes and initiatives to encourage female participation, but the reality is that they have shown great results. With the current pace of 200 years to close the gender gap, we need to take these recommendations seriously and utilise these programmes – simply because we can’t afford to miss out on all the unfilled potential.


As a young female in the sports world, I am tired of not being properly greeted or addressed at high-level work events, of seeing yet another all-white-male panel, of hearing inappropriate comments made about my or my female colleagues’ physical appearance, and of receiving invitations to attend a panel while the organisers joke that they finally found their token female to tick a box.


The gender gap is stubborn indeed, but thankfully there are even more stubborn men and women fighting to close it. I’d like to thank them for speaking up and calling out casual sexism in sport. This should matter to all of us as we all play a role in driving change forward.


There have been exceptional success stories in recent years, and it’s encouraging and uplifting to see the power of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019, Telegraph’s Women in Sport section, the fight for equal pay and the rise of female role models. There is great progress being made in Scandinavian countries, Nicaragua, Rwanda, New Zealand, to name a few. Most importantly, we need to make sure we build on this momentum to mainstream gender equality on all levels of the sporting world.


“The future is here, but it’s not evenly distributed”: W. Gibson’s quote rings more and more true in some countries, but every girl deserves access to the same bright future. A future where their gender isn’t a barrier to participating in sports, engaging in physical activity or having their voice heard by decision-making bodies. Change can indeed be led from the top, but it starts at the grassroots with each of us.


Photo by Marie Oleinik, ISCA