From the field to decision-making: Lack of women in sports leadership

Establishing new sport organizations and federations could be the solution in promoting a gender balance among leadership members.

By: Ruby Virchow

With a growing number of female athletes participating in global sport events, it is uncertain as to why leadership boards still lack a balanced representation of women.

Of the 997 Olympic athletes at the 1900 Paris Games, only 22 of those athletes were women.

It wasn’t until the 2012 London Olympic Games where women participated in every sport, making up 44 percent of all athletes. Although women are being represented more prominently as athletes, there are still few women in leadership roles within sports organizations that can directly influence the decision-making process.

“I do think that unless there is at least 30 percent of women in the decision-making, at any-decision making level, those women may have come in with a lot of good ideas and good intentions, but they will not survive without a lot of allies,” says journalist and cyclist Laura Robinson.

Where are the women?

According to the 2016 International Report Card on Women in Leadership from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, only 24.4 percent of IOC members are women. Out of 805 leadership positions within the international federation, including presidents, vice presidents, and executive committee members, women hold 14.5 percent of those roles.

The data does not support the IOC’s efforts of a gender equal leadership board. It also does not withstand the Olympic 2020 Agenda, which includes two recommendations relating to gender equality out of a total of 40.

The first “Foster Gender Equality” recommendation promotes a goal of 50 percent female representation in the Olympic Games. The second suggestion is to “implement a targeted recruitment process that includes a gender balance.  

The future is female

Gender equality and sexual abuse have been discussed during this year’s Play the Game conference in Eindhoven, which covers various issues facing sports today.

“Play the Game is leading the way in terms of addressing gender equality,” says Robinson in regards to solving the issue of underrepresentation. “But when we do these panels on ethics, crime and corruption in sport and we don’t include sexual abuse, sexual assault and sexual exploitation, it’s not intentional but it has the same effect as if it was.”

Play the Game mirrors sport federations in being unbalanced in terms of female representation among speakers and participants. Roughly 23 percent of the participants attending the conference this year are female. In addition, only about 20 percent of the speakers are female, demonstrating uneven female representation.

“We need to come at this issue from all angles,” according to Robinson. “We need to have women in grassroots sports, women in mid management and women at the top.”

Play the Game Director Henrik Brandt believes that the best solution to this problem is to encourage female representation. He also believes that the sports community should advocate for better sports facilities, organizations and clubs that promote equal representation.

“I believe it goes much deeper than counting the number of each sex on a list of board members,” says Brandt, emphasizing the need for reform. “It is about creating new organizations and federations that are equal.”



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