“Through sport we can teach some of life’s biggest lessons about equality” — Executive Director

Address by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the International Olympic Committee Women in Sport Commission Annual Meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland on 10 November.


[As Delivered]

Ms. Lydia Nsekera, Chair of the Women in Sport Commission, Members of the Women in Sport Commission, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you very much for having us this morning.

It is my pleasure to be with you today in Lausanne for this annual meeting.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the IOC Women and Sports Awards at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, on 10 November 2015. Photo: IOC
UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the IOC Women and Sports Awards at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, on 10 November 2015. Photo: IOC

UN Women recognizes the potential of sports to unite people from all walks of life and all nations. We see this every four years when the world, and people from all walks of life, come together to share their excitement at the Olympic Games. We may not share a common country or language, but we can all feel the thrill of extraordinary achievement as athletes cross a finish line, best a world record or score a winning goal.

I will always remember these words of Wilma Rudolph, who inspired us all when she said: “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion. The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” Those are the words of an athlete that also echo the dreams of many fans.

Gender inequality is a big challenge for the 21st century. It is through the advocacy of Member States and of civil society, yourselves included, that we adopted in September a comprehensive 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which gender is front and centre. Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals is the most comprehensive goal in relation to bringing about changes for women and girls.

In the Sustainable Development Goals, and in the implementation of those goals, the intention is that by 2030 we will have achieved substantive equality that is irreversible; that will change the lives of women and girls. It is already 2015, so we ought not to wait for 2030. We will do whatever we can in order to make sure that, through sports, by 2030 we have made significant progress. We want to look back in 15 years and know that we have created a better world.

When the Sustainable Development Goals address far-reaching challenges in our society, such as inequality, discrimination, poverty, ending violence against women, and bringing peace, it means that we have been able to use the goals in the manner intended.

In relation to sports, women and girls are more visible and more vocal today than at any previous point in history. And this evening, as you critique yourself for not having achieved your own goals of reaching 20 per cent of women in leadership positions in the IOC, I think it is important to recognize the progress that you have made.

Whether in the boxing ring or on the football field; whether they are professionals or enjoying an after-school activity; women and girl athletes show what can be gained through sport. They break barriers and challenge discriminatory stereotypes. In some ways, women in sports have helped us to make the argument for equality, and I think we need to utilize that by taking it a step further. Through their experience and their performance, women in sports have actually been able to challenge the arguments of gender inequality.

For instance, it once was assumed that football — and rugby or cricket —was for men; that women were supposed to do dance or ballet, which men could not do. It was assumed that in sports women could not perform as well as men. But now we understand that men can do the ballet that the women were supposed to be doing, and women can do the sports that the men do. This only happens if we are able to make these opportunities accessible to boys and girls of all walks of life and all classes. It was once argued that women would remain at home and that women could not cope with being out on the field. But we know in 2015 that it is not true. In having the courage to contest and disprove such gender stereotypes, women and girl athletes make an unquestioned contribution to gender equality.

Through sport we can teach some of life’s biggest lessons about equality, teamwork, resilience and fairness. Sport also teaches a fierce focus on striving and personal best. It puts competition and opposition into a positive framework. Sports programmes are also highly successful in reducing social isolation, particularly for women and girls in poverty, who might otherwise be confined within their communities and families, and in that process never, ever achieve what is otherwise their full potential.

These are some of the issues that the Sustainable Development Goals are trying to tackle. In fact, it says in the Sustainable Development Goals that we must leave no one behind. This means we have to start with those who are at the back of the list and put them in the front. Sports offers us a unique opportunity to do this.

The Sustainable Development Goals also are universal. They recognize the strength, possibilities, and opportunities of all people, whether they are in rich countries or in poor countries, whether they are living in countries that have peace or in countries where there is war. It is about making a difference for all people of the world. Sports are able to reach out to people in any circumstances. Through sports they find safe places to gather, build new interpersonal networks, develop a sense of identity and become more engaged in community life.

But, of course, across sports and professional bodies one of the most obvious and quantifiable manifestations of gender discrimination is that women athletes face a huge pay gap. The exception is tennis, which since 2007 has awarded equal prize money at all four Grand Slam tournaments. This, I hope, can be the model to which all other sports aspire.

In the case of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, artificial turf was used, which again brings the issue of discrimination and inequality between men and women to the forefront. I also learned with concern that the winning women’s team received 2 million dollars in prize money, whereas the winning men’s team took away 35 million dollars. The losing United States men’s team was still awarded 8 million dollars — four times as much as the champion United States women’s team.

This is a serious, quantifiable concern that we have to address. We are mounting a campaign for equal pay between men and women across all professions in the world, and this is also a campaign that I think that women in sports and the sports fraternity must be part of. A great global coalition is going to be formed in relation to this campaign, and we hope that we all can learn something by participating.

Off the field, women are underrepresented in the leadership of sporting organizations, as you have said yourselves, as well as in sport outfitters and marketers. This is a deficit in terms of fair play, but also it is not smart business. As many industries have increasingly recognized, women widen perspectives, and bring in new ideas and innovations. They reach new audiences, including women themselves, who are a powerful market force. Sports federations can and must remove barriers to decision-making positions and put women and men on an equal footing.

In that regard we have learned a lot in the last 20 years about the use of Temporary Special Measures, such as quotas, that have proven to be invaluable tools in different leadership spheres — whether it is in the world of sports, in the parliament or in the boardroom. These seek to address the deeply entrenched stereotypes about women’s and men’s roles by increasing not only women’s numerical representation, but also their substantive participation in decision-making.

We started to significantly track the participation of women in politics, especially after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 20 years ago. We noticed that 22 per cent of parliamentarians are now women, on average. This is an increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995. If you ask me, this is a very modest increase, however even this modest increase could not have taken place without quotas. This is how challenging the situation is. One would have expected that in 20 years we would have actually made significant progress, but it is only in those countries that had quotas that we have been able to make any progress.

There is extensive evidence that shows that companies with more women on their board outperform companies with fewer or no women directors. The Credit Suisse Research Institute recently found that net income growth over the past six years averaged 14 per cent for companies with women directors as opposed to 10 per cent for those with no female board members. It also has been shown in other studies, such as those done by McKinsey and Citibank, that the world will be able to perform much better economically and address inequality if there were more women in significant decision-making positions.

I bet that in sports, both the position of women and the performance of women would be significantly improved by more women in leadership. So we have everything to gain by working harder to increase the leadership of women. I know that in 1996 you made the promise of introducing a goal of having at least 20 per cent women in leadership positions. I think we have to stay with that goal but we need concrete steps on how such goals will be attained. While some women now report increased influence and participation in decision-making, this goal still remains to be achieved by the majority of the Olympic constituencies.

I want to thank you for the joint programme that we are going to be undertaking. I see in this programme an opportunity for us to work together collaboratively. Our joint legacy programme will involve 50 schools in Brazil’s State of Rio de Janeiro through a generous grant from the IOC. The programme is reaching out to 2,500 adolescent girls, through quality sports activities that build leadership skills. It aims to foster self-esteem, support positive and healthy decisions, and help prevent gender-based violence. Another part of the programme will engage 8,000 boys and girls to challenge negative gender stereotypes and be partners for positive change.

The programme is being conducted with the National Olympic Committee in Brazil, which sponsors annual School Youth Games in which over 4 million students compete. I cannot wait to see us working together concretely on the ground and finding examples that we can share with many other parts of the world.

I am also pleased that the President of the IOC has become a HeForShe champion. And what does this mean? It means this is a man who stands for gender equality with an active programme to take this promise forward. President Bach joins nearly 500,000 men, including many prominent figures — like my own Secretary-General — men from the worlds of sports, culture, business and politics who have signed up to stand with women for gender equality. We also are targeting boys as HeForShe champions because we have to start very early.

I am also incredibly honoured that the IOC has invited me to carry the Olympic torch on 3 August in Rio. This is something for us as UN Women, and as the UN widely, that we regard as another testimony to the invaluable contribution and the partnership that we have together.

UN Women will continue to work not only with the Olympic Committee, but also with other sports in fraternity in order to make sure that we can demonstrate the usefulness and the contribution that sports are able to make. By and large, the next 15 years of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals offer us a targeted opportunity to work in every part of the world, because these goals were adopted by every country and every Member State, and because of the fact that they make a significant commitment to gender and to equality between men and women.

In closing, I would like to invite you to participate in the Commission on the Status of Women which is hosted in March every year. This is an event in which women from all over the world, from civil society and governments, come together to address issues which are critical to women. The Commission is a unique opportunity. It is like a General Assembly of women where you will be able to find fraternity, sisterhood and lively ideas of how you could take the process forward. And, of course, we hold you to account to all of the women that are there, so it would be wonderful if you were there with us.

In order to implement the 2030 Agenda, I’d like to invite collaboration, firstly by addressing the ending of gender-based violence through sports. Secondly, by the improvement of women in decision-making bodies. And, thirdly, in making sure that we end all forms of discrimination. All these three are part of the Sustainable Development Goals. I think together we can contribute to making sure, not just in sports, but in general, that we take this aspect of the Sustainable Development Goals forward.

I thank you so much for the opportunity to talk to you.