Let’s equal the playing field for women in sport


By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director, UN Women

Sport and culture have a vital power to transcend differences of sex, race, religion and nationality. Across the world, people from all walks of life experience the thrill of the Olympics; the shared experience unites us.

Women are far more visible in sports today than at any previous point in history. Professional women athletes challenge stereotypes and demonstrate leadership and other skills that can readily translate into many other domains. Perseverance, commitment, team spirit, solidarity, negotiation, and respect for others, among other values, can take women far in business, politics, scientific research, the arts and so many other fields. Many women athletes, especially in sports not traditionally considered “feminine”, lead the way, with grit and grace. They are inspiring millions of women and girls around the world to pursue their goals and dreams.

One does not need to look only at professional athletes to see the benefits of sport in changing stereotypes and promoting women's empowerment and leadership. Participation in sport at all levels can effectively empower women and girls and provide them with skills they can transfer to other domains.

However, gender inequalities still plague all areas of sports. Women athletes face a huge pay gap across professional sports – with the exception of tennis, which since 2007 has awarded equal prize money at all four Grand Slam tournaments. This should be the model to which all other sports aspire.

Similarly, even though progress has been made, women remain underrepresented in the leadership positions of sporting organizations, sport outfitters and marketers. Women have the right to be equally represented at all levels of decision-making. But including them is not only fair play – it is also smart business. Women widen the perspective to the benefit of everyone, and are a market force to be reckoned with, both for sporting organizations and sport-focused companies. Barriers for access to decision-making positions need to be removed and women must be empowered to take on leadership roles. All sports federations should close the gap and put women and men, in this and all other respects, on an equal playing field.

Sports programmes have been successful in reducing restrictions on mobility and social isolation that many women and girls experience, particularly those who live in poverty, and who might otherwise be mainly confined within their communities and families. Through sport, women and girls can find safe places to gather, build new interpersonal networks, develop a sense of identity and pursue new opportunities, often in the process becoming more engaged in community life.

The potential for sport to contribute to the social, economic and political empowerment of women and girls has been recognized by governments, the United Nations system, civil society, the sport movement and other actors.

The new Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development adopted by UN Member States in September offers a unique opportunity to achieve gender equality – a 50-50 Planet by 2030. The Agenda explicitly recognizes this in paragraph 37: sport will be an important enabler for development and women’s empowerment. Now is the time to act on this recognition and bring the benefits of sport to all women and girls.

This requires more investment to foster women's participation and leadership in sport. We at UN Women are proud of our strong partnership with the IOC. Our joint legacy programme that kicked off this fall in Brazil will empower thousands of girls, teaching them about health, violence against women and girls, and equipping them with life and leadership skills.

Sport and the pursuit of gender equality can be mutually reinforcing — through the role models they create, the values they promote, and their potential for outreach. They are similar in essence in their capacity to generate a dream and drive individuals to bring about change and success, in their own lives and in society at large.

Let’s work together and start the final sprint for gender equality before 2030.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Olympic Review 97.
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