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U of T research fuels IOC Gender Equality Review Project

(photo by Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

Alumna and faculty from Kinesiology & Physical Education tackle gender inequality at Olympics

On International Women's Day, the authority behind the Olympic Games pledged to advance women's participation and leadership in sports.

The announcement follows years of U of T research highlighting gender inequalities at the Games.

In a statement, the International Olympic Committee promised to act on 25 “gender equality recommendations.”

“It is not just the right thing to do. It is in the interest of us all,” said IOC President Thomas Bach.

The Centre for Sport Policy Studies in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto has done gender audits of the Olympics going back to the London Games of 2012. 

“I think it’s fair to say that CSPS has contributed significantly to the environment that produced these recommendations,” said Bruce Kidd, an Olympian and vice-president and principal of U of T Scarborough.

He added that he has shared the U of T surveys with senior IOC staff in Lausanne, Switzerland. “The surveys have not only focused on numbers, but the quality of opportunities, including the nature of events and whether they were equal,” he said.

Kidd said the U of T research is reflected in the IOC’s Gender Equality Review Project, which aims to further gender equality across the global sports community by removing barriers to women and girls' participation in sports at all levels.

“The CSPS has been involved in gender equality work for some time, but the international shift started in association with the London 2012 Olympics,” says Professor Peter Donnelly, director of CSPS. “There was a great deal of gender equality triumphalism (on the part of the male dominated IOC) associated with the fact that there were, for the first time, women in every sport (with the introduction of women's boxing), and women athletes on every team from countries that had previously excluded women from participating.

"These were important achievements, so some of the triumphalism was deserved, but I was a little skeptical about the announcements that these were 'the Women's Olympics.'”

The CSPS researchers decided to carry out a gender audit that asked what remained to be done to achieve gender equality at the games. They found there were significantly more medal events for men than women, more male athletes than female athletes and important differences in the circumstances of participation for women. 

The researchers followed this with an audit of the Sochi Olympics (2014), and are preparing reports on Rio (2016) and Pyeongchang (2018). All of the published reports are available on the CSPS website.

The IOC’s new 25 recommendations were also informed by the work of Nancy Lee, a U of T alumna and former head of CBC Sports. Lee was hired as an adviser and co-ordinator for the IOC Gender Equality Review Project after she gave a presentation to the International Sport Federations and National Sport Organizations in Doha, Qatar, in 2015.

She focused on why women’s sports get less coverage than men’s sports, suggesting sports organizations shared the blame for perpetuating the myth that women’s sport is second class. She highlighted inequalities in contracts and how women are portrayed in publications. She also pointed out unequal representation of women’s events in competition schedules.

Lee is hopeful that the Gender Equality Review Project will lead to progress.

“The work that went into this report is comprehensive,” she says. “In the past, IOC and IFs have dealt with various women’s issues, but they didn’t look at the whole picture.

"We can’t just talk about getting equal numbers of athletes on the field of play if we don’t have equality in the boardroom and if we’re portraying them in a sexist or non-gender neutral basis.

"This report is comprehensive across the board and the outcomes are tangible,” she adds. “There are dates and timelines and people with assigned responsibilities. That should make a difference this time around.”