top of page
  • Writer's pictureDavid Thibodeau

SDG #5 Gender Equality

Sports for SDG #5 is Gender Equality. Sports can be a powerful platform for advocacy and awareness of gender equality in all parts of our society. Human rights based rules of a sport can help to replace discriminative cultural norms that exclude women and girls from sport. Sports is a powerful tool for inclusion.

Still in many countries, women and girls do not have the right to participate in sports as athletes or spectators. Addressing the inequalities in participation and access to sports will make an important contribution to this goal.

Sport based community programmes can cause positive shifts in gender norms and promote gender equality. By creating co-ed sport programming you can put boys and girls together to help show them that they are not that different as cultural norms may suggest. By getting kids to play together more it can help engage men and boys in achieving gender equality through sport.

To discuss more about how sport can help solve this SDG, I reached out to Adam Pratchett, Vice-Chair Gender Equality Committee at FISU, to discuss his personal views about the power that sport has in achieving gender equality.

What are some of the ways male leaders can use their position and sport to create change and achieve gender equality?

First of all, without trying to state the obvious, as men continue to dominate positions of leadership and authority within sport, it is important that we get more male leaders on side to publicly support this issue.

Quite simply, we need more men standing up and saying they believe in the principle of gender equality. But more importantly, we need men in positions of power to match those words with action, and take meaningful steps towards tackling gender inequality in sport, whilst encouraging others to do the same.

In my short career, I’ve already had too many experiences of men in positions of power saying they believe in the principle of equality, but they don’t believe in taking proactive steps to tackle gender inequality. This statement is usually followed up by the argument that because they already have some women on boards or committees (usually 1 or 2 in a group of at least 10), we should just let things progress “naturally” over time.

However, as a recent report by the World Economic Forum stated, if we continue on the current path of progression, it could take some parts of the world up to 163 years to achieve gender equality, with the global average being approximately 99.5 years. For me, the current speed of progress is intolerable and it’s completely unacceptable that women continue to face so many barriers and occupy so few positions of authority in sport.

In order to make gender equality a higher priority for organisations, we need more individuals, particularly men, stating that the current speed of progress is unacceptable, arguing we must take more meaningful and decisive steps and holding leaders to account for their actions (or inaction).

Finally, it’s important to remember you don’t need to be an expert or leader to speak out and make change. Often individuals are scared to speak out or express their opinion because they’re concerned about saying the wrong thing or not being knowledgeable enough, but the reality is it’s much more important to just start a conversation with an open mind and good intentions. Simply being an advocate, educating yourself and listening to and sharing the experiences of others can have a huge impact on the direction and speed of change within an organisation.

Are there other ways that sport can influence gender equality?

Sport has the ability to positively influence an individual’s values and beliefs from a young age, challenge pre-existing perceptions and gender roles in society and ultimately tackle gender barriers that may exist.

Following the work UNESCO is undertaking; by investing in Values Education through Sport programmes, we are able to teach sport’s universal values, such as team work, equality and inclusion, and influence citizens to create a more equal, just and peaceful world.

Even by simply highlighting existing women taking part in sport in different parts of the world, at any level, both on and off the field of play, we can inspire the next generation to think differently, raise ambitions and drive forwards change in their own country.

At a higher level, by including requirements for gender equality in the hosting of international sports events, sport has the ability to challenge a government’s agenda and create social and economic legacies. Whilst there has been considerable controversy surrounding the awarding of events to countries with damning human rights records and their motivations for hosting such events, the events can and should be utilised as a mechanism for change.

However I also think it’s important to mention how sport can also present a challenge to achieving gender equality in society. The emerging challenge with regards to gender equality in sport, is the evolution and expansion of the topic to include all genders, in particular transgender and non-binary individuals, who also have a right to take part in sport.

The very expansion of the issue has created a number of challenges and divisive conversations, largely due to the binary foundation of most sports, however it’s important that we continue to have an open conversation and work together to find a way forward. I am by no means an expert and don’t have the solutions, but as I have previously mentioned, I believe it’s important to simply start the conversation and act as an advocate and ally for underrepresented voices. Ultimately, if we want to achieve gender equality for all, we need to raise everyone up, rather than attempt to bring some oppressed groups up at the expense of others.

There is still a big discrepancy in gender equality in sport organisations. Only 14% of all top decision-making positions in sports federations in Europe were occupied by women. At the Olympic level over the course of four Olympic Games (2010, 2012, 2014, 2016) the percentage of women coaches hovered around 10%.

What are some policies or programs that sport organisations should put into place to achieve gender equality in their organisations and in their sports?

Whilst every organisation and sport is different, I believe there are a number of steps organisations can take in order to achieve gender equality in sport.

Firstly, I would strongly recommend reviewing existing charters and documents which have been created to support organisations achieving gender equality in sport, such as the International Working Group (IWG) on Women and Sport’s Brighton plus Helsinki Declaration and the International Olympic Committee’s Gender Equality Review Project. These documents include a number of recommendations for organisations to implement and also help to identify existing best practice from across the sector. There are also online support communities individuals can join, such as the IOC’s Working towards Gender Equality in Sport LinkedIn group, which includes experts and advocates for gender equality from across the sporting world.

Taking inspiration from these documents and the processes they followed, I would recommend organisations conduct their own widespread review, to create a clear picture of the current situation of gender equality in their sport. As part of this process, organisations should look to identify any challenges they face in order to achieve gender equality and highlight existing best practice in the sport. Furthermore, I think it’s crucial to engage with individuals and organisations who may not believe in the principle of gender equality, or believe policies and programmes designed to achieve it are unnecessary. If we truly want to make a change in sport and society for the better, we must understand and challenge the perceptions of those we do not agree with and attempt to convince them otherwise.

Based on the findings of the review, I would then recommend designing specific gender equality policies and programmes which are suitable for the individual sports organisation.

From the figures you’ve mentioned and from my own experience, I believe it’s important that we take a holistic approach when thinking about achieving gender equality in sport. For example, whist it is essential to have a balanced governance structure with equal numbers of men and women on executive boards or committees, we should also think about the number of women in other positions of responsibility, such as coaches or officials and grassroots female participation in general. Therefore developing policies and programmes which support all of these areas are essential.

Furthermore, whilst it is a controversial topic for some, I strongly believe if we want to achieve gender equality in sport, we must also consider transgender and non-binary individuals, who also have a right to take part in sport. Whilst I don’t claim to have the solutions to this very complex topic, I’ve noted with interest World Rugby’s recent workshop, which brought together independent experts and officials with differing views, from across a range of areas including performance, science, medicine, risk, law and ethics in order to begin developing a rugby-specific transgender policy.

Ultimately, if we want to achieve gender equality in sport, change must start at the top, we need to be open about the challenges we face in our own organisations and we must be ambitious in the proposals we put forwards.

COVID-19 has brought most of the sporting world to a standstill for the time being, how do you see gender equality advancing during this difficult time?

During these unprecedented times, I think the current situation poses both a challenge and an opportunity for advancing gender equality in sport.

Firstly, as the spread of COVID-19 begins to slow and sports organisations begin to open up, there is of course a significant risk that after assessing the damage, organisations may choose to focus on what they deem to be their “core” activities, resulting in gender equality projects or initiatives being temporarily side-lined or cancelled. Whilst leaders in sport will undoubtedly have to make difficult decisions about the future of their organisations, I believe it’s more important than ever that individuals advocate for gender equality projects to be safeguarded and developed.

Despite the challenges, the COVID-19 crisis also presents a unique opportunity to advance gender equality in sport. As many organisations and individuals have been forced to stop their activity, I believe and hope this has created an opportunity for individuals to pause and reflect on the sports world they are a part of, and imagine how it could be improved and made more equitable for future generations. For example, over the past few weeks I’ve had encouraging discussions with organisations who are using the pause in their activities to review their governance structures and consider ways to engage underrepresented groups. In this time of reflection and immense difficulty, we should continue our efforts to encourage individuals and organisations to not only imagine, but also take action to achieve gender equality in sport.

In short, as the sports world slowly begins to open up and finds a “new normal”, we cannot carry on as before and accept the persisting inequalities that plague our system.

Thank you Adam for your thoughts!

I recently read Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez. It was a very interesting read about how our lack of data on women and our societal bias design things based on the needs of men. The book ranges from transportation policies, parental leave policies and company expenses policies. If you haven’t read it you should! But there was one section in particular that I found very interesting. First it was speaking to the fact that spaces that we designate as “gender neutral”, like gyms and public parks, are not in fact accessible equally to both genders.

Gyms, especially free weight areas, are often dominated by men and women must deal with being uncomfortable using that space. I think the author’s analysis on the use of public parks was especially interesting because it was a topic that came up at Global Sports Week (GSW) and our use of parks for informal sports and recreation. During the conversation at GSW, how the spaces are not designed for equal access did not come up. Some of the studies in the book talked about how single open parks were intimidating to women and girls, and how some parks only have one entrance, where boys would stand around. By creating more entrances and creating smaller spaces within the one park made it more accessible to girls. We need more gendered data. We need to not assume that “one size fits all” and we need to account for women and girls into the very fabric of our urban planning.

More data on the challenges that women face is important and will help solve gender inequalities. Access to sport and recreation isn’t equal, whether informally in parks and public spaces, or formally in coaching and sport administrative roles.

Sport can increase leadership and confidence in girls and empower them to break the stereotypes and norms that often limit them from participating in all aspects of community life. It helps build life skills that will help women get jobs and build up their communities.

Sports can also provide a safe environment for women and girls. It is important here to remember that while sport can empower women and help lift them up, there are a lot of instances of abuse in sport, where coaches and administrative officials have abused their power and made women and girls feel unsafe in sports. This needs to change.

To achieve equality in sports and in all aspects of society, we all have a role to play. And if we are not working towards equality, we need to hold each other to account. Men need to step up and be part of the solution. Gender equality will not be achieved unless everyone is working towards it. I wanted Adam's perspective on this specifically because he is a male working towards gender equality and we don't see that enough. Men can learn how to be allies and need to learn.


bottom of page