The race to gender equity in sport

The long struggle for gender equity in sport and physical activity has been in the news again as a result of the recent lawsuit by the US women’s national soccer team for equal pay, and the disparaging comments made by the organizer of the BNP Paribas Open about female athletes in tennis, one of the very few sports that do provide women with the same prize money as the men.

Despite magnificent performances by girls and women in every sport, despite there being equal or more female participants in the most popular sports like soccer, despite the greater popularity of women’s competitions in such sports as tennis, we are still a long way from fair and equitable opportunities.

In Canada, funding for women’s sports in many organizations is still disproportionately lower than what the men receive. Access to facilities continues to be unequal too. The media portrayal of sport is still overwhelmingly male and sexist: Leadership roles are more commonly awarded to men. In fact, in some organizations the situation is getting progressively worse. Among Canadian universities, it has been men who have primarily benefited from the new jobs created by the expansion in women’s sport. Since the 1980s, when approximately 40 per cent of the intercollegiate coaching positions were held by women, the numbers have steadily fallen. By 2011 only 19 per cent of the head coach positions in Canadian interuniversity sport were held by women and in 2015 that had fallen to 14 per cent. (Donnelly, Norman & Kidd, Gender Equity in Canadian University Sport, Reports No. 1 & 3, 2011 and 2016.)

At the international level, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. Among many concerns, there is still the old patriarchal fear or doubt that women can achieve outstanding performances, so the International Olympic Committee (IOC) believes that they must be tested to prove they’re really women. I have long been involved in the international campaign to abolish the sex test. The latest version of the test, the so-called hyperandrogenism regulations, was established by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the IOC in 2011. In July of 2015, in an appeal mounted by the courageous young Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, the International Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS, in effect, the supreme court of the Olympic Movement) suspended the regulations and reinstated Ms. Chand. Yet the IAAF and IOC remain unrepentant and are champing at the bit to re-establish the test. Fortunately for all those women training hard to compete in this summer’s Olympics in Rio, they have now acknowledged that they will not be able to mount an appeal of the CAS decision in sufficient time to introduce a new rule before the Games.

There is other good news. UNESCO has just proclaimed a new International Charter of Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport which makes girls and women’s sport a priority. I ask you to read more about the International Charter of Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport. The Charter gives advocates a comprehensive list of expectations to press upon national governments, like Canada, which signed it. In Ontario, Premier Kathleen Wynne, who still resents the inferior opportunities she received in high school sport, has pledged to improve opportunities for girls and women under her jurisdiction. Even closer to home, UTSC has established a new women’s sport committee, with a mandate to ensure that every female student has what she needs to enjoy sport, recreation and the benefits of physical activity on campus. The committee is chaired by Olympic gymnast and first-year UTSC student Rosie Cossar. We should all give it our support.


Click here to read about the UTSC's Women in Sport Subcommittee and learn about Olympian and UTSC student Rosie Cossar who chairs the Committee.

Photo of Dutee Chand, Indian professional sprinter, used with permission by Aritra Chakraborti and Dr. Payoshni Mitra.