When the first Olympic Games took place (back in 776 BC - a little before your time), women weren’t allowed to take part, and married women weren’t even allowed to attend. Greek males were allowed to be involved, regardless of where they stood on the social hierarchy. That meant a servant could compete against his king and it would be fair game.
But then something clever happened. The King of Sparta’s daughter Kyniska competed as an equestrian - and won. The only catch was that in equestrian events, it was customary to award the owner of the horse rather than the rider. Award or not, it was the closest any woman had come to significant involvement in the ancient Olympics.
Let’s fast forward to today. Not only are women competing, winning, and taking home shiny medals to display on their mantels, they’re also key decision-makers on the International Olympic Committee.
The only problem is, when it comes to the IOC’s objectives set out in pursuit of gender equality, we’re not meeting our quotas.
3 reasons why women might be underrepresented at the Olympics
- The IOC sets low expectations - and even those aren’t being met
According to an October fact sheet by the IOC, various sporting bodies for the Olympics were given the following objectives: 1) Set the objective of reserving at least 20 percent of decision-making positions for women by the end of 2005; and 2) Have at least 10 percent of decision-making positions filled by women by the end of 2000.
The latter was achieved by half of the International Federations and 61 percent of the National Organizing Committees; the former wasn’t achieved at all. The IOC’s fact sheet goes on to read: “Such an objective can be attained only in successive stages.” And when one considers that the IOC saw its first female members in 1981 - there were two of them at the time, whereas now there are 24 (out of 110) - it’s apparent that they just might be right.
- The Olympics wants to keep losing money
Apparently, the Olympic Games are getting increasingly expensive to host and no Olympics in history has ever been profitable. We can point out at least one reason why that might be (and we’re not talking about inflation).
Catalyst.org, an organization that produces research that supports the push for women on boards, has found that Fortune 500 companies with more women on their boards achieve higher return on equity, return on sales, and return on invested capital by averages of 53 percent, 42 percent, and 66 percent respectively.
Further, their research suggests that boards made up of 30 percent or more women outperformed those with fewer women. Today, 21 percent of the IOC’s board members are women. The IOC’s Recognized Federations beat that number with 26 percent, while the games’ International Federations’ boards are lagging behind with 17 percent.
This race is all but over.
- Because we’re still at 'almost half'
On the competitive floor is where a slightly more progressive story takes place: The number of female athletes taking part in both the recent and upcoming Summer and Winter Games accounts for almost half the total number of athletes - which is up from 20 years ago, when those numbers hovered around the 25 percent mark.
Interestingly, the Summer and Winter Olympics also experienced the highest climb in female participation in the last 20-year period, at 15 and 14 percentage points respectively, compared with periods prior, where the rise was at 14 and 7 points respectively, and 4 and 5 points before that.
And the losers are...
Cliche as it sounds, we all lose when it’s unfair game - and there’s research to back that claim up.
However, women began competing in the games only a century ago (not counting Miss Kyniska). Hence, the progression of women’s involvement in the Olympics is still quite fresh and has a long road of hurdles – including getting over the sexualization of women’s sports and the struggles female athletes face when trying to get funded for the games compared with their male counterparts.
But for those of us who are athletes (as well as those of us who aren’t), conquering hurdles is nothing new.
Game on, we say.