Crisis presents an opportunity to rethink gender equity in sport

As sport organizations respond to the COVID-19 crisis, they must not backtrack on steps taken toward gender equity.  As with all sectors, sport in Canada has been upended, and unless we are careful, girls and women may be left on the sidelines of the recovery.  Read our opinion piece below.

Coaching Association of Canada

Decades of advocacy and effort have brought about great advancements for women’s success and inclusion in sport, yet opportunities still lag behind those for men. The latest research here at Canadian Women & Sport, in partnership with Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities and IMI International, indicates that sport participation levels for women and girls is still well behind that of men and boys. Fifty-nine percent of teenage boys participate in sport weekly compared to only 42% of teenage girls.  

We also continue to see a significant discrepancy when it comes to women in leadership roles in sport.  They hold just 35% of board positions at national sport organizations in Canada. 

Just last year, the federal government and its provincial and territorial counterparts committed to advancing gender equity in sport, and Sport Canada made a historic investment in this effort. At Canadian Women & Sport, we have seen a growing demand from sport organizations at all levels for guidance on steps toward achieving this goal. Our national survey showed that 89% of national sport organizations see gender equity in their sport as “very important.” 

Canadians continue to be inspired by the likes of Bianca Andreescu, Brooke Henderson, Christine Sinclair and Kia Nurse, who rank among the country’s most popular and influential athletes. Prominent Canadian women are also making inroads in professional sport, such as Mary Anne Turke, who serves as the NFL’s Chief Operating Officer.   

But the progress that has been made may be in jeopardy as priorities shift with the impact of COVID-19. Huge revenue losses, deep cuts and a tight focus on ‘core business’ threaten initiatives dedicated to leveling the field for women. Marketers, media and investors may gravitate toward the “safe bet” of men’s sport. And heightened competition for scarce resources—such as places to play and train—may leave more women and girls sitting on the bench.   

But such moves would ignore the essential role girls and women will play in sport’s recovery. The near and long-term success of sport in Canada will depend on women and girls’ contributions, so now is the time to rethink how we can build sport with and for them.  

Women are impactful and strategic leaders. Research shows that gender balance on boards results in better decision-making and overall performance. In uncertain times we should all want the best-possible team around the table. A team that includes women will generate better ideas and position sports for stronger outcomes. 

Girls and women represent a large—and generally untapped—opportunity for sports looking to build or rebuild their memberships and potential audience. Greater relevance leads to greater reach, which in turn opens a new avenue for sponsorship and other funding. Future prosperity for many sports will depend on their success at engaging girls and women.  

As a nation, we can all do our part in supporting women and sport during this time. Get involved. Keep asking for more women’s sport coverage. Encourage the young women and girls in your life to play, join teams and stay active. Advocate for girls and women to have equitable opportunities in sport in your community. 

The long-term benefits will be far-reaching and transformative. Sport expands our beliefs about what women can achieve. Sport allows girls to develop leadership, confidence and resilience that they will bring to their education, careers, and communities.  

So how can sports best foster all this potential?  

First, by leading with strong values, which unite and guide us. And one of Canada’s most cherished values is inclusion. 

Second, by engaging women in decision-making roles, which in turn will advance inclusion of women in all aspects of organizations.  

And third, by using a gender lens. Ask “How will this decision impact women differently?” This will highlight areas where girls and women might be placed at a disadvantage and uncover opportunities for action. 

While we find ourselves at a challenging and pivotal moment in our history, it is also a moment of tremendous opportunity for sport. Now is the time to be courageous and boldly question the status quo. The focus today may be on survival, but by keeping inclusion of girls and women as a priority, sport will be poised to come back stronger for all.  

To learn more about how you can advance gender equity in sport, check out our Resources and Learning Opportunities, or contact us.