The Summer Olympics inspire us. They motivate us. For a few weeks every 4 years, we focus on achievement, hard work, pain, glory, and defeat in stunning athletic competition. And this year, we cannot miss the good news story of not just of one athlete, but of a whole group of athletes - women.
Every Olympics has witnessed the increased participation of women, and this year we were almost at parity. Nearly half (46%) of the Olympic athletes this year were women, up slightly from the 2012 games in London (44%). Compare this to 23% in 1984 and 34% in 1996. Every year more women compete, more women become part of the Olympic Movement, and more women are able to achieve their dreams. And, for the Youth Olympics in 2014 in Nanjing, 48% of the young athletes were girls. That’s good news.
For women members of the US Olympic team in particular, there is a lot to celebrate. Just four years ago during the 2012 London Olympics women comprised more than half of the US delegation, capturing a majority of overall medals (56%) and the majority of gold medals (63%). This year they continued to stun in gymnastics, swimming, basketball, boxing, rowing, triathlon, wrestling, cycling, and shooting. Again, they captured a majority of the US medals (54%) and nearly two thirds (61%) of the US gold medals.
Continuing a winning streak that dates back to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the women’s basketball team won a 6th straight gold medal as the games were coming to an end. On August 13th, in the premier rowing event, the 8s (eight-person team), the women’s team out powered the competition to earn a 3rd consecutive gold and their 11th straight international competition victory.
Why are American women so particularly strong?
Certainly, part of it is that we are a wealthy country, capable of investing in our athletes. They are strong because over the years we have provided them with the opportunity to be strong – and they have flourished.
But it is more than that. It’s also about public policy – and a specific public policy: Title IX. Title IX, in place since 1972, requires us to invest in male and female athletes equally. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance — fortunately for the development of women’s sport, this law also included athletic programs.
And what a difference it has made. Since 1972, thanks to increased funding and institutional opportunities, there has been a 545% increase in the percentage of women playing college sports and a 990% increase in the percentage of women playing high school sport.
Girls who play sport stay in school longer, suffer fewer health problems, enter the labor force at higher rates, and are more likely to land better jobs. They are also more likely to lead. EY research shows stunningly that 94% percent of women C-Suite executives today played sport, and over half played at a university level. Competition—celebrating wins, surviving losses, requiring teamwork, rewarding persistence, resilience and discipline, these are the experiences we need in leaders and these are the experiences they gain in sport.
But encouraging women in sports isn’t just good for women and good for business, it’s good for countries. Supporting women in sport leads to stronger women, stronger communities, and stronger economies. Research from the Peterson Institute argues that investment in girls and sport has significant development payoffs and contributes to economic growth overall. Sport empowers women and contributes to gender equality globally. And, if we were to empower women in our economies, according to McKinsey research, we could add an astounding $12trn to the global economy by 2025.
Peterson also found that increased access for women to education and the labor force is correlated with more success at the Olympics—more medals! And, most importantly, this attention can lead to a kind of “virtuous cycle” where national pride mixed in with an enhanced perception of women can lead to changes in public policy.
This year, India’s two medals were won by women—in wrestling and badminton. According to one account, the victories “lifted a nation’s spirit,” creating a sense of national pride. Imagine what this nation of more than 1 billion people could do with sustained investment in sport? And what these women, and more more like them, could do if they received an equal amount of that investment?
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The programs, the policy.
Overall, it’s impressive what’s being done to support women and girls in sport now. At the beginning of the Olympic Games, one program stood out. “One Win Leads to Another,” sponsored by UN Women, the IOC and Always, the P&G brand that brought attention to waning confidence in girls as they hit puberty (about half drop out of organized sport) through their #likeagirl campaign.
The program has already started in Rio and plans to touch the lives of more than 2,500 girls aspiring to be Brazilian athletes. Its expansion to other countries will become part of the “Rio Legacy.” For the partners, including UN Women, it supports the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a globally negotiated set of UN development goals that includes achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls by 2030.
To be sure, there are a host of impressive programs designed to support getting girls into sport globally and keeping them there—many of them sponsored by Western companies and the international development community. It’s a transformative investment.
Now let’s do more.
Let’s combine these efforts with support for public policy to guarantee equal access and equal funding. Let’s support a public policy campaign to make these programs more sustainable. Let’s support a Title IX-like approach.
While it may seem like a blunt instrument now, Title IX took time. It’s been 44 years since the federal law was enacted and court cases still exist to equalize funding and opportunities. But, in sum: what a difference.
The exact same policy may not work in every developing country context, but certainly the focus on securing access, opportunity, and the funding, legally, can double-down on the gains we are already seeing. And we should start as soon as possible.
This is the lesson of Title IX.
The global leap – a tie to the sustainable development goals?
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), signed on to by 193 countries, include 17 goals, one of which is ensuring achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls globally (Goal 5). What better way to do this than to systematically include targets around funding opportunities for women in sport? Goal 17 is creating a powerful partnership with global business to help with supporting and financing of the goals. How do we, as a business community, support a public policy approach to the issue? And a focus on sport?
In addition to the US, some countries are already doing this. Spain has passed a series of Presidential decrees supporting women’s equal access to sport. Tanzania’s Sport Development Policy required the establishment of women’s sporting programs and facilities. UN conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even the UN Charter committed the 193 member countries of the UN to equal economic, social, and political rights for women, including access to sport. More than 8,000 companies have signed the UN Global Compact to support attaining the global goals. But these agreements are not binding.
Can’t we do more?
The new SDGs recognize the importance of public policy for attaining gender equality broadly and specifically call for reforms that give women equal rights to economic resources and the pursuit of enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality. Let’s systematically make the tie to women’s access to sport, and specifically, sustained funding for sport. Funding drives equality. Equality drives growth. Advocating for a Title IX-like approach can lock in the proven win sport offers girls and women, a proven win it offers the countries they come from, and a clear win for all of us.
The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.