Nancy Gillen

Gender equality is the hot topic in the sporting world at the moment. The phrase is quickly joining the list of hackneyed jargon often used at General Assemblies and Executive Council meetings.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is leading on the matter, with Agenda 2020, the strategic roadmap for the Olympic Movement, committing everyone involved to an equal gender balance.

It seems like the heavy use of rhetoric is trying to obscure the fact that sports governance is still a long way off achieving full gender equality. It is coming under increasing scrutiny, however.

Last month, British newspaper The Telegraph published an "exclusive" on the number of women at an executive level in the most popular sports in the country.

I must admit, the use of the word "exclusive" made me laugh somewhat, as it is glaringly apparent to anyone inside the sporting world that women are severely under-represented. Nonetheless, the article unreservedly revealed the sorry state of affairs regarding the balance of gender in sport federations.  

The IOC, FIFA, the International Cricket Council, the International Basketball Federation, World Rugby, World Athletics, the International Golf Federation, the International Tennis Federation, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and the International Cycling Union were all investigated. 

Not one had more than 40 per cent of women on their Board. The FIH boasted the highest representation of women at 37.5 per cent.

This photo of the Asian Football Confederation Technical Committee created a backlash on Twitter ©AFC
This photo of the Asian Football Confederation Technical Committee created a backlash on Twitter ©AFC

Following this report came a photo of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Technical Committee, published on Twitter alongside the news that this group of 14 men had agreed on the need for a women's football technical strategy in Asia.

This is great news, of course, but it just seems extremely ironic that this decision was taken without a woman involved. This is not a necessity in decision-making, but one would assume that wiser decisions are made regarding women's sport when someone who better understands the situation is part of the process.  

The photo was shared widely and ridiculed on social media, and rightly so. Such scrutiny is essential. It should not really come as a surprise that an organisation who responded so poorly to allegations of widespread sexual abuse in one of its women's football teams should have such a notable lack of female representation, however.

In fairness, a number of governing bodies have noted the imbalance within their organisation and acted. Take World Rugby, for example.

Their plan, "Accelerating the Global Development of Women in Rugby 2017-2025", has been ongoing for nearly two years and been extremely effective. World Rugby's Council boasted a grand total of zero female members just over a year ago, but 17 women have now since been appointed.

The International Ski Federation recently approved a proposal to change the composition of its Council to include a minimum of three women, while the International Fencing Federation (FIE) just passed a rule ensuring commissions are made up of at least 30 per cent women.

The International Hockey Federation had one of the higher percentages of female representation on its Board, but this was still only 37.5 per cent ©FIH
The International Hockey Federation had one of the higher percentages of female representation on its Board, but this was still only 37.5 per cent ©FIH

Gender equality is still a distant dream, however, and one of the main questions that needs to be asked is whether enough people in each organisation actually want to do something about it. 

During the European Olympic Committees (EOC) General Assembly in October, gender equality was one of the main topics up for discussion. An EOC gender equality strategy for 2019-2022 was approved in the session, following a presentation by Gender Equality in Sport Commission chair Sarah Keane, who is also the Olympic Federation of Ireland President.

Everything proposed was fairly straightforward and moderate and had been devised from the IOC Review Report on Gender Equality in 2018. Despite this, the approval of the strategy was still met with grumbling from some quarters.

If such a degree of consternation regarding the promotion of women in sport was evident at a continental level, what can be expected in the lower echelons of sport?

It sounds like FIE's recent ruling required significant work behind the scenes, for example. Former Team GB fencer Laurence Halsted, now performance director for the Danish Fencing Federation, suggested so in response to a witty tweet by colleague Michael Pavitt bemoaning the lack of women in Taekwondo Europe.

"The International Fencing Federation, FIE, have just this weekend passed a minimum 30% women on all commissions rule," Halsted wrote. "It took A LOT of work over years to get it passed."

Gender equality was a hot topic at the recent EOC General Assembly ©EOC
Gender equality was a hot topic at the recent EOC General Assembly ©EOC

Going back to the infamous AFC photo. Unfortunately, many of the Confederation's members do not have the best track record when it comes to women in sport, or just women's rights in general. The Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran and Afghanistan Football Federation are two very strong examples.

Based off this, it is unlikely that gender equality is much of a concern for the AFC. I am sure it would not be too unfair to presume that attitudes towards women reaching the higher levels of the organisation remain resistant.  

Of course, attitudes towards gender equality are not the sole obstacle in the way of women progressing in sport. Another 1,000 words could be dedicated to the numerous reasons behind the current gender imbalance.

It is an important factor, however, and paradoxically one that can only really be solved by the increase of women at an executive level. It will therefore be interesting to see whether the new initiatives put in place by a number of federations have a significant impact in the years to come.

I am not one for tokenism and believe that jobs should be given to those who are best suited. I do think, however, that the current moves to introduce a minimum threshold of women on Boards and councils will facilitate an increase of women in executive roles in the future, all of whom would be fully deserving. 

It is not often that I choose to quote IOC President Thomas Bach, but he managed to concisely sum up the situation in his opening remarks to the EOC General Assembly. 

"Gender equality is not just nice to have," he said.

"It is an important pillar of good governance." 

It is indeed good governance, but it seems like a few more people in the sporting world need to realise that.