As the International Olympic Committee, international federations and national Olympic committees from around the world begin to set their sights on the 2018 winter games in PyeongChang and beyond, I hope that one of their priorities will be increasing the number of women who serve in key roles in their governance and management structures.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the overall proportion of female athletes across all sports was 46 per cent, the highest figure in the history of the games. Women represented more than half of the Olympic team for my country, USA (294 of 558, or nearly 53 per cent), and inspiring and record-breaking performances by female Olympians of all nationalities made headlines worldwide.
At the same time, the inclusion of women at the highest levels of influential international sports organisations remains a frustratingly slow work in progress. According to a study conducted last August by the USA-based Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES), women are significantly underrepresented in the leadership ranks of major Olympic bodies. The TIDES report, which included over 8,500 data points on the gender make-up of international federations and their zone and national affiliates across the Olympic spectrum, found that women make up only 6 per cent of federation presidents, 12 per cent of vice-presidents and13 per cent of executive committee members, among other findings.

The IOC can accelerate progress by establishing clear minimums and forcing accountability

A September 2016 report on gender balance in global sport issued by the UK and Australia-based Women on Boards put the average number of women on federation and national Olympic boards in the 16- to 18-per-cent range.
The reasons to include more women leaders within global sports organisations are plentiful. Studies conducted by prominent firms like McKinsey & Company and Deloitte have shown that greater diversity boosts an organisation’s collective intelligence, helps generate breakthrough ideas, and improves problem-solving and decision-making, all of which lead to more inspired workforces and better overall company performance.
In the international sports world, the areas where more women’s voices would enrich dialogue and improve outcomes abound. The debates within many federations about whether to allow headwear during competitions are simply incomplete without Muslim women at the table to offer their opinions. Similarly, women can add much expertise to discussions about competition formats and commercial strategies, especially those impacting female athletes and fans.
The areas of good governance, integrity and anticorruption, the focus of a recent IOC forum, would also stand to benefit, as US researchers have found a correlation between increased female board representation in the corporate world and improved ethical conduct. Women’s perspectives would equally inform decisions about risk management, social responsibility programmes, medical issues and a host of other topics.
How can the Olympic world move forward? The IOC’s Agenda 2020 was a very good start, as recommendations 11 (foster gender equality), 27 (comply with basic principles of good governance) and 38 (implement targeted recruitment process) directly support the goal of expanded female leadership.

The oft-cited claim that qualified women ‘can’t be found’ is a lazy and inaccurate line 

Instead of allowing each federation to create its own action plan and timetable to that end, the IOC can accelerate progress by establishing clear minimums and forcing accountability (for example, by withholding funding) if these levels aren’t met. Incentives and rewards for organisations that show progress could also be used to bring more women into the fold.
In terms of targets, a minimum of 30 per cent representation on boards, executive committees and commissions within the next five years (by 2022) should be the near-term goal; higher targets should be adopted for sports like soccer and basketball where global female participation is more robust. I and other participants at the Vatican’s inaugural conference on Sport at the Service of Humanity in Rome last October brought forward of a goal of 50/50 male/female board representation by 2030, which would bring the Olympic movement in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Tactically, the IOC’s ‘One Win Leads to Another’ leadership development programme for adolescent girls, which launched in Rio, is a promising initiative, as are efforts by companies like Ernst & Young, whose Women Athletes Business Network is helping groom elite female athletes to become leaders when their playing days are over. The UN’s “He For She” solidarity campaign recognises, rightly, that forward-looking men who are currently in positions of power will be needed to offer support, open doors and serve as change agents.

Because such measures will take time to produce dividends, federations can – and must – help themselves in the short-term by creating customised programmes to identify and train future women leaders within their respective sports; the oft-cited claim that qualified women ‘can’t be found’ is a lazy and inaccurate line and no excuse for inaction. Outside advocacy groups can also help the cause by spotting issues, providing data and lobbying forcefully against the status quo, which does not meet modern realities and needs.

The Olympic charter expressly ‘encourage[s] and support[s] the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.’

Let’s hope these words aren’t just a hollow promise and inspire the push needed to give women the voices, votes, and influence they deserve.

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