Women are increasingly present in sport

Monday, 8 march 2021

International Women’s Day is a good opportunity to take stock of the growing presence of women in sport. Considerable progress has already been made; we see women taking on roles that have long been the exclusive preserve of men. This change may be symbolic at present but it is a strong symbol, nevertheless.

Symbolic functions

It’s a match that will go down in history. Not because of the final result – Juventus beat Dynamo Kiev 3-0 on December 2 – but because it was the first time a woman refereed a Champions League match: a powerful symbol in a high-stakes competition of an eminently masculine sport. Stéphanie Frappart handled the situation to perfection, as she always does whenever she referees matches played by men’s teams. A few years earlier, in 1996, Nelly Viennot led the way by becoming the first woman to be appointed an assistant referee in the first division. This year in the NBA, two women officiated for the first time in the same match. Seven women were among the 76 referees called to supervise matches in the American basketball season. In rugby, the first woman to referee a men’s European Cup game was Ireland’s Joy Neville in 1996. And on February 2, during the highly publicized NFL final, Katie Sowers became the first woman to coach a Super Bowl team. “I don’t want to be the best female coach,” she said at the time, “I want to be the best coach, period!”

Women are increasingly present in sport, in all disciplines, in all areas, and in all parts of France. This is true despite local differences: the Centre Val de Loire and French Polynesia, for example, have the highest percentage of women in sports clubs with respectively 40 and 45% of female participants. Pioneers such as Alice Milliat have made it possible for women to take part in all sporting disciplines, and the French National Olympic & Sports Committee (CNOSF) is about to set up in its premises a statue of this pioneer who co-founded the French Fédération des sociétés féminines sportives (Federation of Female Sports Societies).

All functions are concerned

The number of licensed female footballers exceeded 200,000 last year in France, in a sport whose women’s national team is coached by a woman, Corine Diacre… The choice of a woman seems natural but this is only the second time it has happened since Elisabeth Loisel in 1971. It is estimated that nearly 5 million women play soccer worldwide.

The proportion of sportswomen is gradually increasing. A study conducted by the Institut national de la jeunesse et de l’éducation populaire (National Institute of Youth and Popular Education) for 2016 shows that women accounted for 38.3% of club members at that time. This figure was only 34% in 2004… Of course, big differences exist between Federations. Women represent 92% of stick twirlers and 87% of the members of ice sports clubs. Unsurprisingly, the French Riding Federation has the most women with nearly 540,000 licensed female riders (in 2017). Riding is an interesting example, however, because if the base is predominantly feminine, the ratio reverses at a high level. Olympic show jumping champion Penelope Leprévost discussed this anomaly and pointed out that it is difficult to reconcile high-level performance in this sport with having children. This is when women frequently put their sporting careers on hold. And this is true even if horseback riding was until recently, along with sailing, one of the few sports where men and women compete against each other as equals. Things are changing with the IOC’s desire to introduce larger numbers of mixed events into its Olympic program. The greater presence of women in sport is also visible in the membership of the governing bodies. A French law enacted in August 2014 requires Federations with at least 25% female licensees to have 40% women in their governing bodies. Anne Barrois-Chombart was recently appointed National Technical Director of the French Athletics Federation. The number of female technical directors increased from 5% in 2009 to 10% in 2013 and to 15% in 2017. Today, more than ten women hold this function… On the other hand, work still remains to be done as far as Federation Presidents are concerned since only one Olympic sport Federation currently has a female president… in the person of Nathalie Péchalat at the head of the French Ice Sports Federation. Things are changing, however, and the movement will be impossible to stop! 

Gender equality in sport is not just a matter of wishful thinking….

At the Olympic Games #Paris2024, 1 out of every 2 athletes will be a woman.

Discover the film Parité (“Gender equality”) of Paris 2024

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