What do the London 2012 Olympics reveal about women’s empowerment?
The London 2012 Olympics have been significant for women. It is the first games in which women can compete in every sport, and has been the debut Olympics for female athletes from Brunei and Saudi Arabia. In addition, both the USA and Canada have sent teams comprising of more women than men.
Around the world during this Olympics more women's sports are being watched than ever. Sport provides an important pathway for women's empowerment. Yet, despite this welcome attention, there are still many deep-rooted barriers that must be addressed if women are to be empowered through sports.
Public attention and pay gaps
Although we have seen almost as many women as men competing on screen over the past two weeks, the rest of the year women enjoy only 5 per cent of sports media coverage. How will women’s professional sports ever thrive and grow if the public has little knowledge of them? The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) has talked constantly about inspiring young female athletes through this Olympics, but where is the inspiration in other years? Young girls turn on the television and see men’s football or rugby, but rarely ever women athletes.
There is also a huge pay gap between men and women athletes. In the USA, women’s professional leagues are viewed as charity arms of men’s leagues, rather than independent entities. For example, the maximum wage of a player in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) in 2011 was around US$100,000 per year, whereas the men in the NBA earn millions.
The insufficiency of quotas
Efforts to promote women's empowerment need to tackle deeper-rooted structural constraints that lead to pay gaps. For example in the political sphere, research by the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Consortium suggests that quotas of women parliamentarians, although important, are not sufficient unless they are backed up by effective implementation and also by a change in the way women experience society.
In the sports arena, due to new International Olympic Committee (IOC) requirements, this is the first year that every team competing in the Olympics must have a female member. Will this be enough or is it a form of tokenism? If women athletes are still facing inequality and lack of recognition in their home countries, is empowerment achieved because they have attended the Olympics? Gender quotas must be coupled with efforts for social change to address inequality in the home countries of these women athletes.
Female bodies and a male standard
Another concern is the issue of gender verification for women athletes. We have seen in this Olympics, as in the past, that when a female athlete excels beyond expectations the reason for her excellence is called into question. For example, last week Ye Shiwen of China was accused of doping and in 2009, South African runner Caster Semenye's gender was questioned. It was assumed that the only explanation for Semenye’s amazing performance (since she was found to be drug-free) was that she must be a man. Semenye was subjected to invasive gender verification tests and suspended from international competition until the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) finally cleared her to compete in this 2012 Olympics.
The IAAF and the IOC have policies in place that subject only women athletes to invasive gender verification should they be 'suspect' or should their bodies naturally produce androgens (male hormones) on level with an undefined 'male range'. This illuminates the underlying problem that sports governing bodies do not truly believe women can excel in sports.
The future for women athletes
The attention that women have received at the London 2012 Olympics is a great start for changing the way the world views women’s sports. In order to ensure that this attention does not get diverted after the Olympics, we must demand more media coverage, higher salaries, and hold the IOC and IAAF accountable for bad policies.
Girls and women around the world need to see inspirational women athletes, such as Jessica Ennis, achieve something amazing more than once every four years. Empowering women is as much about expanding women's imaginations of what they can do as it is about tackling the barriers that they experience in their everyday lives. These role models of successful women competing in international sports competitions can give women that permission to dream.
Alison Carney is an MA Gender and Development student at IDS. Alison writes On the Field, a blog about sport, gender and international development.
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