In the marathon towards a more gender-balanced and representative games, the Paralympics lags far behind the Olympics, according to a recent UBC study.
Dr. Andrea Bundon, an assistant professor in UBC’s school of kinesiology, estimates that in the upcoming 2022 Beijing Paralympic winter games there will be a roughly 75 per cent to 25 per cent split between men and women competitors represented.
Dr. Bundon, who participated in the 2010 and 2014 Paralympic games as a guide for visually impaired skiers on the Canadian Paralympic team, noticed this big gender gap at both games. She has spent the last few years researching why the Paralympics continue to face hurdles in reaching gender balance, by systemically going through policy and selection documents, as well as interviewing individuals involved in the games. We spoke to her about her research.
Why is there such a big gender gap in the Paralympics?
A big take home finding for me was that people have a really hard time holding intersecting forms of marginalization together. Although many initiatives start with the intent to increase opportunities for women with disabilities in Paralympic sport, in practice, we observed a divergence between initiatives to increase roles for women and initiatives to increase competitive opportunities for people with disabilities. This has resulted in very few initiatives aimed at women with disabilities.
For instance, we often see many strategies like announcements and funding initiatives geared towards increasing and supporting more women in the Paralympic movement. But, in reality, when these policies are developed and enacted, there begins to be a separation. So, instead of focusing specifically on increasing women with disabilities in sport, they tend to focus on increasing women’s involvement in leadership positions in coaching, governing, boards and committees—resulting in more able-bodied women in these roles.
How does this inequality play out at the sport-level?
At the sport level we see a challenge of quotas. Many sports, like sled hockey in the Paralympics, are listed as co-ed or mixed sports but this creates a scenario where the men’s side is well-funded and the women’s side is underfunded and underdeveloped. Although women are ‘eligible’ to compete, few make the team or a single woman is sent to say they met the quota. For example, looking through the history of para ice hockey (sled hockey), it is listed as mixed but we have only identified two countries that have ever sent a woman, and it’s very unclear if they actually got any playing time.
How do the Paralympic games compare to the Olympics in gender equality?
There was always a big gender gap at both the Olympics and the Paralympics dating back several decades. But the Olympics have been closing this gap, and for the last few cycles we’ve seen a narrative of progress around the Olympics being “the womens’ game.” The Paralympics did see several decades where they worked towards closing the gap. However, since then, efforts have stalled and there has not been that much increase in women’s participation over the last couple decades.
What is the solution here? Can the gap in representation be narrowed?
At the national level, in Canada, there should be more dedicated support, funding and resources geared towards developing not only women’s sports, but the women’s side in mixed Paralympic sports. This is especially because the co-ed listing often takes away from focused funding that could develop the women-side to the sports.
Internationally, it comes down to the idea of whether we start holding multiple social justice and equity causes together and asking questions like: Can we stop looking at participation of women in sport and participation of people with disabilities in sport as two separate problems to be solved? This could include looking at meaningful ways to systemically increase women with disabilities in the sport.
On the sport-side, adding another sport that is reserved primarily for women athletes, or to eliminate one of the sports that is primarily men’s athletes, could lead to a gender parity in terms of numbers. They’re not going to change the current numbers without adding either more spots for women athletes in specific sports or more sports to the program.
This study was published in the Sociology of Sport Journal.
Interview Language(s): English
Dr. Andrea Bundon will be speaking alongside Rick Hansen, one of Canada’s highest profile Paralympians, and Rob Boushel, director of the school of kinesiology, about ‘progress’ in the Paralympics, and importance of accessible physical activity and sport, at an event held by the School of Kinesiology on March 3, 2022 from 4 p.m.-5 p.m. Event details here.