Women Olympic Athletes and Activists Harness the Spotlight: Weekend Reading on Women’s Representation

Weekend Reading on Women’s Representation is a compilation of stories about women’s representation in politics, on boards, in sports and entertainment, in judicial offices and in the private sector in the U.S. and around the world—with a little gardening and goodwill mixed in for refreshment!

With the onset of the 2021 (or possibly the 2020) Olympic Games, I’m honestly not sure which, there is a plethora of stories coming out about the athletes, the competitions and the winners—all of which we can learn from and apply to all walks of life.

The Tokyo games are the first modern Olympic games to close in on gender parity among the athletes. This historic milestone is certainly a step in the right direction but Talya Minsberg’s reporting for the New York Times illustrates why parity alone does not guarantee gender equality or equity. 

“Of the nearly 11,000 athletes arriving in Tokyo, almost 49 percent will be women, according to the International Olympic Committee, up from 45.6 percent at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games and 44.2 percent at the 2012 London Olympics. (The I.O.C. does not have data on the number of nonbinary athletes at these Games.)

Many countries credit the strides to broad policy changes, increased funding and promotion of female athletes in mainstream media. But for other nations, equality is far off: Men enjoy far more funding, news coverage and opportunities than their female counterparts.

Even as gains are made on the field of play, the makeup of the overwhelmingly male I.O.C. remains behind. Women make up 33.3 percent of its executive board, and 37.5 percent of committee members are female.”

Women Olympians are harnessing the spotlight to bring awareness and show support to social and political movements happening at home and abroad. From Black Lives Matter to the #MeToo movement, women athletes are taking advantage of the new IOC rule allowing for demonstrations prior to the start of events to show their support for causes. 

“When it comes to political and social demonstrations during the Tokyo Olympics, 2021 is the year of women.

Female athletes have attracted the spotlight on the international stage by championing racial equality and taking ownership of what they wear during competitions.

“Historically, we’ve seen the role of patriarchy sort of supersede … the voices, lived experiences of girls and women on the Olympic stage,” said Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State University.

“What we’re seeing now is an acknowledgment of their value in their perspective on many of the issues that are taking place,” she said.”

Like working mothers everywhere, Olympic and Paralympic mothers face more challenges, barriers and hurdles than other athletes and this year they are calling it out. Along with bringing light to the unique challenges they face at the Olympic games and in sports in general their calls for equality and inclusion also brings awareness to the continued lack of care infrastructure in the U.S. Leila Fadel of NPR reports

“Allyson Felix is at the forefront of this fight for equity. She’s won more Olympic medals than any other woman in track and field history. This is her fifth Olympic Games. 

But when Felix became a mom in 2018, Nike tried to significantly cut her pay, sending the message that she was somehow less valuable. In the New York Times she announced she was cutting ties with the brand. And after public outcry and a congressional inquiry Nike announced a new maternity policy.

Now she’s trying to change the game for other women athletes in the U.S. She and her sponsor, Gap-owned Athleta paired up with The Women’s Sports Foundation to dole out $200,000 in grants to pay for childcare for moms who are professional athletes.”

In perhaps the most reported story coming out of Tokyo this week, gymnast Simone Biles once again showed us why we look up to her when she prioritized her mental health by pulling out of the team and individual all-around finals. Team USA went on to win silver with Biles remaining on the floor to cheer on her teammates. Simone Biles’s decision follows in the footsteps of other women athletes, like Naomi Osaka, who are calling attention to the importance of mental health pushing the conversation forward both in and out of the sportsworld. Jean Lee from The 19th reports:

“Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast of all time, withdrew on Tuesday from the women’s team competition at the Tokyo Olympics, citing a medical issue. “She will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions,” USA Gymnastics said on Twitter.

Biles has also shouldered additional social responsibility — and pressure —  by using her platform to speak out about the legacy of abuse in her sport. Former team doctor Larry Nassar pled guilty in November 2017 to sexual assault; for years, USA gymnastics looked the other way as he molested athletes, including Biles and her teammates.

“I’m going to go out there and represent the USA, represent [training facility] World Champions Centre, and represent Black and Brown girls over the world,” Biles told The New York Times last week. “At the end of the day, I’m not representing USA Gymnastics.”

So what can the political world and really everyone learn from our Olympic heroes?

  1. Parity doesn’t guarantee equality and equity. Representation can’t just tick a box, diversity needs to be increased at all levels and be reflected in the decision making process. 
  2. We can and should use our platforms (no matter how small or large) to spearhead social change and equality. 
  3. We should listen to our mothers. Especially when it comes to the future of care infrastructure. 
  4. Mental health matters and should be taken as seriously as physical health. 
  5. Also Simone Biles is an absolute bada** who deserves our undying adoration. 

Seeing Simone Biles perform this week, with such grace and determination, was a big reminder that we all have a lot to learn from young women—the faster we can help get them into positions of power the better, in my opinion!

There were a few stories this week that provide some insight into how to shift power to women, people of color, and younger people more effectively.

I found this piece about gender quotas in Australia particularly compelling because the author raises important questions about why we generally accept quotas or targets for race and age but many automatically assume that gender quotas will lead to hoards of unqualified women in public and corporate offices:

When producer Michael Cassel decided to mount the world’s hottest musical — Hamilton — in Sydney, there was a challenge peculiar to the work.

Convention and authorial directive have it that the vast majority of characters in the musical — which is set around the birth of America through the Revolutionary War — be played by non-white actors.

This is a story of America then, told by America now,” avers the work’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who began writing musicals of his own after finding that roles for Hispanic performers were thin on the ground…

There was scepticism across the industry that the Cassel Group would be able to field actors of colour with sufficient experience for roles which — thanks to the success of the Disney film — carry sky-high performance expectations.

But on opening night, all doubts were obliterated. The cast of Hamilton Australia is widely agreed to have more than met the exacting standards of the musical, and when not hampered by lockdowns in Sydney, the show has been an uproarious success. It moves to Melbourne in March.

In Australia, where the debate around quotas is calcified almost entirely around gender, this live and high-stakes private sector experiment with an ethnicity quota barely raised an eyebrow.

But Hamilton Australia demonstrates an important principle. That quotas don’t succeed by giving a free ride to the existing candidates from whichever “minority” group they are devised to empower. They succeed by compelling recruiters to look harder. To find merit where it might be hiding, rather than just hoping it’ll just show up with the usual casting crowd.

Why are “quotas” in Australia especially controversial when they are about women? Well, in part, it’s because our recent political history has made gender quotas a point of partisan contention. It’s harder to think of a more instantly divisive gender-related issue.

It’s odd, because quotas more broadly are — let’s be frank — an unremarkable and everyday part of our political system, on both “sides” of politics (by which I mean the major parties)…

Decades ago, the great orchestras of the world began to move toward “blind auditions”, in which musicians played behind curtains so their identity and gender weren’t apparent. The net result was a significant increase in the recruitment of female players, whose merit had previously been overlooked in male-dominated and cliquey ensembles.

The result? Better use of the merit that was already there.

The lesson? As human beings, we aren’t always good at assessing merit on its own merits. There are always other factors that play into our choices.

The secret to successful recruiting is, as Hamilton Australia demonstrates, to look harder. To consider people who might be outside the usual round of applicants. To look at the range of people from whose ranks you ordinarily have to choose and ask yourself: Is this all? Is there anyone we might be missing? Are there talented people on whom we are missing out, just because the way we recruit doesn’t find them? Is there merit that we’re missing?

Cassel says that Hamilton has driven both greater diversity and greater merit in the Australian musical theatre industry.

“All those sceptics in the leadup, saying ‘Oh, you’re never gonna get the right cast’ … Well, we did. We just had to work harder for it.”

Siân Gwenllian, chair of the Welsh Senedd’s Cross-party Group on Women, wrote this thoughtful piece on honoring the legacy of suffragists like Charlotte Price White by supporting quotas for women in the Welsh parliament:

I was delighted to be part of a celebration at Bangor recently to note the achievements of Charlotte Price White, a prominent Suffragist who walked to London during the Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913.

Born in Scotland, Charlotte studied science at the University in Bangor, graduating in the 1890s. She settled in Bangor in 1902 after a short time away as a school teacher in London.

She was one of the first women to be elected to Caernarvonshire County Council in 1926 and forged a path for future women in politics.

As a small crowd gathered on Upper Garth Road to unveil a plaque in her memory, I felt personally indebted to her and hundreds like her who fought so hard for women’s rights. I also felt a little sad. So much has been achieved but inequalities persist.

Only around a quarter of county councillors are women; I served as the only woman on Gwynedd Council’s Cabinet, and I am the first woman to represent the Arfon constituency.

When women are absent from public life, women’s voices and priorities are absent too.

Even at the Senedd, I am in a minority.

Of the 60 members, there are 26 women and 34 men. Of the 13 Plaid Cymru Members of the Senedd, 8 are men, 5 are women.

To change this situation, I firmly believe we have to have a statutory electoral system in place that makes it obligatory for political parties to select equal numbers of men and women, whilst also reflecting the diversity of society in Wales.

I will be advocating this during this new Senedd when there is an unique opportunity to bring this about in Wales, for the first time.

Finally, there was an article (there have been so many) in Real Clear Politics about the impact of ranked choice voting, that references RepresentWomen’s research on women’s representation in jurisdictions with RCV and a growing body of evidence that the system elects more diverse candidates:
New York’s experience is consistent with recent studies looking at RCV elections across the country. Various studies, reports, and academic papers in recent years show that minority candidates and women won elections at an increased rate after their jurisdictions adopted RCV. The effect is not universal, but in any case the studies do not show significant harm to minority electoral chances.

There’s some reason to believe that this is tied to the RCV dynamics themselves, rather than to happenstance. A 2021 study by the (pro-RCV) organization FairVote concluded that minority candidates benefited from the multiple rounds of counting more than white candidates did, and that minority voters chose to rank their votes (as opposed to just listing a single candidate preference) at a higher rate, too. The overall win rate for white candidates was still the highest of any single racial group – the United States is a majority-white country, after all – but the RCV dynamic seems to promote diversity, at least marginally.

If you are looking for more feminist reads, check out RepresentWomen’s must read list for this week:

Last week I was in Los Angeles and visited The Getty where I found a great exhibit on protest movements, but this week I am home and making cakes and tending the garden!

About and

Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and a founding board member of the ReflectUS coalition of non-partisan women’s representation organizations. Terrell is an outspoken advocate for innovative rules and systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Terrell and her husband Rob Richie helped to found FairVote—a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice and a truly representative democracy. Terrell has worked on projects related to women's representation, voting system reform and democracy in the United States and abroad.
Maura is RepresentWomen’s outreach and communications coordinator from Washington, D.C. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2019 with an honors degree in social anthropology. To hear more from Maura follow her on Twitter, @further_maura.