The numbers speak the truth when it comes to leadership in Olympic sport. Let’s take International Technical Officials (ITOs), the people responsible for a range of duties like enforcing rules and race timing protocol during competition. Across four Olympics, including summer and winter Games from 2010-2014, women constituted no greater than 30 percent of ITOs.
On the coaching side, the numbers were starker. Between 2010 and 2014, female accredited coaches at the Olympics never rose above 11 percent. The irony in snow sports is that according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), among active athletes at the 2018 Games, 40 percent of alpine skiers were women, whereas 49 percent were in biathlon. Massive gaps remain when considering on-snow athletic opportunities and coaching those same sports at the Olympic level.
(Data from the IOC Gender Equality Review. Double click image to enlarge.)
As part of its attempt to evolve and remain relevant, the IOC released a report titled the IOC Gender Equality Review. The report is a comprehensive document prescribing steps to shift cultural norms, values, and practices to empower women. In total, it details 25 concrete actions. Those 25 “gender equality recommendations” are an attempt to bring change across all aspects of Olympic sport and include funding models, governance, employment, and athlete participation.
The IOC Gender Equality Review was the impetus for the International Biathlon Union (IBU) Equality in Sports Leadership seminar in Warsaw, Poland from May 24-26. According to the IBU, the seminar aimed to, “ensure better visibility of female role models across all areas of biathlon – Executive Boards, National Federations, Organising Committees, and teams, promote women and sport leadership networks, involve mentors and experts to advise women on career progression.”
U.S. Biathlon’s sport program coordinator Danika Frisbie attended.
“We actually believe we have a great amount of equality in terms of athletes rights in biathlon: we have similar prize money for athletes, the same prize money for men and women,” Frisbie said in a call. “We have the same race formats, the same number of events for men and women, we have the same viewership for men and women and equal exposure time on TV. So from an athlete’s perspective, there is a lot of equality as far as sporting goes. But women are not represented in coaching staff or in leadership or in committee positions across governing bodies and at the IBU level.”
Dagmara Garismyk from Poland, who sits on the IBU Executive Committee, was the event’s brainchild. According to Frisbie, Garismyk is a driver for equity in the IBU.
“This is a passion of hers,” said Frisbie. “She loves working with men and women together and approaches leadership just from such an open, curious, inclusive standpoint and that is why everyone loves working with her and believes in what she does. She is so open in bringing people together always and pushing for the greater good within IBU especially at a critical time.”
Frisbie explained the tone of the conference was about bringing people together, not the airing of grievances pitting one gender against another.
“It was more about recognizing that we are better when we work together in a way that is more representative of the population and there are unconscious biases and systems in place that prevent women from being a part of those conversations naturally,” Frisbie explained.
Shifting cultural norms is a slow process. Presenters at the conference explained that teams and organizations with a mix of 50/50 men and women are more productive and innovative and better at adapting to change.
“They produce better results,” said Frisbie. “Apart from their being a gender rights issue, this is also just a performance initiative that if you invest in making sure that women are eventually more represented on technical committees and in leadership positions, we actually will have better results as an international governing body and better results in our national federations, and better development better growth of our sport.”
Some of the changes discussed were mandates. Things like stipulating that an equal number of men and women are sent to coaching seminars. Other methods were geared towards building a culture of equity.
“It centered a lot around looking at the facts behind this issue and just doing education with teams, men and women on the unconscious bias that we have,” said Frisbie.
Frisbie found her time in Poland also focused on meeting other women in biathlon who desire to be leaders. She described a poignant moment when IBU President Olle Dahlin asked the conference attendees to raise their hands if they aspired to be on a technical committee or in a leadership position. Frisbie said every woman in attendance raised her hand.