Panelists Explore the Global Status of Women in Sports

Achieving gender equity in sports does not mean simply increasing the number of women athletes; it also requires raising awareness of how sports can help empower women and girls around the globe.

That was the message delivered by panelists at a May 16 discussion, “The International Women’s Sports Movement: Frontiers of the Next Decade.”

“Gender equity has an impact not only on the person, but also on the society,” noted Stilani “Ani” Chroni, president of WomenSport International and professor of sport, psychology, pedagogy and sports coaching at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences. “The impact that women’s participation in sport can have is much greater than we think.”

The discussion in McConnell 103 was held in honor of Christine Shelton, who is retiring as professor of exercise and sport studies after nearly three decades at Smith.

Mount Holyoke College soccer coach Kanae Haneishi, M.S. ’07, (left) and her Smith mentor, Christine Shelton, retiring professor of exercise and sport studies.

Moderator Lynn Oberbillig—a former Smith athletics director who is now a lecturer in exercise and sport studies—noted that Shelton has “had her finger on the pulse of the international women’s sports movement for more than four decades” through her work with non-governmental organizations seeking to expand opportunities for women in sports.

In addition to Chroni, panelists—all colleagues of Shelton’s from the international women’s sports movement—included Kari Fasting, professor and rector emerita of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences; Shawn Ladda, professor of kinesiology at Manhattan College; and Kanae Haneishi, M.S. ’07, a former member of the Japanese national soccer team who is now a soccer coach and lecturer at Mount Holyoke College.

Speakers lauded Smith’s pioneering role in women’s sports, beginning with efforts in the mid- 20th century by Dorothy Ainsworth of the class of 1916 to increase women’s access to physical education and competitive play. Those efforts have accelerated in recent decades with the founding of organizations such as the International Working Group on Women and Sport and the International Olympic Committee’s Women in Sport Commission.

Despite growing acceptance of women athletes, panelists emphasized that in many countries women still lack access to physical education and the chance to compete in sports.

Equity is also absent on the coaching side, Ladda pointed out, noting that in the United States, the number of female college coaches has actually fallen since passage of Title IX in 1972. Currently, only 43 percent of women’s collegiate teams are coached by women, while 98 percent of men’s teams are coached by men, she said.

“So, where’s Wanda?” Ladda asked, offering a twist on the popular Where’s Waldo? refrain.

Fasting, of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, cited sexual harassment and abuse—both by peer athletes and coaches—as barriers to women’s participation in sports.

The good news is that prevention strategies are being implemented, Fasting said, including a new reporting system for Olympic athletes, and the founding of Safe Sport International, a nonprofit that is working to end sexual violence in sports.

Haneishi cited mentoring as another powerful tool for expanding women’s leadership in sports. Using her own experience as an example, she described how Shelton—whom she met in Japan at a conference on women and sports—encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree at Smith and become involved in international women’s sports initiatives.

“Chris’ friendly approach overcame my limited experience, my language barrier and our cultural differences,” Haneishi said.

Now, Haneishi said, she aims to offer that same support to women she coaches.

“One of the skills I learned from Chris was how to connect with other women,” she added. “It’s important to create opportunities and systems for formal and informal mentoring in order to develop the next female leaders in sports.”