Nations That Promote Gender Equality Are Better at Winning

Nov 07, 2014 at 9:41 AM ET

If countries are hoping to come out on top during the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, they better start minding their gender gaps. According to a new study by the University of British Columbia, countries with more gender equality tend to win more Olympic medals.

“I think there’s a stereotype that more macho nations that valorize masculinity or male dominance might be more dominant in male sport, we found that it’s actually the opposite,” says lead author Jennifer Berdahl, a professor of diversity and women’s studies at the UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

Berdahl studied 121 countries using data from the World Economic forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report and compared it with the medal counts for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi using a statistical model that controlled for factors such as GDP, income inequality and population size. Her findings reveal that both women and men tend to win more medals if their country exhibits greater gender equality, especially when it comes to educational attainment.

“Our study makes apparent that gender equality has a tendency to lift everyone up within a country,” Berdahl says. “Olympic glory is likely only one example of how whole societies can benefit from greater parity between the sexes.”

To corroborate her conclusions and account for countries’ performance differences in the winter versus summer games, Berdahl also studied the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London and found the same results.

The findings contradict society’s belief in what Berdahl calls a “zero-sum game” when it comes to gender rights, which is the idea that affording more opportunity to women tends to limit opportunity for men.

“Rather, gender inequality is likely to hurt both women and men by encouraging stereotypes that limit their ability to reach their full potential as individuals,” Berdahl concludes in the study. “Eroding false and antiquated norms regarding what men and women can and cannot do is a ‘win-win’ that allows members of both genders to realize their true potential.”