View from Europe: Challenges and opportunities for women and sport
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Paola Ottonello from the European Commission spoke to sportanddev about the growing profile of safeguarding and the importance of gender equality in European sport.

Paola Ottonello is a policy officer at the European Commission, but she didn’t expect to find a career in sports. “I started my career in communications, but in 2013 I worked on a high-level conference in Vilnius on women and sport, which led to the commission launching the Proposals for Strategic Action on Gender Equality in Sport publication," she explains.

Since then, she has been working to promote sport and how it can be used for the greater good. “Sport has been a revelation for me. Whether it’s gender equality, whether it’s social inclusion, whether it’s health: it’s really incredible how powerful something like sport can be.”  

One of the commission’s main roles in sport is promoting female participation. Drop-out rates are high, particularly once girls become teenagers, so identifying what it takes for women and girls to participate is very important.

But that is not the commission’s only priority, as Ottonello explains: “We are also focused on the promotion of positive role models. We need to normalise female athletes, including female football players, for example. We want to show that girls are not limited to things like gymnastics and dancing.

“But we also want to help promote professions like coaching and leadership within sports organisations, to nurture these talents in women from a young age so that they will pursue professions in what has long been a male-dominated area.”

On what has changed the most since she started working on sport, she is quick to nominate the growing profile of safeguarding and gender-based violence. “When I first arrived at the commission, it was very much a taboo subject in certain countries and in certain sports. There was a general feeling that either it wasn’t happening or it wasn’t something they needed to deal with.

“At the commission, we were focused on how to protect victims and encourage them to speak up, but now the focus is more about looking at what it takes to avoid violence in the first place. After all the scandals that have come to light, there has been real progress in terms of both setting up structures to protect athletes and children, and a general willingness to talk about it.

It’s important to accept that yes, sport is wonderful and it’s very positive, but there are issues that need to be dealt with. Safeguarding children in sport and promoting a positive environment is now one of our main areas of action.

“Not many people know that Erasmus+ also funds sport, and over the years there have been some really inspiring projects on things like gender equality issues and overcoming unconscious bias. One of the projects I particularly liked was the project called ‘Voices for Truth and Dignity’ on combatting sexual violence in European sport.

“Many survivors only speak up after years and decades, so the idea was to give them a voice to hear what would have helped them, and to identify the structures and people that need to be put in place to prevent violence from occurring. That was a very powerful project.”

Asked whether there are still challenges to overcome in gender and sport, Ottonello laughs “Loads! Because as much as we keep working on it, and we keep talking about it, the numbers are still bad.

“I think the Women’s World Cup last summer was a wake-up call for many people to realise that if you put in the effort, people are going to go and watch women’s sport, and this will also lead to increased participation from women and girls.

“When you look at leadership and other professional positions, sometimes there are a few token women here and there, but not really working on any hard substance, and that can be really frustrating. Fortunately, at the commission my team is gender-balanced, and there are a lot of policies put in place to enable women to take up managerial posts.

“Elsewhere things are improving, but very, very slowly. It’s important to work on issues like unconscious bias: looking at how vacancies are advertised, and the wording used, to see whether women may have been put off from applying for certain positions, for example.

It’s also really important to get men on board with gender equality. Often, if you have a conference on gender equality and sport, 90% of the attendees will be women. We need to normalise the issue.”

But she is optimistic about the future of gender at the commission: “It’s getting more and more attention. We now have a new commission and a new commissioner, and gender equality is one of the main priorities. Non-discrimination and gender equality has always been an overarching general principle, but now there is more of a push to do something concrete about it.

“We are only at the beginning, but I am hopeful about where it will lead.”

Paola Ottonello is a policy officer on gender and integrity in sport at the European Commission Directorate-General on Education, Youth, Sport and Culture.



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