Achievement through empowerment

Sarah Hillenbrand

Women’s empowerment is a factor that can greatly affect a country’s culture, including its athletic success. The research conducted by Grand Valley State University professors shows that countries with a bigger emphasis on women’s empowerment not only send more athletes to the Olympics but also receive more medals – both for men and women.

Robert Deaner, associate professor of psychology, said that he wanted to do this study because of his interest in sex differences in sports interest and motivation.

“As we did more reading about predictors of health and economics development across countries, it became clear that women’s empowerment might be an important predictor, which turned out to be the case,” he said.

Aaron Lowen, associate professor of economics, said that he was interested in the economic perspective and that when looking into other studies they found this particular topic had never really been explored.

“We wanted to find an area for which there was a lot of data for a lot of different countries around the world and a place that we could neatly compare them,” Lowen said.

Lowen said that some of the research findings were not surprising while other results were not what he expected. They found that greater gender equality within a country is significantly associated with Olympic participation and winning medals. The large, rich, host countries also send more athletes and win more medals. Lowen added that he was surprised at how much empowerment affected both male and female athletes though.

“I didn’t expect how robust it would be,” he said. “Gender equality not only helped women, but also helped men. We hadn’t seen any results in any papers that led us to expect that result…Gender equality mattered all the time, everywhere, pretty significantly.”

Deaner said that, for the U.S., he expected Title IX to have been clearly linked with women’s empowerment and Olympic success, but found that was not the case.

“In a general sense, our results strongly support Title IX because they show that women’s empowerment is clearly linked to athletic success,” Deaner said. “In a narrower sense though, our article doesn’t support the idea that Title IX has had some special impact on U.S. women. This is because U.S. women were not exceptionally successful in the Olympics in comparison to women from other countries or even U.S. men.”

The research conducted differs from other studies, Lowen said, because of how it was carried out and the depth of the research.

“It hadn’t been tested in a comprehensive way before,” he said. “We wanted to find out by how much is the claim true. We found that not only does (women’s empowerment) help, but it’s a significant amount – and that was true even after controlling for wealth and size.”

Erika Schmitt, a psychology major who graduated in the fall of 2013, also got involved in the research and gathered data. She said that data was gathered from Summer Olympics from 1996 to 2012 for more than 130 countries.

“I realize now that research does take a long time and teamwork, but it is worthwhile,” she said. “I’m proud of our work and I do want to do more. Sex differences have interested me, as well as health disparities, different classes and cultural differences.”

From the results, Lowen said students can learn about the relationship between women’s empowerment and economic growth – that it’s a back and forth between the two.

“Economic growth tends to help women and men both, but it doesn’t close the gap. It’s not enough to be the sole driver of it,” he said. “Women’s empowerment can be supported in many ways and one way is through athletics – a way that many people don’t think about…There are a lot of ways and reasons to support women’s empowerment.”

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