The World Cup is here. For many, this is a Christmas that comes only every 4 years, as if the holiday were inexplicably moved to February 29th. A handful of the people that feel this way are some of my friends and family, not least of which my husband. And for someone who is generally so little interested in football as I am, I'm surrounded by it a lot − and I don't mind that one bit. Football (and other sports too) have a knack for making things that would otherwise seem impossible, possible and that has gotten me thinking about gender equality and how sports could be a potentially overlooked tool for addressing it within companies.
Recently, my husband and I flew to Moscow to watch Portugal play Morocco at the Luzhniki Stadium. At the venue, it was hard to tell the fans apart, what with Morocco's red and green and Portugal's red, yellow and green. When a Russian brass band erupted into Bruno Mars just inside the stadium gates, you could tell us apart even less: everyone was dancing together, excited and happy, even though − and let there be no doubt about it − each group of fans wanted their team to give the other a defeat to remember. Even so, there were plenty of selfies with fans from the other team and afterwards pats on the back and words of consolation. I was also impressed by the number of Chinese fans supporting the Portuguese team. It's not a small gesture to paint your face and don a national flag other than your own (no matter how popular Cristiano Ronaldo is), right? I thought about these episodes on my way home and realized some sort of higher value was holding the whole thing together. Maybe it was something to do with our shared humanity, no matter how many things set us apart.
As a social phenomenon, sports really are remarkable. There are no shortage of examples of how sports have been able to overcome hurdles where policy and politics have failed. Even if that success has been only temporary, it was often an essential push in the right direction towards more permanent change. Just think of the famous Christmas truce of 1914 in which World War I soldiers from both sides ceased their fighting long enough to engage in a brief holiday football match before resuming their posts (which is both a beautiful and horrible story about war). Think of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa and its role in reunifying a country only recently freed from apartheid and allowed back into international competition. And think of the 2018 Winter Olympics in which North and South Korea marched at the opening ceremony as one country under a single unified Korean flag, although they competed separately in their sports.
Going back to my own experience, I started thinking of the various places I'd worked during my former ten years as a lawyer. In all of those jobs and in every job my husband has ever had, there have been teams of employees that came together to play a sport, usually football, on their lunch break or in their free time. Often, these sports would be paid for by the employer as a way of fostering team spirit and creating a positive work environment. There would often be tournaments with other companies in the same industry to encourage healthy competition and give employees a chance to network. My husband, who has been an avid football player every since I've known him, has made lots of contacts useful to his career this way. It helps that he's a very good goalkeeper.
And in all the places my husband and I have worked, there was frequently (though not always) a male and a female team, but only once did I see a mixed-gender team − at FIFA here in Zurich. Even if there are more, and I hope there are, my guess is that teams separated by gender greatly outweigh the mixed-gender teams. I'd put money on that bet. But what if companies encouraged their employees to play on mixed teams as a way of promoting gender equality within their company? In the workplace, men and women work together in the same space and gender equality aims to give women a fair presence in that space. So why not start by working on that dynamic on the sports field?
The ideal sports for mixed-gender teams would be, I think, sports that keep the competitive element intact, so that playing them is interesting. I'm not sure contact sports (and football often is a contact sport) would do this well, because of the natural physical differences between men and women generally, but I may be wrong. In any case, I would see mixed tennis doubles, mixed relay marathons, mountain climbing and golf as good options with corporate appeal. The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo have announced mixed-gender events in athletics, swimming, table tennis and triathlon, so we can add those to the mix too, if those are your thing. We should also take the International Olympic Committees' bet on mixed-gender sports as encouragement that this is a good way to go.
From a marketing perspective, we all know that gender equality is a buzzword right now and that smart companies are eager to find opportunities to put gender equality driven initiatives in their promotional literature and annual reports. Not only would corporate mixed-gender team sports give them that opportunity, it would be a positive sign to all men and women within the company not only that gender equality is something the company cares about, but that all of us − men and women alike − have a role in promoting it, because gender equality matters to all human beings, not just women. When our work places take full and fair benefit from the huge asset of their female workforce, all of us are better off. Otherwise, it's like hoping along on one leg. And all of us deserve an equal opportunity. So maybe sports can lead the way and make it a little easier for policy and politics to follow. After all, you can run much faster when you use both legs.