Summer Sports

International Women's Day: Canadians fill high-profile sports roles

Tuesday marked International Women's Day, and Canadian women in sport can celebrate a time unlike any other, as women are hired for high-profile roles, but young Canadian women still leave sports at a high rate during adolescence.

Still work to do in adolescent participation

Lisa Thomaidis, seen above in a 2014 game in Istanbul, coached the Canadian women's basketball team to Pan Am gold and an Olympic berth in 2015. (Getty Images)

Michele O'Keefe has climbed to heights few women in international sport have reached, as the president and CEO of Canada Basketball.

Yet when she was coaching a club basketball team in Burlington, Ont., a couple of years ago, referees approaching her bench would make a beeline for her assistant coach, a man.

Tuesday marked International Women's Day, and Canadian women in sport can celebrate a time unlike any other.

Tricia Smith, a four-time Olympian in rowing, is the new CEO and president of a Canadian Olympic Committee, taking over an organization whose reputation was left in tatters amid sexual harassment allegations levelled at former president Marcel Aubut.

Carla Qualtrough, a two-time Paralympic medallist in swimming, is Canada's new sport minister. Anne Merklinger is the CEO of Own the Podium. Karen O'Neill is the CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

"It's certainly something whose time has come," Qualtrough said.

Women leave sports in adolescence

The gender landscape in sports in Canada, however, continues to mimic O'Keefe's experience — there's still work to do, but it's headed in the right direction.

"I think women in sport has come such a long way, we have women as great examples, inspiring other women," said Chantal Petitclerc, Canada's chef de mission for the Rio Paralympics. "But when you look at numbers, we're still so far behind in women coaches for example, and women as high performance directors, so we still have a lot to do. But it's going in the right direction, so that's good."

The bad news, according to a report released Monday called "Women in Sport: Fuelling a Lifetime of Participation, The Status of Female Sport Participation in Canada," is that girls drop out of sports when they reach adolescence at alarming rates.

The study found that 59 per cent of girls between three- and 17-years-old participate in sport, but as they enter adolescence, their rate drops by 22 per cent, and by almost 26 per cent in school sport.

Since the early 1990s, the rate of sport participation among females over 15 has steadily decreased to record lows.

"Six times more girls than boys will quit sport," said Petitclerc, who was among the publication's advisory group. "To me this was a big number. Why is it six times more girls than boys? Clearly it can't be genetics, so it's got to be that we don't provide them with what they need to nurture their passion for sport. And I think that's key, we need to analyze why is it that girls want to do sport, why is it that they stop?"

No shortage of women's sport role models

It's not for a shortage of role models. Just as Canada's women's soccer team captured the country's imagination in their bronze-medal run four years ago in London, Canada's female athletes will compete in the spotlight this summer at the Rio Olympics.

"Building off the World Cup soccer and Pan Ams, and women's basketball, we've had some great success with our women's teams," said Karin Lofstrom, the executive director of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity [CAAWS].

"We saw them and we know their names now, people are asking 'When are they playing next? When can we see them again?' They're getting a following, so success helps to have people wanting to watch."

Lofstrom also pointed to Canada's women's basketball coaching staff. At the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament last summer, Lisa Thomaidis coached Canada to gold and an Olympic berth. She was the only female head coach in the tournament.

Qualtrough believes Canada is setting the pace.

"I could easily come up with 10 strong female leaders/role models — maybe even 20 — and I'm not sure that could happen elsewhere in the world," she said. "When you look around as a young athlete, or as an athlete transitioning out of sport and looking to give back, it's really exciting for today's generation of young women to have all these role models around them on a daily basis, whether they're involved with the Olympic team or their national sport organization, or at the Coaching Association ... wherever you look now there is strong leadership that is female."

O'Keefe, who played basketball at Bishop's University, said she is one of the small handful of female leaders in basketball globally.

"It's challenging in that it's always a roomful of guys," she said.

"It's neat right now [in Canada]," she added, "because there's more and more (women), so you're able to have conversations with like-minded people."

Coaching still male-dominated

The number of women in coaching roles, according to the report, has gradually increased over time, but their rate of involvement has historically been less than one-third that of males.

According to the report, published with the support of CAAWS and Canada's dairy farmers, in Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), 68 per cent of the head coaches of women's teams are male, and 82 per cent of the head coaches of mixed teams, such as swimming or track and field, are male.

"Coaching is probably the area that could use the most improving in sport," Qualtrough said. "And sport at the international level. Certainly the world of international federations and the IOC and the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) for the most part is very male-dominated. I think that's the next frontier for Canadian leaders or female leaders."