Invited Essay: Gendered Organizational Change — Insights from the Archives of the International Olympic Committee

As part of our November newsletter, Madeleine Pape shares findings from her 2018 ASA paper on gendered organizational change within the International Olympic Committee.  Madeleine Pape ( is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose research and teaching interests include gender, Science and Technology Studies (STS), health and medicine, political sociology, organizations, socio-legal studies, and physical cultural studies. 

Every four years the Summer Olympic Games capture the imagination of millions of people across the world… and provoke the ire of feminist activists, scholars, and sports fans when again, still, the sporting field bears witness to blatant gender discrepancies. In Rio di Janeiro in 2016, for instance, a major talking point was the US media’s representation of high achieving female athletes: triple-world record holder Katie Ledecky was described as “the female Michael Phelps;” trap shooter and bronze medalist Corey Cogdell-Unrein was referred to simply as the “wife of a Bears’ lineman;” and one commentator attributed the successes of Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu to her husband, describing him as “the man responsible” for her gold medal and world record. Just when we appear to be closing in on gender parity in terms of the numbers of male and female athletes competing at the Summer Olympic Games, these commentators remind us how far we still have to go before sport becomes a space where women athletes truly enjoy equal respect and recognition. In the words of feminist sports historian Susan K. Cahn, “you’ve come a long way, maybe…” (1994, p. 279).

Members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the organization responsible for coordinating the Olympic Games and promoting the Olympic Movement across the world, are like many of us: when they discuss gender parity in Olympic sport, they focus first and foremost on athletes. Reflecting the progress of the Olympic Movement over recent decades, women athletes made up more than 45% of athletes in Rio. Yet men continue to dominate Olympic governance, with women representing fewer than a quarter of IOC members in 2015. In 2000, the IOC committed to a target of only 20% for women in Olympic leadership, which they revised in 2016 to a meagre 30%. This trend of masculine and male-dominated leadership is mirrored throughout the Olympic Movement, with consequences for the persistent lesser status of women generally within sport (Henry and Robinson 2010; Smith and Wrynn 2013). In short, although the IOC has (finally) embraced the importance of providing equal competition opportunities for women athletes, its leadership is far from attaining or even aiming for gender parity.

While the Olympic Games were unfolding in Rio, I was at the headquarters of the IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland, conducting archival research with the support of a PhD Research Grant from the Olympic Studies Centre, focusing on a three-decade period from 1967-1995. I had come across various accounts of the reasons for women’s under-representation in Olympic leadership, but had not yet seen a historical, comparative, and organizational approach that examined how differences in women’s participation as athletes and leaders had unfolded over time through the organizational practices and structures of the IOC. Only eight years earlier, I had competed for Australia at the Olympic Games in Beijing in the sport of track-and-field. At the time, I had brought little feminist sensibility to my experiences and limited awareness of the ways that gender was continuing to shape Olympic sport, particularly at the level of leadership. In the IOC’s archives, I had the opportunity to trace the history of feminist activism––and organizational resistance––that had preceded my own story as an Olympian. Now a scholar studying the Movement, I asked: how did the IOC approach the inclusion of women as athletes and leaders over time? More specifically, how did the organization change to accommodate demands for women’s greater participation as athletes, while resisting transformative change in its gendered structure as a masculine ruling body?

In the paper that I am currently developing, based on a textual analysis of the IOC’s extensive archival materials and presented at ASA earlier this year as part of a panel on gendered organizations, I elaborate an account of organizational change that begins with a distinction between “accommodation” and “transformation:” whereas the former brings women into subordinated positions within an unchanged gendered organizational structure, the latter represents a shift in the material and symbolic association of power with the masculine, masculinity, and men. In other words, I suggest that organizations can accommodate the greater entry of women into less empowered positions while avoiding broader transformation in their gendered characteristics. Next, I explore how change is not a purely internal organizational process, showing how external contingencies shape gender relations within an organization and influence how they change over time. I propose that whether an organization changes to “accommodate” or “transform” depends in large part on how these external factors penetrate and interact with its internal practices.

In the case of the IOC, I find that these external pressures and contingencies led to divergence between women athletes and leaders at three levels: in terms of how IOC leaders framed women’s participation in relation to broader international discourses on women’s rights and gender equality (“framing”); in how the IOC developed formal rules and procedures for expanding women’s participation (“structures”); and in the advocates that stepped up to push for women’s inclusion (“advocacy”). Because of how the IOC as an organization was able to absorb external demands for change, and because those demands privileged women’s rights as athletes, the question of women in leadership became depoliticized, enabling the IOC to make the sporting field the legitimate focus of their gendered organizational change efforts while their internal decision-making structures escaped scrutiny.

The IOC serves as an important case study for examining organizational change, not only because women continue to be vastly under-represented in positions of leadership across other sports organizations, but because this trend is so consistently mirrored in other institutional contexts beyond sport. My research points to the need for feminist scholars and activists to think critically about the kinds of women’s participation that are necessary to overhaul masculine and male-dominated organizations: while greater participation on the “ground floor,” as in the case of women athletes, is an important form of change in and of itself, it is not equivalent to or even necessarily a precursor to more transformative forms of gendered organizational change. This distinction justifies the current attention to questions of governance by a broad range of organizations working within the international spaces of women and sport, education, and politics. However, much of this activity may still be classified as “top down.” A key insight from my research is the importance of combining both top down and grassroots advocacy, a finding consistent with the emphasis on insider/outsider dynamics in feminist social movement literature (see Ferree and Martin 1995). However, the key question here becomes how to generate broad-based political activity around women’s place in leadership and decision-making. Furthermore, and a question that I am yet to answer: why is it that leadership structures, and women’s place within them, have historically not mobilized feminists in the same way as other forms of organizational participation, such as on the sporting field? My analysis suggests that reframing leadership as a right––and drawing attention to it as a space of discrimination that demands urgent attention––should figure centrally in the strategies of feminist scholars and activists as they engage with the media, social media, and other spaces where organizational practices can be contested.


Ferree, M.M. and P.Y. Martin. 1995. Feminist Organizations: Harvest of the New Women’s Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Henry, I.P. and L. Robinson. 2010. Gender Equality and Leadership in Olympic Bodies: Women, Leadership and the Olympic Movement. Report for the IOC Women and Sport Commission. Loughborough University, Great Britain.

Smith, M.M. & Wrynn, A.M. 2013. Women in the Olympic and Paralympic Games: An Analysis of Participation and Leadership Opportunities. Ann Arbor, MI: SHARP Center for Women and Girls.

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