Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Gender Inequality and Women's Gymnastics – Redux

Click the image to enlarge it.

My first post about gender inequality went awry, but no matter! In writing the original post, I thought of an even more interesting question about gender inequality and women's gymnastics.

When it comes to women's gymnastics, does gender inequality pose a barrier to entry? Is there some kind of threshold for inequality – a point where it becomes increasingly more difficult for women to participate in major competitions?

 Let's discuss the graph above. 

What is the GII?

The United Nations has developed a gender inequality index (GII), which takes into consideration things like adolescent birth rates, labor market participation by gender, and proportion of parliament seats occupied by women. 

If you want to read more about this index, I suggest that you hop over to the UN's website.

To create this chart, I took every country from the UN's database, eliminating the countries that didn't have an index score for 2013. (Sorry, Hong Kong. Sorry, Liechtenstein. Sorry, Brunei Darussalam. Sorry, Andorra.)

Then, I looked to see if the countries on the U.N. list had women compete at the 2014 World Championships.

Understanding the Graph

When you look at the chart, you'll see countries that had women participants in the World Championships at the very top. (They're coded 1.) The countries that didn't have any women participants appear at the bottom. (They're coded 0.)

The countries with more gender inequality are farther to the right. That's where you see countries like Afghanistan (0.705),  Chad (0.707), Niger (0.709), and Yemen (0.733).

Countries with more gender equality appear farther to the right. That's where you see countries like Slovenia (0.021), Switzerland (0.030), Germany (0.046), Sweden (0.054), and Austria (0.056).

Fun fact: Of the top 5 countries, with the least amount of gender inequality, only Slovenia didn't send a women's gymnastics representative to Nanning. (If I somehow missed the Slovenian gymnast, please let me know. The SVN abbreviation isn't showing up in the searchable PDFs.)

Because I'm sure that you're dying to know, here are the index scores for the Big 4:

China: 0.202
U.S.: 0.262
Russia: 0.314
Romania: 0.320

General Observations about the Graph

When you look along the bottom of the graph, you'll see that the red dots gradually get more frequent.

When you hit the 0.4 mark, BAM! The individual dots get almost impossible to decipher. Disney's 101 Dalmatians couldn't compete with this graph between the 0.4 and 0.6 mark. That means that a lot of countries with a gender inequality index of 0.4 to 0.6 didn't send women to Nanning.

What's interesting is that there are a few countries in the 0.4 to 0.6 range that did participate in the 2014 Worlds. These include:

Brazil (0.441)
Colombia (0.460)
South Africa (0.461)
Venezuela (0.464)
Panama (0.506)
Qatar (0.524)
India (0.563)
Egypt (0.580)

Gymternet Discussion Question 1:

Why do you think that these countries have sent women gymnasts to the World Championships?

For your reference, other countries with similar GII index scores include:

Ecuador (0.429)
Jamaica (0.457)
Morocco (0.460)
Indonesia (0.500)
Iran (0.510)
Guatemala (0.523)

Why does this silly chart matter?

1. History

Hold onto your seats. I'm about to make a sweeping generalization.

In a society with more gender inequality, women tend to get fewer opportunities outside the home. As countries develop and attitudes toward women change, the opportunities for women increase (and the societal attitudes towards women being physical become more liberal).

This problem isn't unique to gymnastics, but as a man who lives in the United States and who travels to Europe, I often forget this. And I'm guessing that some of my readers do the same.

2. The FIG

It's no secret that the FIG is trying to increase the diversity in the sport. If I were Bruno Grandi, I'd look at this chart and ask myself:

How can we encourage more participation from women around the world? Is there something that we can do, or do we have to wait for history to run its course?

I'd also look at some of the countries in the 0.15 and 0.4 range to see where the "lowest hanging fruit" is. That is, which of those countries are most likely to participate – if the FIG just gave them a little nudge.

Croatia (0.172), for example, didn't send any women gymnasts to Nanning, yet their country sends male gymnasts. The same could be said of Thailand (0.364).

Gymternet Discussion Question 2:

What can the FIG do to encourage the participation of more women from around the world? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

3. The Gymternet

I understand that gender inequality is a really complex issue. It's not an easy problem to solve, and I don't mean to suggest that gender inequality is the only thing preventing women from participating at major competitions like the World Championships.

With that caveat out of the way, I do think that the gymternet needs to spend more time thinking about the place of gymnastics in the world. We're extremely focused on the minutiae, on D and E scores, on who got chosen for a team, etc. And, yes, there's a time and place for that.

But we (myself included) often forget to think about gymnastics in a larger context. This post ultimately seeks to open up that conversation.

So, gymternet! Discuss Away!

Final Notes for the Stats Nerds:

This is a blog – not an academic article. So, I'm not going to create a table with all the details of β, SE β, etc.

Here are a few points from R:

Pr(>|z|) for the Participation variable: 0.00724

Null deviance: 25.689  on 151  degrees of freedom
Residual deviance: 17.867  on 150  degrees of freedom

1-pchisq(25.689-17.867, 151-150) = 0.005161405

So, I'd say that this line of research is something that is worth exploring more. If doing this type of research were my full-time job, I'd…
  • Look at data from more competitions – If I could, I'd go back in time to see the evolution of this phenomenon
  • Run the same kind of analysis, but look at whether the countries participated in the team competition
  • See if there are similar trends on the men's side
  • Explore more variables that could affect women's gymnastics


  1. Can i attempt to answer Question 1? It strikes me that 4 out of 8 of the countries that did send gymnasts to World's are members of the Pan-American Gymnastics Union (PAGU). It seems like the richer countries in the union work in partnership with FIG to give resources to the poorer ones. At first i thought 'well what separates a country like Venezuela, which sent a gymnast, from a country like Ecuador, which didn't.' Reading USAG notes on PAGU meetings summits, imo what happens is that a country like USA wont just hand over some money. A lot of poor countries are corrupt and when given money for athletics will not spread the resources evenly or in the way it was desired. They may even use the money for something else entirely. It seems like the agreement PAGU has worked out is that countries must participate in FIG training camps and other learning seminars to even ask for money from PAGU. In addition they don't just get handed lump sums of cash. If a federation says they need $10,000, PAGU will sponsor one or several gymnasts for like a homestay in the USA and pay for their training, equipment, and transportation and competition fees up to that amount.
    Regarding the other 4 countries that sent gymnasts to world's, i sorta think that whenever ppl mention anything with Africa, by default they start with South Africa. Westerners' need to civilize, then reform, then "modernize" an entire continent always starts with that country so im not surprised that the FIG invests their resources most heavily there. Also, FIG pays American coaches like Mihai, to go to the country and participate in seminars. And of course now we have Kirsten Beckett training stateside seasonally. As for India and Egypt, they may not be prominent at the Olympics but they do have a sporting culture; you can see this when the Commonwealth Games happens. So i think its easier for these two countries to consider sending a gymnast to World's because even though they're "not good" in the sport they send for the sake of sport itself? Like just to say that their athlete has participated is enough for their ministry. (And once again we see USA has sunk their claws in here as well because India is producing many phenomenal male gymnasts for NCAA and their head coach is or was an American). Qatar is Azerbaijan. With a lot less luck in breaking into gymnastics. But we all know why Qatar is suddenly in love with gymnastics (for those who don't: Doha WC, Worlds 2018) so...
    Anyways, these are just my thoughts and in many ways i still haven't answered ur question. I guess what it might just come down to is that sport and politics go hand in hand and some nations have government's that recognize, better than others, how they can use sport to wield power or incentivize nationalism. So they invest in it. Others maybe more politically isolated or with narrow minded ideas may not see the need. A nation like Dubai says that what makes a nation "great" is wealth. And yet nations like Qatar and Azerbaijan seem to begin to realize greatness is multifaceted and multiple things can announce a country's prominence, like quality of life, education, human rights, history, architecture, art...and sport. Well they've just decided to deal with the sport thing and forget about all that other stuff!
    Maybe the only difference between Venezuela and Ecuador is that they're unique cultures and ppl are brought up to value certain things with priority. It takes time for ppl to value sport in the same way. Exercise and sport only became valued by the West in the 19th century, so maybe the real answer is that as a nation develops politically, economically and socially, its values about nontraditional forms of power, like culture and sport, begin to take on highlighted significance. O what the hell, maybe Venezuela just did good at the South American Games and Ecuador didn't ;

    1. Edit: "a nation like Dubai" to UAE. I know what is what geography warriors.

    2. Thanks for your very thoughtful response! I certainly have not read the PAGU notes as carefully as you have. I'll have to go and peruse them soon!

  2. I think you have to look at the countries sending of female athletes OVERALL to international competitions, ie not just at the number of female versus male GYMNASTS to international competitions.

    For whatever reason, different countries prioritize different sports -- Canada punches way above its relative population size in hockey and curling, Jamaica has punches way above its relative population in track and field, etc.

    To take the example of Jamaica (since its on your low-hanging fruit list), a fast-twitch, super flexible, say, Jamaican 6 yo girl would presumably be more likely to take up a track and field sport than gymnastics -- simply because it's the national obsession. (Or, as a counter-example, had Usain Bolt been born in the U.S., there's every chance he's have been a football player instead of a sprinter... it's the notional obsession, he's totally got the skills to be a sensational wide receiver).

    This is a whole lot of words to say the FIG's got its work cut out for itself.

  3. There is no gender inequality in gymnastics. Certain countries may encourage men in sports as a whole as compared to women but this is not something caused by anything gymnastics and the FIG is doing or not doing.

    Gymnastics is an expensive sport and not a particularly popular one aside from the Olympics. It's great if the FIG can support increased participation and funding to all countries, regardless of the competing gender, but stop making issues out of things that aren't there.

  4. of course there's gender inequality in gymnastics. what an absurd statement. you know how i can tell? because gender inequality exists EVERYWHERE.

    as for solutions...I don't know. I cant think of any that are specific to gymnastics. We know what tends to work to help women worldwide: education, accessible birth control, given women control of family finances, etc.

  5. Could you perhaps create the same graph but for MAG? Perhaps gender equality itself does not necessarily have an effect on the delegations sent. If the same trend was found, then maybe a third factor has an effect on both the inequality and the gymnastics programs.

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