Countries with more gender equality score more Olympic medals – among women and men

There are huge benefits to be gained when women and men are given equal opportunities. For example, companies with at least one woman on their board are more successful. In countries with less stereotyped views about women’s abilities, girls tend to perform better at science. Now a team led by Jennifer Berdahl has extended this line of research to the realm of sport. In countries with greater gender equality, they find, both women and men tend to perform better at the Olympics.

The researchers looked at 121 countries. They used data from the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report to get a measure of gender equality, and they looked at medal results from the Summer 2012 Olympics in London and the Winter 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The researchers also controlled for several possible confounding factors including a country’s wealth, population size and income inequality, with this data coming from The World Bank.

The key finding is that countries with more gender equality, especially in terms of educational equality, tended to achieve more Olympic medals among their female and male athletes. This association held true even after controlling for wealth and population size and income inequality. Income inequality was also associated with medal success (greater income inequality correlated with fewer medals), but income inequality and gender inequality were not correlated with each other, and each had an independent association with medals gained.

Berdahl and her colleagues said that their results contradict the argument that striving for equality for women means inevitably that men will lose out. “Rather, gender inequality is likely to hurt both women and men by encouraging stereotypes that limit their ability to reach their full potential as individuals,” they concluded. “Eroding false and antiquated norms regarding what men and women can and cannot do is a ‘win-win’ that allows members of both genders to realize their true potential.”

While these results carry a positive message, some caution is required in interpretation because this was not an experimental study. For instance, perhaps female success in sport helps societies combat gender inequality, rather than the causal direction running in the other direction. Of course, such a benefit of female sports would still be a most welcome outcome.


Berdahl, J., Uhlmann, E., & Bai, F. (2015). Win–win: Female and male athletes from more gender equal nations perform better in international sports competitions Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 56, 1-3 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.08.003

further reading
How do women and girls feel when they see sexualised or sporty images of female athletes?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.