Female leaders driving change throughout Paralympic sport

Canadian Paralympic Committee

March 08, 2022

Work remains to increase gender equality across sport system


There is much to celebrate for women within the current Paralympic sport landscape, with more female leaders than ever before and athletes receiving greater opportunities and increased visibility.  

Karen O’Neill, CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, says the improvement from five years ago is already vast, noting the record number of women being elected and running for leadership positions at the national, regional, and international levels. 

“Women are starting to see themselves, their colleagues, and their peer groups do things they might not have thought possible,” she says. “The impact of these role models and supporting other women is so huge.” 

And on International Women’s Day, the power of sport is something to be celebrated. 

Para alpine skier Mollie Jepsen, Canada’s first medallist at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games with a gold in the downhill, is thankful for everything sport has given her. 

“The growth of Para sports has meant that women of any level of ability or physical capability can pursue their dreams of excellence,” says the five-time Paralympic medallist. “Over my years in sport both Para and able-bodied, I have made lifelong friends and have met so many women who have shaped who I am and inspire me to be the best version of myself. Beyond sport, being a part of something where women inspire each other toward greatness is something that should be forever celebrated.”

“I hope that we can all soon celebrate together when such opportunities become fully available to every single woman who wants to challenge herself to be the best that she can be.” 

There is still work needed to be done to support full gender equity within Paralympic sport. 

Michelle Stilwell began her high-performance career more than 20 years ago, first representing Canada in wheelchair basketball at Sydney 2000 before becoming a wheelchair racing superstar at the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Games. The six-time Paralympic champion has seen a difference for women in that time. 

“I think we have a better understanding that equity leads to equality,” she says. “We certainly acknowledge it and speak more about the issues. The many successes of our female athletes that have put them in the spotlight or into leadership positions has others listening and doing their part to shift perception and make change.”

Stilwell also notes the intersectionality of Para sport, where women are seeking not only gender parity, but also fighting for equity among their able-bodied counterparts. 

Jepsen agrees.

“Interest and participation in Canadian Para sports has been growing along with the recognition of our athletes’ determination and results,” says the 22-year-old. “We are internationally competitive just like the Canadian able-bodied athletes and we compete with the best in the world. More people need to become aware of our pursuits and have access to our events and games.”

That greater representation could help to get more women involved throughout Para sport. 

“We need more women throughout our system, and our system is not naturally built to help support women to become involved at all levels, particularly with a disability,” said O’Neill. “Often times if you don’t see yourself or there’s not an opportunity or someone there to create a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment, then when you’ve got other choices, you’ll take those.” 

Kate Boyd, high performance director of Nordiq Canada, is one of Canada’s most successful coaches in Para sport. She has been a long-time coach with the country’s robust Para nordic team. Para sport has helped foster her growth as a coach. 

“Within Para sport, it is my observation that there are more women in coaching and leadership roles across many nations, than you may see in the Olympic stream of sports guiding and leading elite sport at the highest level,” Boyd says. “I am thankful for the opportunities I have been afforded through my involvement in Para sport.”

O’Neill believes getting more women like Boyd involved in Para coaching – among other roles – is a critical priority for the future to create a more equitable and inclusive environment. 

“It’s so important to have quality technical leadership and female coaches in the Paralympic sport community, there’s not enough. And we need to ensure we can augment the technical leadership to include Paralympic athletes who would like to pursue that in the future, what incentives can be created to ensure they come back in different roles.”

One of the other biggest priorities is increasing the participation of women in Para sport. 

“There are fewer women living with a disability, so we need to focus on getting more females involved and excited about participating and ensure women are not underrepresented,” said Stilwell. 

“There is a push in Canada to create new initiatives to increase participation of women and girls in sport and delivering programming specifically for women and girls in sport which will hopefully lead to the increase in participation.”

One of those projects included Connection 2021, a women-only offshoot of the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s Paralympian Search event, hosted virtually last year. This year’s Paralympic Sport Development Fund is also encouraging sport organizations to specifically apply for grants for programs targeting women and girls in Para sport. 

“The feedback was outstanding relative to women being exposed to the possibility they too can pursue higher levels of high performance, participation, and possibly become a Paralympian,” said O’Neill about Connection 2021. 

And once they are aware of the opportunities and have a positive experience, the hope is to see more women participate in sport, stay in sport, and compete at higher levels.  

“As a female Para athlete, I am grateful for the support that I receive for my training, competitive opportunities and my overall health and wellness,” says Jepsen. “In Canada, I have always felt that in Para sport both men and women receive equal treatment and that the athletes have always been judged on their commitment, dedication, discipline and performance.”

O’Neill says it is a lot of intentional work that has created change so far in generating more female leaders and participants. 

“There is a lot of reaching out and supporting many of these women along the way. Whether it’s a young woman who is a Para athlete and wants to become a Paralympic athlete, or for other roles, a coach, a classifier or in governance or administration. The biggest conversations are about it’s a possibility for you and for your future.” 

Looking ahead, the base for greater change is there and growing.  

“We are fortunate in sport to have many strong female leaders in Canada. These are accomplished individuals guiding our sport system,” says Boyd, who adds that increased awareness of Para sport, growing participation, and developing the skills of coaches and support personnel are some of the areas she thinks still needs improvement within the system in Canada. 

“I’m so impressed with the number of current Paralympic athletes who are women who have been building either their business or their academic career or even just their ability to contribute back to the system throughout,” said O’Neill. 

“What’s most exciting is the next generation of leaders.”

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