Gender equality and sporting success; The case of women’s football

Football is a funny game. It seem only the other day that I was setting alarm bells ringing about the decline of Scandinavian football by pointing to declining attendances in recent year, but then as I watched Denmark beat France on penalties BBC 3 in the quarter finals of the women’s Euro 2013 tournament to join their neighbours Norway and Sweden in the semi’s.

This got my inner social scientist wondering, is the Scandinavian success at women’s football down to their enviable record of gender equality?

To try to find out I took a look at the latest FIFA rankings for women’s international sides  and sure enough Sweden (5th), Norway (11th), Denmark (13th) and Iceland (15th) were all ranked in the top 20, with Finland just outside in 21st place.

This is all the more impressive considering the relatively low population of these countries compared to other nations in the top 20 such as the USA (1st) Germany (2nd) and France (6th)  To help make a better comparison between countries I also looked up some recent population data as I wanted to control for the level of population as this is widely known to have an effect on sporting success in terms of international competition.

I then compiled this chart which show the population per FIFA ranking point. What this shows is the efficiency of a country at producing top footballers from among it’s population

populationFIFA ranking

As we can see China with it’s huge population is nonetheless pretty inefficient when it comes to producing female footballers and similarly the USA, Brazil and Japan all relatively underperform. Though they are among the top nations they should in theory be doing better given their resources in the way of population. At the other end Iceland leads the way with its population of just 0.3 million achieving 1836 FIFA ranking points and fout of the top six spots are occupied by Scandinavian nations.

The country is second place in our chart, New Zealand is of course famously the first country to give women the vote in 1893 so is there a relationship between position on the chart and gender equality? The next chart is a scatterplot of the population (in millions) per ranking point and score on the UN HDI gender equality index, where 0 is the best possible score. China has been excluded here (as has DPR Korea where no gender equality index data is available) due to it’s position as an outlier in terms of it’s gigantic population which would otherwise skew the data.


What this shows is that countries with a lower (i.e better) score on the gender equality index are more efficient when it comes to producing women footballers. Interestingly when I’ve tried this in the past with men’s football and measures of income inequality there is no real relationship. The R square here however, is a fairly high 0.44 suggesting that there is a fairly strong relationship between the level of gender equality in a country and the performance of it’s women’s football team.

A likely explanation that in countries with high levels of gender equality women are more likely to have access to sport and the resources needed to succeed at the highest level. This may be because of gender-equal societies place a greater importance on women’s sport, and therefore apportion funding more equitably, or possibly because there are less discriminatory barriers to participation in sport at all levels. Whatever the case it seems that it is their greater levels of gender equality which have enabled Scandinavian countries to succeed at football despite their smaller populations.


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