Men in Sexist Countries Win More Olympic Medals
By Mark Travers, Ph.D.
It has long been known that richer countries win more Olympic medals—with the United States, not surprisingly, leading the pack. (Russia is second, and Great Britain is third.)
But do countries that value gender equality also fare better at the Olympic Games?
Until recently, this was thought to be the case. But new research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology casts doubt on this hopeful assumption.
Here’s a brief overview of the debate.
Earlier this year, University of British Columbia Professor Jennifer Berdahl and her collaborators published a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, titled “Win-win: Female and male athletes from more gender equal nations perform better in international sports competitions.” In their study, they found that:
- Countries scoring higher on measures of gender equality performed better at the Olympic Games.
- This relationship held true for both male and female athletes.
- This relationship was found even after controlling for other relevant variables, including countries’ wealth, population, and income inequality.
Great news, right? Gender equality advocates trumpeted this research as evidence that gender equality is not a “zero sum” scenario. In other words, gains made by women donot necessarily translate into losses for men. Instead, Berdahl’s research showed that gender equality could benefit both sexes.
However, Professors Toon Kuppens and Thomas Pollet noticed a peculiarity in Berdahl’s method of analysis, which prompted them to re-examine the data.
“Berdahl and colleagues used GDP [gross domestic product] rather than per capita GDP as a control variable,” said Kuppens. “That was immediately surprising to us, because per capita GDP is the default control variable if one wants to control for how rich a country is.”
Kuppens and Pollet were also surprised by Berdahl’s failure to account for the clustering of nations in their analyses.
“We think that all nation-level analyses should control in some way for the fact that countries are clustered. This point is intuitively easy to understand: countries from the same region tend to be similar to each other. This similarity is not always taken into account in analyses.”
After controlling for these two important variables, Kuppens and Pollet came to very different conclusions.
In their updated analyses, they found that the positive relationship between gender equality and Olympic performance evaporated. In fact, they found that it actually reversed for men: Men in gender equal countries fared worse at the Olympics compared to men in countries with greater gender inequality.
“The negative correlation between gender equality and male medals seems statistically robust, at least in the analyses that we have done,” says Kuppens.
What are the implications of this finding? Although it may be tempting to conclude that gender equality is, in fact, a zero-sum scenario, Kuppens and Pollet warn against such a conclusion.
“There are so many other country characteristics that are related to gender equality that could have caused the correlation it would not be wise, in our opinion, to draw strong conclusions," says Kuppens. "We would need much more information about the underlying process and especially how gender equality affects individuals and their individual performance.”
The broader issue, in their mind, is that researchers must stop drawing inferences about psychological processes from nation-level data.
“Psychological scientists study psychological processes. Nation-level analyses, in most cases, cannot say anything about individual-level psychological mechanisms,” says Kuppens.
Nevertheless, at this point, the disturbing result still stands: Men in sexist countries win more Olympic medals.
Kuppens, T., & Pollet, T. V. (2015). Gender equality probably does not affect performance at the Olympic games: A comment on Berdahl, Uhlmann, and Bai (2015). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Berdahl, J. L., Uhlmann, E. L., & 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.
Mark Travers, Ph.D., received his Ph.D. and M.A. in social psychology from the University of Colorado and his B.A. in psychology, magna cum laude, from Cornell University. His academic research has been published in psychology journals and has received media coverage, appearing in The New York Timesand The New Yorker, among other publications. He is currently researching a book on athletic intelligence and is co-author of a book chapter in the Handbook of Social Cognition. He has presented his research at conferences including the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and the Association for Psychological Science. He has served on the editorial staff for the journal Motivation and Emotion and has also volunteered as an ad-hoc reviewer for theJournal of Personality and Social Psychology. Before graduate school, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The SandPaper, a weekly newspaper based on Long Beach Island, N.J., and as a sports reporter for The Cornell Daily Sun.
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