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Canadian universities find new models to boost funding for women's sports

One week before the final game was played in the now-defunct Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL), the country's top university women’s hockey teams waged their own battle for a national championship. The Guelph Gryphons prevailed, shutting out the McGill Martlets 1-0 in Charlottetown.

Each team featured all-star players and award-winning coaches, but their success runs deeper than the bench. In the fall, the Guelph and McGill announced new multi-million dollar initiatives focused on gender equity and advancing women in sport.

Now, they are pioneering models that may change the game for the next generation of female athletes.

The timing is telling. The collapse of the CWHL came less than a year after the federal government announced a $30-million investment in an effort to achieve gender equity at all levels of sport.

And money is at the heart of the issue, according to a recent survey of women and sport leaders. Insufficient funding was identified as the No. 1 barrier to female sport participation in Canada.

The problem extends to universities, where data shows that men get the majority of athletic scholarship support.

Research in the United States shows that male alumni donate more money — double, on average — to their college teams than women. American law mandates that educational institutions provide equal opportunities and a proportional level of funding for each gender to participate in sports. In Canada, no such law exists.

"The majority of our most generous donors are males, and their interest by and large goes back to their sport," said Marc Gelinas, executive director of McGill athletics.

In 2015, the Gryphons faced a similar issue: For every dollar donated to athletic scholarships for women, three dollars were donated to men. To combat this trend, Guelph hosted the first "She's Got Game" gala in 2016. The annual fundraising event is now a year-round campaign to engage the community, implement equitable policies, and raise money for women and girls in sport.

"The dollars raised is great … but more so is the buy-in and the understanding and people wanting to be a part of this initiative," said Guelph athletics director Scott McRoberts. "It speaks volumes."

From partnerships with a local pizza joint and coffee shop to support from Guelph-area high schools and police, "She’s Got Game" has galvanized the community. More than $900,000 has been raised toward the campaign's $2.5-million goal, and there has been success on the playing field as well: Four Guelph women’s teams stood on the U Sports podium this season.

Next season, the Gryphons will offer at least one named scholarship for each of their U Sports women’s teams — a first for the program. But they aren't the only ones tackling the issue.

In 2018, McGill created the Kerr Family Women in Sport (WIS) Program after receiving $3.5 million from alumni Sheryl and David Kerr. The donation will add $400,000 to their budget for female teams each year for the next decade, bringing the current distribution of sport-related funding to 54 per cent for men and 46 per cent for women.

Sylvie Beliveau, former head coach of the national women's soccer team and founder of Egale Action, a Quebec-based organization that supports girls and women in sport, oversees WIS.

"I have lived it, and I am delighted to be part of the paradigm shift," said Beliveau.

WIS enabled the hiring of two full-time female assistant coaches for its women's teams. A third hire is forthcoming.

Beliveau said WIS is focused on developing female leaders in and beyond sport.

"What we're looking for is that every female student-athlete leaves the program a better leader than when they arrived,” she said.

From community buy-in to donations from wealthy benefactors, the support that has made She’s Got Game and WIS successful may seem like a tall order. But plenty of smaller steps can make a difference.

"You don't need any money to change your policy," said Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, chief executive officer of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport and Physical Activity.

University sports are housed within larger institutions that permit access to resources, such as paid coaches and front-line research, that many organizations lack. For this reason, Sandmeyer-Graves would like to see universities "leverage their unique positions" to "enrich the sport landscape as a whole."

Efforts to promote gender equity at Guelph and McGill have drawn attention from universities and sport organizations across the country.

"They're a model for the types of initiatives we'd like all of our members to consider and pursue," said David Goldstein, chief operating officer for U Sports, the governing body for university sports in Canada.

U Sports promotes gender equity through policy, but does not set limits on how universities allocate funding.


— Veronica Allan is a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science at York University and a graduate of the Munk Fellowship in Global Journalism.

Veronica Allan, The Canadian Press

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