Past, Present and Future of Women in the Paralympic Movement

Women in the Paralympic Movement

Although women have been a part of the Paralympic Movement since its inaugural years in Stoke Mandeville, women remain underrepresented in almost all aspects of the Paralympic Movement. For instance, women athletes comprised 40.5% of all athlete delegates at the most recent Tokyo Paralympic Summer Games and comprised a mere 24% (138 delegates) of athletes at this year’s Beijing Paralympic Winter Games, which was a slight improvement upon the 133 women delegates represented at the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympic Winter Games.

This issue of gender parity is not exclusive to athletes, but also exists within leadership and organizational roles within the Paralympic Movement as well. For example, women account for only six of the 14 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Governing Board Members and make up only a small fraction of National Paralympic Committee (NPC) presidents. In fact, the most recent report from the Women’s Sports Foundation detailed that only 26 of the 170 listed NPC presidents were women.

Read more about the current state of women in the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Games in this report by the Women's Sport Foundation.

The Research Project

Research Questions

Given the current gender imbalance between men and women within the Paralympic Movement, our research team (Andrea Bundon, David Howe, Nikolaus Dean & Natalie Abele) sought out to explore two separate, yet related research questions:

RQ1: What initiatives and strategies have been implemented by the IPC and NPCs to address the issue of gender parity within the Paralympic Movement?

RQ2: What initiatives and strategies have been used by co-ed parasports to address the issue of gender parity?


To explore this topic and answer the research questions, we used the methods of document analysis and interviews. Document analysis consisted of analyzing and exploring official IPC documents, statements, and policies and entailed looking at participation rates, medal counts, and athlete quotas across the Paralympic Movement. In addition, the research team also spoke with and interviewed 29 participants (26 women, 3 men) who were, in some capacity, involved within the Paralympic Movement. The participants consisted of “organizers” who we identified as individuals who represented the IPC, an NPC, or were either board or committee members, including coaches. “Athletes” including both current and past para athletes and “academics and journalists” who consisted of researchers and journalists who have, or continue to write about women in the Paralympic Movement. Collectively, these individuals represented all five ‘Regions’ recognized by the IPC and represented 10 different parasports and 15 different nations.

The interview transcripts and information generated through document analysis were then analyzed and interpreted by the team members and findings were produced. Findings from this study have since been published in The Sociology of Sport Journal (open access) and have also been featured in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the Burn It All Down podcast (see episode below).

Spotify URL

IPC Initiatives and Strategies

Although women have been involved in the Paralympic Movement since its inaugural years, women athletes and organizers remain underrepresented in almost all aspects of the Paralympic Movement. Yet, through the development and implementation of several initiatives and strategies, the IPC has taken aim at addressing the issue of gender parity across the Paralympic Movement.

In 2003, the IPC activated the Women in Sport Committee (WiSC). The committee was established to address the low number of female athletes and events in the Paralympic Games as well as the lack of women in coaching, officiating, and leadership positions. That same year, the committee adopted a policy on gender parity that stated that “all entities belonging to the Paralympic Movement shall immediately establish a goal to have at least 30 percent of all offices in their decision-making structures be held by women by 2009.” Yet, this goal was not met in 2009 and remains unfulfilled today.

Despite not reaching this goal, the IPC’s WiSC has noted that it continues advocate for the full inclusion of women at all levels of parasport, to identify barriers that restrict participation and to recommend policies and initiatives that address these barriers. Alongside these aims, in 2010, the WiSC released a report entitled the IPC Women in Sport Leadership Toolkit that detailed several ways to increase opportunities for women in parasport and the larger Paralympic Movement.  

Years later, the WiSC, in alignment with the IPC’s Strategic Goals, created a report entitled, Strategy 2019-2022, which identified and outlined two strategic goals to address within the three-year timeframe in efforts to promote gender equality. The two strategic goals included:

  • Strategic Goal 1:  To increase the awareness, education and understanding of gender equality within the Paralympic Movement
  • Strategic Goal 2: To help increase women’s participation and leadership across all levels within the Paralympic Movement, and to recognise and celebrate the success of women in Paralympic sport

While, at this time, it is difficult to determine whether these strategic goals were met, a quick glance of recent statements from the IPC regarding the most recent Beijing Paralympic Games would suggest that, to some extent, these strategic goals appear to be working. For instance, following the postponed Tokyo 2020 Summer Games, it was announced that there was a “record number of female competitors at the Paralympic Games.” A few months later, on the opening day of the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympic Games, a similar statement was released by the IPC outlining how a “record number of female Para athletes was set” for the Winter Games. 

While these statements illustrate that the IPC appears to be moving in the right direction when it comes to addressing the issue of gender parity within the Paralympic Movement, it is also important to be somewhat critical of these statements. While both Games did, in fact, set record-breaking numbers for women competitors, the “records” set at both Games were quite marginal at best. For instance, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympic Games saw the largest growth of the two, where there was a 1.9% growth amongst women athletes. The record broken at the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympic Games, on the other hand, saw an increase of five women competitors, moving from 133 women athletes at the PyeongChang Winter Parlympic Games to 138 women athletes at the Beijing Games, or in other words, 24% of all athlete delegates. Although these increases in participation amongst women are good, this progress has been slow.

One reason for this increase in participation rates amongst women athletes could, in part, be attributed to the fact that the IPC has made several program changes over the last few Games. One such ruling was to increase the number of available athlete quotas for women in some events and to add more medal events for women. For instance, it’s been noted how the upcoming Paris 2024 Summer Games will have a “record breaking number of medal events and athlete slots for women” including 235 medal events (eight more than Tokyo) and 1859 slots for women athletes (77 more than Tokyo).

Alongside these new medal events and increased athlete quotas for women, the IPC has also applied more unique structural changes in other parasports and have implemented what is commonly referred to as “gender-free quotas.” Events that implement gender free quotas either have no restrictions on the number of men and women allowed to compete within an event or have allocated spots for both men and women, plus the addition of a gender free category, whereby any athlete of any gender can qualify to compete. The 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games had a total of 292 gender-free athlete slots, whereas recent reports illustrated that the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games will include 339 gender-free slots, which, as the report details, could potentially increase women’s participation rates in the Games that much more. Indeed, the implications of gender free quotas seems promising, and according to one female athlete, has resulted in greater opportunities for women to compete in her sport of Paralympic Shooting:

…back in the day it used to just be male and female quotas, right? So, there used to be 100 for male, 50 for women, but now because they are getting more women involved, they have actually added a gender free quota. I think at the moment, it’s quite good because the female quotas will all fill up quite quickly, but in saying that, the gender free quotas give them an extra chance, cause even though there [is] more involvement with females in the sport, it doesn’t stop the male athletes coming through either. So, having the gender free [quotas] means that anybody can win it.

However, the implementation of a gender-free quotas has not had the same effect for women in other parasports, as this strategy does not explicitly protect spots for women. For example, the co-ed parasport of wheelchair rugby has a gender-free quota, yet has one of the lowest participation rates from women across the Paralympic Movement, with women accounting for only 2% of all wheelchair rugby athletes. With that said, many participants noted how, instead, time, money, and resources should be put into developing pathways to get more women athletes and organizers involved in the Paralympic Movement. 

One such initiative was the development of the WoMentoring program that operated from 2014 to 2016. This joint initiative between the IPC and the Agitos Foundation focused on providing dedicated support to potential women leaders within the Paralympic Movement. Specifically, the program paired 16 experienced female leaders with 16 women in emerging leadership positions and got emerging leaders to reflect upon and undertake activities related to professional development. Yet, unfortunately, according to an Agitos Foundation representative, the program did not transpire in the ways in which they had anticipated:

We weren’t so happy with the outcomes. Well, the objectives weren’t super clear, so therefore the outcomes weren’t super clear, and we decided maybe we shouldn’t repeat this until we get [to know] what it is that we want to achieve.

Despite the program’s shortcomings, discussions with this representative and representatives of the IPC alerted us to other initiatives and programs designed to connect and empower women athletes and leaders. For instance, in 2014, World Para Ice Hockey, in conjunction with and supported by the Agitos Foundation, created the “Women’s Para ice Hockey Programme” which hosted a series of events, development camps, and training sessions to empower women and get them involved in the sport. According to one participant that took part in one of the training camps in South Korea, the programme was quite successful in connecting women athletes and organizers from different regions:

I got to go over to South Korea [to] meet women from all over the world and help teach. I met coaches and I think that it was beneficial for them to see what level we could get to, because we are only really exposed to the lower, like grassroots level of women’s sledge hockey. We had on-ice sessions and we had classroom sessions and it was really cool for me to see that there were that many women playing, like I had no idea there were women in Croatia playing sledge hockey, like that was just unreal. So, for me that was such a rewarding experience, getting to meet and hopefully inspire them to like train and work hard and not give up and yeah, it was a really great experience!

Conversations with other attendees both within our study and in the media affirmed similar experiences and stated the programme was both empowering and a great networking and skill development opportunity for women, illustrating that sport-specific initiatives could be a fruitful avenue for the IPC and partnering organizations to pursue moving forward.

Mixed gender as the solution to the 'problem' of gender balance?

One of the ways that the IPC and partners have been able to claim that progress has been made towards achieving gender balance at the Paralympic Games is through the use of mixed gender sports. These events include male and female athletes to compete with and against each other. There are many different mixed gender sports on the Paralympic programme and different ways that women have been 'included.' Some sports have stipulated the minimum number of female athletes that must be on a team, others have taken different approaches including using the classification system to 'incentivize' teams to include female players. The presentation above compares four sports (two winter and two summer) that have taken different approaches.


The research team consisted of Primary Investigators, Dr. Andrea Bundon (University of British Columbia) and Dr. P. David Howe (Western University), and graduate research assistants Nikolaus Dean (University of British Columbia) and Natalie Abele (University of British Columbia).

Contact Information

Dr. Andrea Bundon (Email: (Website) (Twitter: @ultreia1x)

Dr. David Howe (Email: (Website) (Twitter: @pdhowe9)

Nikolaus Dean (Twitter: @dean_nikolaus

Natalie Abele  (Twitter: @natalieabele

Read more about this work in:

Dean, N. A., Bundon, A., Howe, P. D., & Abele, N. (2021). Gender Parity, False Starts, and Promising Practices in the Paralympic Movement. Sociology of Sport Journal, 39(3), 221-230. [Open Access/Read for Free]

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

Digital Museum Credits

Contributors: Dr. Andrea Bundon, University of British Columbia; Nikolaus Dean, University of British Columbia

Corresponding author: Dr. Andrea Bundon, University of British Columbia,

First Nations land acknowledegement

We acknowledge that the UBC Point Grey campus is situated on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm.

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