Throughout the months-long energetic debate about how, why and whether women can have it all, my interest has been piqued by something important that women are undeniably getting more of -- Olympic medals. In fact, the 2012 summer games were dubbed the Olympic "Year of the Woman." They flexed their muscles against other best athletes in the world, and when all the sweat had dried, women on the US team earned 65% of this nation's medals. There is a unique work-life twist to this development, so in the spirit of National Work and Family Month, allow me to point out a lesson in public policy that I recommend we all keep in mind as debate swirls around us about who should get what.
First, a small digression into ancient history.
The original Olympic Games began in 776 BC, continued for twelve centuries, and were dedicated to the twelve Greek gods who were believed to reside on Mount Olympus -- with the exception of Hades, who preferred to live you-know-where. All free male Greek citizens were entitled to participate in the Olympic Games, no matter what their social status. Women were not; even though half of the Greek gods were themselves female and several were responsible for such masculine exploits as hunting (Artemis/Diana) and war (Athena). In fact, married women weren't even allowed to watch the Games.
Fast forward to the year 396 BC when Kyniska, daughter of the king of Sparta, became the first woman declared to be an Olympic victor of the most prestigious and dangerous sport of all, the four-horse chariot race, an unheard of feat that she repeated four years later in 392. There is a catch. She did not actually participate in the race a la Ben-Hur. She very cleverly took advantage of a loophole in Olympiad rules that awarded the olive crown to the owner of the horses, not the driver. To Greeks outside of Sparta, the fact that a woman owned property at all was a shocker, much less such expensive assets as a stable of award-winning horses and trainers. And why was she so endowed? Because Sparta was the most nonconformist city state in Greece. Sparta had also been at war for 30 years with Athens, the male population was decimated, and well-trained, strong women were very much needed to step into both the power and financial voids that were defining Sparta's changing world. Girls were subjected to the same rigorous physical and academic training as boys, and they went out for the same sports. Kyniska's brazen, un-ladylike behavior is considered one of the great game-changers in sports history, and she was followed by a succession of women who emulated her victory.
Fast forward to 2012, which marks four decades of girls in this country taking advantage of equal access to education and sports as boys, thanks to Title IX legislation passed in 1972. It's taken several thousand years and unflinching dedication to a strong public policy, but by taking a page out of the ancient Spartan playbook, we have made Kyniska proud: a growing number of women from all over the world are Olympiads.
Imagine the gains to be made if we were to replicate this same level of equal access in other domains. For one example, the World Economic Forum has estimated that If we closed the pay gap between genders in this country, Gross National Product could increase up to 9 percent. In other parts of the worlds the gains would be even greater. What a gift to give ourselves when all world economies most need a boost from something more positive and sustainable than austerity measures. The good news is that equal pay is not only a current governmental priority but it is also an issue that everyone within reading range can help resolve.
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