FEMpowerment: the new norm of the International Table Tennis Community

As every year, the international table tennis community commemorated women in sport at the occasion of the International Women’s Day on 8 March. However, this year will go down into history as an important milestone since for the first time gender balance and female empowerment in table tennis has been addressed comprehensively and holistically across all the three entities of the ITTF Group by introducing various activities, events and actions, always with women in table tennis in the spotlight.

The five-week FEMpowerment campaign started with a Webinar, part of the Table Tennis at Your Fingertips series, on 2 March, which served a warming up session to unveil the plans, and will lead to the 6 April, when this year’s edition of the World Table Tennis Day will be fully dedicated to female empowerment and gender balance.

The first pinnacle of this global campaign that has the ambition not only to raise awareness, but also to serve as a call for action throughout the international table tennis community, was the online panel discussion on 8 March 2021, namely the Conference on Gender Equality and FEMpowerment, which was jointly organised by the ITTF Foundation and the ITTF High Performance & Development Department. The conference focused on the current status of gender equality in our sport and can how table tennis be used as a tool for female empowerment.

Prominent guests share their wisdom

The event was open to all and eventually attracted almost 200 participants, not only from different continents, backgrounds or positions, but also from other International Federations and sport organisations. The conference was moderated by the ITTF Foundation Head of Operations, Mrs. Wiebke Scheffler, who also led the panel discussion, combining it with interesting questions from the audience.

The conference was opened by Mrs. Hajera Kajee, the ITTF Gender Commissioner, with insightful welcoming remarks. She conveyed the message that leaders have a collective responsibility to ensure that future generations must understand their responsibility to protect gender balance.

The high interest and response to the conference resulted in fantastic interactions throughout the panel discussion which consisted of two parts – overview of problems and challenges encountered across the sport that was followed by an inspiring debate about possible solutions and good practices. It was an honor to welcome among us truly remarkable panelists, who with their vast knowledge and rich experience enlightened the audience:

Mr. Ingmar De Vos
IOC Member & IOC Women in Sports Commission Member & International Federation of Equestrian Sports President & UN International Gender Champion

Rita van Driel
IPC Governing Board Member & Agitos Foundation President & IPC Women in Sport Committee Chair & IOC Women in Sports Commission Member

Petra Sörling
ITTF Executive Vice President of Finance & ITTF Foundation Board of Trustees Chair

Funke Oshonaike
Founder of NGO "Funke Oshonaike Foundation" & six-time Olympian in Table Tennis

Mónica Liyau
Founder of NGO "Impactando Vidas" & one-time Olympian in Table Tennis

Interesting insights

The panelists provided the audience with interesting insights, advice, thoughts and know-how, including personal experience with gender (in)equality that is unfortunately still very much present at different levels and also within different areas across sports. Since low representation is easily noticeable among leadership positions,

Mr. Ingmar De Vos addressed this matter:

“I really strongly believe that diversity in management contributes to better governance and better decision making. So, it is not about ticking boxes, it is about accepting diversity as our strength.”.

Mrs. Petra Sörling, the only female within the ITTF Executive Committee, added:

“Awareness is there now, but change takes time, too long time… The solution is not to create Women’s Working Groups with women, or panel discussions with and for women, but rather hold open debates among men and women on how to go from awareness to change, and the (gender) balanced society where the word “gender” does not exist.”.

Mrs. Rita van Driel drew a comparison with the gender equality in para sport, and underlines the following words:

“We as women should have more courage to step up and show who we are and what we can do.”.

Inspiring and motivational takeaways

At the end, each panelist shared one inspirational statement with the audience:

Ingmar: “Speak up. Maybe by speaking up, the problem will become manifest.”

Rita: “I want to encourage females to step up. We should help each other as female leaders, especially the ones who have a higher position.”

Petra: “It is true that gender equality is more than a goal in itself, it is a pre-condition for meeting a challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development, and building good governance.” (Kofi Annan)

Mónica: “Gender equality concerns everyone, also man and boys, and has a strong impact on our everyday life, therefore it is so important to engage equality… It is a way to bring change.”

Funke: “No matter what the world is throwing at you, no matter what you may be going through right now, don’t give up, you’re going to get there.”

The conference was closed by Polona Cehovin, ITTF High Performance & Development Director, and Leandro Olvech, ITTF Foundation Director, with encouraging final words:

“Engage, speak up, step up, be focused, be strong, be determined and be you. Let’s #FEMpower all year long, not only on the 8th of March.”.

And while the Conference was going on the Lusail iconic Arena in Doha, Qatar, was painted in pink, especially the show court of the World Table Tennis Star Contender event, on which today the Table Tennis international players were allocated all the matches.

Together we are stronger, was the clear message that the united ITTF Group was launching today. For a very noble cause indeed.

If you missed the Conference, you are welcome to watch its recording here.

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