There are dozens of ways women's soccer teams become great, from hard work to star players to stronger funding commitments. An interesting analysis from Public Radio International suggests another possible factor that can help: gender equality. Countries that have better gender equality, it found, tend to have way better women's soccer teams.
Kuang Keng Kuek Ser, a journalism fellow at PRI, looked at what characteristics differentiate the 23 countries with the best-performing women's soccer teams. "All of them are from countries where soccer is a popular sport, and most of them are from countries with a high Gross Domestic Product. Right. What else? They are also from countries where the gender gap is smaller," he writes.
Ser uses a gender equality index developed by the United Nations that measures things like adolescent birth rates, labor market participation by gender, and proportion of parliament seats occupied by women (you can read more about the metric here). And what Ser showed was a correlation between countries with better gender equality and the ranking of women's soccer teams going into this tournament (measured in FIFA points).
Here are the results, with better-performing teams toward the right end of the chart, and countries with better gender equality toward the top. I've also added flag emojis marking the US and Japan, which faced off on Sunday:
"Teams that scored above 1,800 points are from countries with gender disparities below 30 percent," Ser finds. There is one exception to this rule, Brazil, which Ser talks about in more detail here.
You can see that the American team is actually a bit of an outlier. Among the 126 countries that field teams, we do rank in the top 20 for gender equality. But we actually have less gender equality than Ser's correlation suggests a country with our success in women's soccer would, and less than Japan.
It's possible that the US's stellar record — two World Cup victories and four Olympic gold medals — is a slight outlier to the gender equality correlation. It's also possible that different data would show that gender equality does, to some agree, explain America's success. The World Economic Forum uses different metrics to measure gender equality, and it ranks the US 20th in the world — and Japan 104th.
In either case, it's a compelling theory that makes some intuitive sense: Countries that give women more opportunities seem to end up with stronger women athletes, too.