Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Men Only 2 (Gwenda Ward)

Tony has invited me to follow up on his last Blog, and I’m happy to do so. When he referred to ‘those trying to establish gender equity holistically in British athletics’, he was referring, largely, but not exclusively, to me.

Debates about the best ways to get action have been quite frequent in our house. Tony has always said that I’ve been too soft, too amenable; that I’ve let the athletics authorities off the hook by not telling them plainly why and how they are wrong. But I’ve always said that the only effective way to get change is to work with, not against the organisations, an engendered difference of opinion in itself, I guess! He also says that they've given me the run around and, on reflection, that is all too true.

Anyway, I’ve networked, debated, proposed, joined working groups and committees, got elected to IAAF women’s committee, got co-opted to my regional council (not elected, mind, the clubs' brotherhood doesn't want my sort), written and researched and networked again. In 2002 I was asked by UKA to write a module and resource, “Coaching the Female Athlete”, now a self-funded website ( currently linked to the England site, and in 2003 was invited to head the gender sub-group as part of Sport England/UKA’s Valuing Diversity Project.

But, dear athletics friends, none of this has worked and I’ve hit the wall. My way has not and will not work, you can lead the horse to water etc etc... I’ve made dozens of suggestions and offers, all in response to insiders’ acknowledgement of a problem, but nothing is followed up, invited calls and emails not answered, decisions perpetually avoided.
Yes, OK – in spite of my record in the field, (and the fact that no-one has ever told me that I am wrong in my analysis or approach), it could be me that is the problem!
But there are still some very experienced and knowledgeable women employed in England Athletics who I know have strong views about discrimination and inappropriate treatment against female athletes, coaches and decision-makers. Have they been asked by their bosses to come up with a strategy? No, of course not. Furthermore it seems they are very wary of standing up to be counted because of a real fear of losing their job in the almost inevitable next restructuring. It’s now obvious to me that the current athletics establishment is both unable and unwilling to address gender equity and nothing I, or anyone else outside our paymasters UK Sport or Sport England, can say will make any difference.

Its not that the strategists and managers don’t see a problem; it’s rather that the possible answers are too challenging and require an analysis of their own attitudes, assumptions and behaviour and those over whom they preside. That, of course, is not in any of the plans and certainly doesn’t suit the style. Any action for equity, they assume, must be added on, not integrated- a big mistake.

It’s OK to see women themselves as the problem. Programmes to promote “Leadership for Women” seem just about acceptable in some quarters, but of course that is a total misunderstanding of the issue. Women per se do not lack leadership, though they may well execute it differently to men. But, alongside any other disempowered group, they DO adapt their behaviour and expectations in the light of what they observe and experience, i.e., negative feedback, either direct or subtle, and negligible opportunities for themselves or progress by other women.

Frequently, disadvantaged groups also internalise these negative judgments, so that self-esteem drops, followed by commitment and performance, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the context is voluntary, the undervalued sectors vote with their feet, enabling the predominant group to stay self-satisfied and in control. That’s exactly the situation that we face in athletics.

No, the leadership issues lie, not with women but within the organisational hierarchy who, because of their homogeneity and lack of intellectual curiosity on psycho/social issues, unwittingly and unintentionally perpetuate the very factors that excluded women to start with.

Here’s an example: I have recently been told by the head of coaching development for England Athletics that I am “not the right person to lead on coaching the female athlete”. Now, on one level I see his point. I have not spent years coaching and am only a fast-tracked Level 2 coach. But as an ex-Olympian, I have done other things in the sport, especially in this important field, as is self evident. Since ceasing to compete, apart from researching and promoting gender issues, I have held down various jobs in teaching and social care (specialising in work with at risk young people and their families, parenting and domestic abuse), brought up two sons, supported my husband’s career and run a home – typical athletics woman, really.

Indeed, when Maggie Still, who formerly headed up coach education for UKA, asked me to write the Coaching the Female Athlete” module I said “I don’t think I’m the right person to do that!” But no one else was willing, so I took it on, on the basis that it was fascinating and that I was collecting views, research and experience as a baseline for further debate and feedback from coaches themselves. Much of the material, and this is the key point,(Mr Wheater, please note) is not about traditional sport science which, being a product of the male dominated culture in sport, undervalues psychological and relationship issues and inadequately addresses biological gender difference, hence the problem we started with! The roots of gender disadvantage (Mr Wheater, please note) lie in cultural norms, assumptions, attitudes and behaviour, which in turn shapes the knowledge which is seen as relevant or not relevant to any given enterprise. Therefore I believe that my professional background provides more helpful tools with which to observe, analyse and assist practising coaches and female athletes than a pure coaching background would have provided. Undoubtedly this could be done better, but the fact of the matter is that it wouldn't otherwise have been done at all.

So, mainstream coaching still has little to say about gender, and female drop-out continues apace. This is, in microcosm, the brick wall that women in athletics face: "different approach, different experience, can’t be right, not what we want, thanks all the same". This seems to be a bit too ironic and challenging for the management to take on board and it is why I say now, with deep sadness, that gender equity in our lovely sport can only deteriorate, with the parallel increased disadvantage for female athletes of all ages.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Men Only

“Equity underpins the basic premise of Sports England’s work.” Who says? Well, Sport England does, of course. It is also crystal clear about what should happen within sporting organisations:
“An organisation that is more diverse and reflects the community it serves in terms of staff make-up at management, executive, officer and volunteer level is likely to be more innovative and able to respond better to the varied needs of all members of that community.”
Which begs the question why are we, in athletics in Britain, being governed by a male dominated hierarchy? And what is Sport England, athletics’ paymaster, doing about it? Apparently turning a blind eye. Certainly in only two of the above categories do women fill any significant (but by no means majority) role. At decision making executive, officer and volunteer level they are conspicuous by the sparseness of their presence.
And when they are present on a council or committee they are more than likely to come across abusive male chauvinism. Following the Blog on the history of athletics administration in Britain I received an e-mail from a woman administrator who wrote that she, operating in many walks of life, has never “encountered such blatant sexism as I have encountered in athletics.” She goes on:
“I have by turns have been patronised and bullied and whenever I have spoken out I have been met with blank gazes of incomprehension. The bullying was not taken seriously and I was just told to get a thicker skin.... there seems to be a reluctance to change what is a very male club.”
The facts bear her out. Compared with the number of participating women athletes the percentage of women administrators, officials and particularly coaches is woefully small. If the treatment that is meted out to my correspondent is typical (which I think it is) then this can hardly be surprising. There are other instances: one male misogynist in one England region took to e-mailing his splenetic views on gender equity; on one of David Moorcroft’s nationwide tour meetings prior to the setting up of UK Athletics (UKA) two very unpleasant men reduced a young woman, brought in to assist with the changeover, to tears; Shelley Newman, in an interview with me, told of the verbal bullying by her one-time coach; more recently reports have surfaced of a well-known coach adversely commenting to an athlete on her physical appearance and finally there is the case of a leading coach sleeping with his athlete.
What is disturbing is what my correspondent calls the incomprehension of those in charge, an incomprehension which has made the task of those trying to establish gender equity holistically in British athletics seem very much like those of Sisyphus. In more modern parlance those men who run UK and England athletics just don’t get it.
Some see parity in competition (which has only taken 80 years after all) as the closure of the subject. Others pay lip service to gender but manana rules when it comes to action. They cannot comprehend that there is something very much amiss when only one woman (non-executive) sits on the Board of UK Athletics and the only woman on the Board of England Athletics is the professional finance director.
Two of the nine regional councils of England, all of whom are currently in limbo, are male only organisations; there is one woman chairperson out of nine; there are only 13 (17%) women out of 77 regional council members, seven of whom were not elected but co-opted. They were not elected because the election process was highly biased (as it was after amalgamation in 1991) in favour of the already male members of the club. The litany of sexual discrimination goes on.
Even if we step away from the ivory towers of national athletics management for a moment there is the serious matter of the education of those male coaches who coach women athletes, many of whom believe that men and women can be trained in exactly the same way and proceed to do so. Prevention of the female triad (osteoporosis, amenorrhea, and disordered eating) should be key factors in coach education from the lowest grade; so should the causes of acute female drop-out from our sport at the ages of 15 and 16 where the accepted wisdom of the cause is, to coin a phrase, “boyfriend trouble.” It does not seem to dawn on male coaches that they may actually in some instances be the problem. Finally there is the probability that women athletes require, in many cases, a different psychological approach by coaches in order for them to reach their potential. Is any of the above part and parcel of coach education as presently constituted? No it is not.
There are those who smugly say that women show little interest in the positions that are on offer, do not get themselves nominated and do not wish to take on too much coaching responsibility. But women can see a glass ceiling as well, if not better, than anyone because they’ve had a lot of practice. They sense when they’re not welcome and vote with their feet.
The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) has long recognised the problem. It set up a women’s committee and then followed up by ensuring that at least two women sat on its Council, the sport’s overall decision making body. Then it ensured that at least two women sat on each committee and commission. Not ideal but a start. UK Athletics and its constituent bodies have ignored the recommendation of the IAAF that they should form a women’s committee; clearly they feel that a vibrant, questioning group of women in its midst would be just too much to bear.
I could never understand why the late, and mostly unlamented, doyen of women’s athletics, Dame Marea Hartman, frequently referred to me as a “friend of women’s athletics.” I could never fathom what it was that I had done to earn such a soubriquet. It is only in more recent years watching those who understand the important issue of gender in athletics battle impotently with those who don’t that the penny dropped. It wasn’t what I had done that somehow impressed Marea it was what I hadn’t done: I had never treated or written about women administrators or coaches as second-rate athletics citizens, which today seems to be totally de rigueur throughout the sport. Jobs for the boys rules OK.
“Equality for women,” wrote the journalist Polly Toynbee, “demands a change in the human psyche more profound than anything Marx dreamed of.” Too profound for those who run British athletics from top to bottom that’s for sure. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Of Rights and Wrongs

Where does the self-created Euromeets Consortium, composed of the promoters of the major European athletics meetings, obtain the right to deny the British public seeing its fastest sprinter in action? Why does the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) refuse to take action against a policy that infringes its (and those of the World Anti Doping Agency - WADA) code regarding doping? Why does UK Athletics allow its promotions’ arm Fast Track to deny its fastest sprinter the competition he needs to achieve medals internationally? How does the BBC regard the non-appearance of the country’s top sprinter on its screens? What does Aviva (the major British athletics sponsor who has invested £40 million in athletics up until 2012) think about media attention being diverted from their meetings as long as Dwain Chambers is elsewhere? You have to ask the question: who is running athletics and you have to suspect, to quote a British idiom, that the tail is wagging the dog.
The attempts by various organisations to circumvent the rules of WADA and the IAAF by introducing caveats and by-laws to suit their moral judgment is doing enormous damage to athletics in particular, cementing its reputation as a drug-ridden sport. For every time a former banned athlete appears at a notable meeting it sets up what Chaucer called a “wepe, and wynge and waille”, sparking huge debate which overshadows any publicity given to the event itself.
The Euromeets Consortium, a shadowy group with, it appears, unlimited power, lives in an opaque bubble. Year after year its members serve up the same athletics fare seemingly oblivious to the fact that the days when they attracted large audiences on European terrestrial television are long gone; now they scramble for coverage from satellite companies mainly because the viewing public has become totally bored with what they see. This out-of-touch body feels it has the right to practice restrictive practices but the fact that their meetings are part of the wider IAAF World Athletics Tour, with its million dollar jackpot, surely negates that point of view. Indeed it could be said that the IAAF is conniving in a restrictive practice because former banned athletes cannot compete for its lucrative prize. Yet it takes no action.
The Consortium obviously collectively feels that it holds, along with the British Olympic Association (BOA), with its lifetime ban, the moral high ground on drug taking in sport. They do not. They do not because by circumventing the universally accepted WADA rules by instituting their own by-laws they are flouting natural justice. And you can be sure that the proposed four year ban won’t satisfy their lust for greater punishments and more draconian abuses of athletes’ human rights with the “whereabouts clause”. And UK Athletics, anxious not to be found wanting, has joined the club by adding a ‘quarantine’ year to whatever universal ban is implemented, so that an athlete can prove, in an as yet unspecified manner, their ‘commitment to drug-free sport’.
The problem of drug abuse in sport is compounded by the fact that it is a highly emotive issue. To those who would like to see it become a criminal offence there is, seemingly, no greater crime. Organisations like the Euromeets Consortium and the BOA are trying to bring in lifetime bans by the backdoor. They are like the Wild West cowboys at Tombstone who would rather put a bullet through the heart of any man who cheated at cards than accept the ruling of the sheriff.
At the centre of all this is the much maligned Dwain Chambers. It is now annoying some that he is still attracting media attention, deviating the press away from our major televised meetings (who have actually banned him). The maligners just wish that he would creep away so that British athletics can resume its serene downward path. You have to remember, however, that all the brouhaha over Chambers’ reappearance in the sport this time last year came about because of UK Athletics totally misguided (through not knowing the rules) attempts to stop him running and its inefficiency in not testing him once his ban was over.
British athletics’ misfortune is not so much that Chambers took performance-enhancing drugs but that he got caught up in the biggest drug controversy in sport, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) scandal in the United States. It is, of course, compounded by the fact that of all those British athletes who have served bans and returned to the sport he has been the most successful.
We are now just a few weeks away from this whole controversy boiling over again at the time of the European Indoor Championships in Torino when a biography of Chambers is also timed to be published. There is a strong likelihood that he will become champion and the television pundits and athletics press (what’s left of it) will have the proverbial field day with the European Indoor champion being banned from European meetings.
What those who publicly lament Chambers’ return to the sport must realise is that he has every legal right to compete and he is not going to oblige them by returning to oblivion. If they are to douse the fires of controversy, that they abhor, then they have to accept that fact, understand that they are consolidating the public view that athletics is a drug-ridden sport and cease their “wepe and wynge and waille” every time he appears so that other successful British athletes can get the publicity that they deserve.