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.


Anonymous said...

Gwenda is absolutely right about the unease that women in the sport feel if they complain. I have been shocked by the treatment that women get in the sport and the way they are ignored, patronised or bullied, and sometimes all three.
I worked in the media, BBC then as an independent producer and it was all much easier that athletics. Women were and are recognised for their talent and encouraged. It is an equal"playing field". Not so in the sport.
Lets deal first with coaching. Why aren't women who are L4 coaches ever encouraged to write athletics about or take charge of squads? There are talented women coaching out there but they are often given the newcomers not the talented young athletes by the
men. At our centres of excellence there don't seem to be any top women coaches, why not?
I was determined to get to the top in coaching but I met some strange reactions along the way. One leading coach was amazed that I successfully coached young men of 16-18, I had just coached a Surrey champion, but he coached young women of the same age! Perhaps that is the problem that there is often a lack of understanding within the sport that it is an equal opportunities world. Some people within the sport behave in a way that would not be acceptable in any other sphere but as they are often volunteers their behaviour goes unchallenged.
I am sure most women who read Gwenda's blog will agree and sit there nodding their heads. Her research and committment to this area has always shown that "something should be done". But until the Board and others with influence in the sport back that it will stay the same, unfortunatley and we will lose talented women athletes and volunteers who eventually just leave because they have had enough.


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