“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.