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Industry heavyweights talk passionately about the burning issues affecting women in sport

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Women in Sport North

Those who attended the fourth Women in Sport Conference North at BBC Sport headquarters in Manchester were treated to a star-studded line-up of speakers and panellists.

Top billing went to Paralympic legends Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Hannah Cockcroft MBE and Kadeena Cox MBE – a real dream team for delegates.

International stars of the future – top equestrian prospect Chelsea Pearce and 20-year-old Great Britain judoka Lele Nairne – also took centre stage, along with women trail-blazers from across the sporting spectrum, to form a guest list befitting the big-league venue.

Up for discussion from the panellists – which included high ranking governing body executives, leading coaches and academic researchers – were some of the hot prevailing topics facing women in the sport and physical activity sector.

I wanted to share with you a few of the standout sound bites, starting with the opening address from the BBC’s first female Director of Sport on the organisation’s commitment to raising the coverage and profile of women’s sport, and finishing with a bit of a grilling for the Football Association’s Head of Women’s Coaching on the appointment of Phil Neville as the new England women’s team head coach.

The refreshingly forthright views of Hannah, Kadeena and Baroness Grey-Thompson on their quest to change the way disabled people are perceived by the public and portrayed in the media are featured in a separate blog here, entitled Paralympic greats deliver language lesson to sports coaches.

Both articles will provide coaches with a valuable overview of the challenges women and disabled athletes face in contemporary Britain which might help to better inform their coaching practice.

Gender neutral coverage

By occupying a lofty position on the top floor of the BBC Sport building, it meant Director of Sport Barbara Slater OBE did not have too far to travel to open the day’s proceedings, which began, fittingly enough, with an acknowledgment of how far women’s sport has come in a short space of time.

‘It’s about keeping that sense of momentum that I believe is behind women’s sport,’ said the former international gymnast, who competed for Great Britain in the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

She paid tribute to those women in sports leadership who are ‘truly changing the dial’ to make our governing bodies a more welcome place for women before underlining the gender neutral coverage of recent showpiece events screened by the BBC – the Winter Olympics, World Indoor Athletics Championships and cycling’s World Track Championships – which demonstrated how sports fans are just as exuberant when it comes to watching high quality women’s sport as they are men’s.

‘Truly, I don’t think anyone would say we cheered our women athletes any less than our male athletes.

‘We are incredibly proud to tell their stories and show those fantastic women athletes as role models and bring them to the widest possible audience. I think that’s one of the really important roles the BBC can play. But it’s not just about event coverage, it’s about telling powerful stories about women in sport every single day.’

The psychology of language

The conference is the brainchild of businesswoman Kate Hardcastle, who is an ambassador for Women in Sport and a passionate campaigner for improving accessibility and funding opportunities for girls and women in sport.

While also recognising the strides that have been made, Kate stressed there is still an enormous amount of work to be done on every front: ‘The demographic inclusion, age inclusion, gender inclusion, LGBT inclusion, it goes on and on,’ she said.

‘My only recommendation in how we change,’ she added, ‘is to look at the psychology of how we are talking to people.’

She used the analogy of early NHS campaigns urging people to give blood to illustrate how focusing on the negatives of a situation can have an adverse outcome. Organisers would dwell on sombre statistics bemoaning the fact that donations were at an all-time low in the hope of persuading people to give blood. The tactic backfired.

‘Let’s stop telling people off and telling people how sad [the situation] is and let’s get more role models out there, everyday role models, and tell their empowering stories alongside the brilliant champions we have in the room. It can’t be everybody’s life to lead one of gold medals but it can be everybody’s life to lead one of movement and activity and get the health benefits that will bring.’

Kate’s advice to those who have the power to positively influence the mindsets of young girls – who maybe don’t feel engaged or excited about sport, or who feel bullied or worried about their body shape – can be summed up in one succinct phrase. She told the room: ‘Don’t think what she thinks, ask what she thinks.’

Women in Sport Conference North

Money matters

Five-time Paralympic champion and ten-time World champion Hannah Cockcroft may be a household name but she revealed that, despite her incredible list of achievements in wheelchair racing, competing for her country remains an ongoing challenge – such is the financial burden that weighs heavily on her shoulders.

It is a daily battle, she said, adding that she is ‘losing sponsors at a rapid rate’.

‘You just wonder, what else can you do?

‘People think that you’re sat complaining but, you know what, I am so grateful for the people who sponsor me and support me and help get me to where I am. I know there is just enough to get me through, but people see how much money we get just through National Lottery funding and think “that is more than I make in a month”.’

But as Hannah pointed out, in that month they will not have had to pay £80 per tyre – and she has three on her race chair ‘that could go pop at any time’ – £200 for a pair of gloves, a new speedometer, a new helmet, petrol expenses for the regular 300-mile round trip to Loughborough for training, and myriad other overheads.

‘And that’s just outside of competitions!

‘This year our funding has been reduced from UK Sport as well, and that hits the athletes harder than anybody.

‘As much as I love my job, which is a hobby, and I’m very lucky to be doing what I do – and I can’t emphasise that enough – I don’t ever expect to be out of pocket representing my country... especially when I see my able-bodied counterparts flying all over the world at British Athletics’ expense.’

While able-bodied athletes have little difficulty landing a leading kit sponsor, Hannah has not been so lucky.

One famous brand refused to sponsor her because she doesn’t wear shoes when she races.

‘I might wear shoes on the podium when people will look at the shoes but not on the track because my feet aren’t moving. Most up and coming able-bodied athletes are on at least £30,000 from any leading kit sponsor. And many of them don’t ever get to the international stage.’

Kadeena (pictured below) shares Hanna’s funding frustrations.

She has experienced the internal politics of international athletics from both sides of the Olympic-Paralympic divide, having begun her career as an able-bodied athlete.

‘I came into the world of disabled sport and thought it would be the same, with the same levels of support, and then realised it wasn’t.

‘Your junior athletes have one good run at the National Championships and you have big companies throwing money at them. So why do we not get the same thing?’

Kadeena Cox

Equality from top to bottom

Lisa Pearce was one of four women on the Trail-blazers Panel, which also included Kadeena, Chris Paouros (co-founder of Pride in Football and a member of The FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board) and FA referee Lucy Oliver (Professional Clubs Officer in the North for Kick It Out).

Lisa is the first woman CEO of the London FA, which under her management has become one of the most diverse boards in grassroots football. She is soon to become the new CEO of British Wheelchair Basketball.

She told delegates: ‘We have to absolutely ensure that equality and inclusion right across all of our sports exists at participation level right through to decision-making level.’

An issue of confidence not competence

The FA’s Head of Women’s Coach Development, Audrey Cooper, stated that she is leading the charge for women coaches in football and working hard to change public perceptions around female coaches.

But she is the first to admit that there are a number of internal and external barriers that need knocking down before she will be standing before the light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s fair to say Audrey was not given an easy ride when the Coaches Panel took to the stage for a Question & Answer session, having to answer the question of why a man was appointed England women’s head coach three times.

Host Jessica Creighton, the BBC Sport presenter, began by asking her: ‘Some people might wonder why a woman didn’t get the job? Is there an issue with the quality of women’s coaches or is it that women aren’t given a fair enough chance?’

‘I know the decision deflated a number of coaches in women’s football,’ responded Audrey. ‘It’s a fantastic platform for me to identify why we didn’t have as many women as we would have liked to apply for the job.’

She attributed this to confidence issues rather than competence issues, revealing that applications for another women’s head coach position this month attracted 80 applications, of which only one was from a female.

When a man sees a job advert, if he believes he fulfils 50% of the requirements he will apply, said Audrey. A woman in the same situation will not.

There is even a term for it: Impostor syndrome, which a quick Google search will tell you is ‘a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.’

Passion and conviction can lead to change

A representative from the Women’s Sport Network could not believe that the likes of Mo Marley and Marieanne Spacey did not have the confidence to apply for the top position in women’s football. ‘It baffles me how Mo didn’t want to apply for the job,’ she said.

Audrey countered by explaining: ‘Mo Marley has been an amazing role model for women’s sport and did a sterling job in that interim phase but she didn’t want the job. She has been bringing through young players for 15 to 20 years and that is what she absolutely loves doing.

‘It’s an incredibly tough top job. Women’s football is in the spotlight right now and whoever takes on that top role has to be media savvy, as well as having fantastic coaching skills.

‘We scoured the world, we interviewed lots of people, people were offered the job and didn’t take it and a lot of it was around the media [attention]. It is a very high profile job and some females who were absolutely qualified for it did not want the job. We have to prepare people with how to deal with the scrutiny.’

After pointing out that, of the six national age group teams, five of the head coaches are women, Audrey explained that one of her first jobs on taking over the role 12 months ago was to help coaches in the Women’s Super League, the Women’s Premier League and the regional talent clubs access the A Licence qualification that is a requirement of all WSL head coaches and national team head coach.

Clearly, Audrey is spinning a lot of plates, but she spoke with passion and conviction about her commitment to rising to the challenge, mirroring the spirit and determination of all those who attended this, the fourth Women in Sport Conference North.

‘Gimme five!’ seemed to be the unanimous verdict, and I’m happy to report that the fifth conference has already been scheduled, back at the Beeb, on Friday, October 26. You can book your free ticket here.

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