You can’t be what you can’t see: Women In Sport conference

First-ever Women In Sport Conference 2014

On the 8th October 2014, the first-ever Women In Sport conference (#StirWis14), organised by the University of Stirling’s Student’s Union was held in the MacRoberts Centre at the university. Having helped in the planning of this conference, Fistral was delighted to be able to attend and see the final result. The conference celebrated womens’ role in sport – as leaders, athletes, coaches, volunteers, in media, governance and as organisers – and discussed how we can work together to further enhance and encourage participation, gender equality and excellence in sport.

Naturally, being housed at Scotland’s University for Sporting Excellence, many key sporting figures attended including: Dr Judy Murray, Eilidh Child, Anna Signeul and Shona Robison MSP (Cabinet Secretary for Commonwealth Games, Sport, Equalities and Pensioners’ Rights).

You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

The presentations and discussions left me inspired. This is not unusual this year, given the amount of amazing sport we’ve witnessed during the 2014 Commonwealth Games. On this occasion, however, I was not only inspired to get involved as a result of amazing achievements on the field: I was inspired by the plenary and workshop discussions to think more about womens’ role in the sector. I was inspired to consider how we – as a society and individuals – could better promote or contribute to getting more women and girls involved at all levels of sport; encourage women’s and girl’s excellence in sport,; and how we can help achieve more recognition and media coverage/sponsorship for women in sport. As Shona Robison MSP said – “You can’t be what you can’t see.” (a Marian Wright Edelman quote often attributed to Marie Wilson, founder of The White House Project).

Shona Robison MSP is an “ally” of Women in Sport

Shona Robison MSP - Women In Sport 2014 Shona Robison, MSP opened the day by linking to the to the inspiring women role models and passion for sport seen in the London Olympics in 2012 and closer to home, in Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games XX: saying that we should “harness this enthusiasm going forward”. She led with the quote that ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ (Marian Wright Edelman).

Shona emphasised the need for visible women role models to inspire our younger generation and encourage balance. The MSP for Commonwealth Games, Sport, Equalities and Pensioners’ Rights then went on to say that gender balance encourages better decision-making across all areas (not just in sport), and that ‘positive action’ means making appointments based on merit – appointments that lead by example. She said that this approach would engender a ‘domino effect’ to women in leadership; and was certainly not about appointing less qualified individuals.

The MSP ended by saying she is an ally in this step-change, and gave a commitment to reviewing the outcomes of the Women in Sport conference and being involved in future developments.

Tips for upcoming coaches from Dr Judy Murray

Dr Judy Murray - Women In Sport 2014

Next came Dr Judy Murray, who talked of her own journey becoming a professional coach and of the vast amount of learning required – formal and informal – to developing and supporting world-leading athletes and being the National Coach for Scotland.

Her tips for upcoming coaches and women supporting athletes was:

  1. “The most important thing is to love the sport: passion.”
  2. “Know your sport and be able to communicate.”
  3. “Understand everyone is different: the better you know them as people, the easier it is to help them improve.”
  4. “Women will make things happen for women.” – we need to get women in more roles and keep them there.”
  5. “Learn from being around people who have done it.” – it can be difficult to work as an individual and there is a lot of learning that you have to do (in all areas of the business) – being with other professionals, evening courses and conferences like this are good forums for learning and sharing
  6. “You don’t know the skills you need until you need them”… for example skills to handle media pressure: “Nothing prepares you for that!”
  7. “Get out and do it.”

Eilidh Child’s Advice for Women Athletes

Third off to bat (apologies for the pun) was Eilidh Child, who gave a very honest and moving account of the ups and downs in her pathway to success. She talked about the highs and lows and that it is “not an overnight success”. Eilidh shared her post-school and university experiences, including times when she realised she was “just one of many people good at sport” and decided to give up the sport “but never told anyone I’d quit”.

Eilidh Child - Women In Sport 2014Eilidh talked about the emotional rollercoaster journey that she had experienced linked to coping with decisions regarding changes in direction professionally and personally. She highlighted the help that a good sports psychologist can give – to “help focus on what mattered”, and shared the things that brought her back to her love of the sport and “need to race”.

Finally, she talked about the “absolutely crazy” build up to the 2014 Commonwealth Games, her decision to “embrace and enjoy it” and be ‘poster girl’ for the Games; what it can be like in the Athletes VIllage, the pressures ‘backstage’ before a racel and how this all helped to make her silver Commonwealth medallist and European Champion.

Eilidh’s thoughts for the audience and upcoming athletes were:

  1. “Be really prepared” for the transition to university and being an athlete at university – it’s hard
  2. Understand that: “I’m gonna get beat but I’m gonna learn from it.”
  3. Often you “Have to be selfish as an athlete” in order to maximise your potential – whether this is linked to the difficult decision that every athlete has to go through in their career – change of coach – or decisions to prioritise training preparation over socialising with friends
  4. “You need to be with your coach.” wherever they are based, which can mean moving your life to wherever they are in the country in order reach your goals
  5. Concentrate on what you do and what you can control: “Execute my race plan, that’s all I need to do.”
  6. It’s important to enjoy the big moments you’ve worked so hard for and share them with the people you love and who have helped you on your way to success – “It’s those moments that make it so worthwhile.”
  7. You need to tell people you’re with that you are an athlete, then they can understand and support you: “they know that’s what you do and that’s who you are.”

Other Sessions and Workshops at Women in Sport 2014

In addition, I attended two great workshops.

In “The reality of dual discrimination”, Meggan Dawson-Farrell, Scottish T54 Wheelchair Athlete’s shared how she “found” her sport and finally felt she had “confidence, friends and a purpose in life” through sport. Meggan was open about the difficult path to being a successful wheelchair athlete – despite lack of support at school; ongoing health issues; difficulties getting funding; and through sheer determination and the hard work of herself and her family

Anna Signeul, Scottish Coach for Women/Girl’s Football – in “Showing sexism the red card” – said that “Nothing’s going to happen if we just sit in silence.” She discussed how “If we want women to be involved we need to change the environment”, and discussed the:

  • Cultural and organisation differences of different countries regarding women’s football
  • Need for ‘Positive Action’ in order to speed-up the gender balance so that we don’t lag being other countries – in Sweden and Norway, Football Associations have found great benefit from having have 40{48874dce6b375ead853888a9b8064ea86602b0d81086c9084f86500734dfdf6f} women representation on boards
  • Challenge to football boards to work to the evidence-based 33{48874dce6b375ead853888a9b8064ea86602b0d81086c9084f86500734dfdf6f} ‘ideal’ ratio of women needed to make an impact at management level
  • HeForShe solidarity movement that is spreading across the globe
  • Positive impact that the media has had – especially in Sweden – in promoting and putting pressure on sporting organisations to recognise and reward women’s input at all levels of sport

She then went on to say that women should not be afraid to be the ‘token’ female on the senior boards of professional sports committees as it is more important to be represented and be seen to do a good job. She closed by saying that women need to be able to “Sell yourself, your ideas, your sport.” by “Having arguments, trying to convince, and being patient.”.

Other workshops were from students, sports journalists, players and academics that – from discussions with other participants – were equally good.

Closing Plenaries at Women in Sport 2014

Prof Leigh Robinson - Women In Sport 2014The penultimate speaker was Professor Leigh Robinson, Head of School of Sport at the University of Stirling (the first female Head of Sport in the UK), who opened with the very powerfull ‘Run like a Girl’ YouTube video.

Professor Robinson talked about the global inequality of women in key positions in sport; the level of girls’ and womens’ participation in sport and how to increase this; the need to focus on the younger (school) generation who would make a genuine impact in 15-20 years; and she proposed that it was too late to change the habits and cultural shift needed for the current generation of young women and mothers.

Leigh suggested (amongst other things) that women needed to do the following – as “good things don’t necessarily come to those who wait.”:

  • “Practice saying yes.”
  • “Take risks.”
  • “Be pushy and try to toughen-up.”
  • “Don’t leave [involvement in sport] too late.”
  • Have more opportunity for after-school sports in schools: “Don’t let them leave.”
  • Refocus on the being active – e.g. through fitness or other classes – rather than being sporty: “Does it have to be ‘sport’?”
  • “Change the message” – e.g. regarding girls’ and womens’ body image, that “strong is the new skinny”

Prof Gerry McCormac - Women In Sport 2014

The University Principal, Professor Gerry McCormac, closed the conference by looking forward to the university’s “long-term commitment to foster cultural change” where gender equality “becomes the norm rather than the exception”;

closing the conferernce by saying that gender imbalance “is bad for sport and bad for business”.

Women in Sport 2014 Conference Summarised

So, to provide a very brief summary of my thoughts from the conference… There are many challenges for women involved in sport, but if we work together, provide a strong support for women athletes and those supporting women involved in sports, consider postiive action to speed-up representation at management levels, and encourage higher visibility of female role models; then we – as a society – can continue to inspire more girls and women to become involved in sport and help bridge gender gaps and inequalities.

Hopefully this is the start of many Women in Sport conferences, and I look forward to seeing developments in the sector between now and then. And, as I was by the end of the conference, maybe you’re also inspired to celebrate, support and encourage the role of women at all levels in sport!

Posted in News & Newsletter.
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