Organisers of professional yacht racing events must do something to promote equal employment opportunities for women
Why are the all-women Team SCA consistently finishing at the back in the Volvo Ocean Race? I think a lot of people have secretly asked this obvious question.
It’s a subject Skip Novak writes about in our latest issue, commenting on the performance of Team SCA. With the notable exception of the short course in-port races, the women have often been that critical click behind the other teams, despite having the first boat to launch, a good sponsor and some of the best female offshore sailors available.
This first ever level playing field one-design Volvo Ocean Race has done a lot of things, but one stands out: it has highlighted the glaring and scandalous inequality of professional yacht racing.
Because, make no mistake, this peculiar, closed-shop world is completely unequal. The big problem is the limited experience women available to women in professional offshore racing. Women just don’t have the same opportunities for key specialisms, especially for such roles as navigation, tactician, skipper or crew boss, and particularly not in a fully crewed endurance race.
Opportunities for women to progress in sailing are in lamentably short supply. A talented handful can make a name and income in the specially ring-fenced area of Olympic sailing. Some scratch out a living and perform well in the unrestricted world of solo and short-handed offshore racing.
But only a tiny handful.
Move to other areas of professional sailing and you’ll see the same. You can earn a small fortune sailing superyachts. But only if you’re a man.
If you’re a woman, you’ll be making the sandwiches and the beds. You can be a stewardess but your chances of being captain are about the same as they are of walking on the moon.
Race events and organisations? It’s a broadly similar story. Men organise and run, women do the registration and PR.
On the other hand, women are very well represented in marine businesses (regulated of course by employment equality legislation). ‘Civilian’ racing and cruising also both have a healthy split of participation by gender – 40% of competitors at Cowes Week, for example, are women. It’s the same in cruising events.
So how can this be changed? How can we bring about the same opportunities for women to make a living in sailing, and be paid equally?
For a start, it is for race organisers to realise – truly realise – that they are 30 years or more behind the times and at odds with the way modern society works. They must do what legislators call ‘nudge’; they must create the environment in which there simply is no choice but to be inclusive.
We don’t need, and we don’t want, all-women crews. We need mixed crews and more equal chances.
The culture of sailing in male teams must be changed, just as the culture of educating boys separately from girls changed, or having male politicians and female secretaries changed.
If bastions of power and tradition can change so can mere sailing. If the UK, Germany, Argentina, New Zealand, Iceland, Malta, Ireland, Finland, Chile, Latvia, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Guyana, Sri Lanka, Panama, Costa Rica, Lithuania, Croatia, the Philippines and Liberia can all have heads of state or government who are women, if the head of the International Monetary Fund can be a woman, if a Director of Public Prosecutions can be a woman, if two presidential candidates and possibly the next US president can be a woman, could there possibly be a woman or two in a mixed pro yacht race crew?
Could there be a place for woman on, say, the winning Abu Dhabi crew? (All things considered, probably not.)
Could Team Dongfeng, which has trained excellent rookie Chinese sailors from scratch, possibly find a role for a really experienced, female former Olympian? Team managers OC Sport made it a rule in their Extreme 40s, after all.
So I say it again, and on behalf of the army of sailors who want, need and deserve a fundamental cultural sea change: come on Knut, come on Russell. Come on Mark Turner, Ben Ainslie, all the others. Open your doors. Lead the way.